Mike’s Top Ten Films of 2020
This… was a weird year. We had a global pandemic, brought on by a government that ignored it and abandoned people in need and we all ended up stuck inside for most of the year. I believe it’s been in the papers. All of this, of course, had a trickle-down effect on movies. Theaters were closed for the majority of the year, which forced most studio releases onto streaming platforms if not into 2021 entirely (especially awards-level films, which usually make up a good portion of this list). And so, while I was still left with some quality choices, I did feel like this year was a lot thinner at the top and more populated with stuff I’d consider ‘just okay’ rather than truly noteworthy. So I guess what I’m saying is — a government abandoning people during a crisis, trickle-down effects and a spate of mediocre movies — I’m just gonna go ahead and blame 2020 on Ronald Reagan.
I know it’s a tradition for me to say that the year felt pretty underwhelming and that I had a hard time coming up with this list, but that is legitimately how I felt this year. And since it’s funny to me to go back and read myself say that same thing every single year, I’m gonna leave it in. Because one of the most underrated things you can do is something that will make your future self laugh.
It also brings me to another point (which is something I always stress when I make these lists): the only thing that makes a year good or bad and really lets you know what movies you like the best… is time. That’s all it is. You can say you love something now, but wait a year. Wait five years. Wait and see what you end up going back to watch the most. Is it that one critically-acclaimed movie that everyone had on their list that you felt had to be on yours too or is it the rom com that makes you feel happy every time you watch it that you left off because it didn’t feel as ‘important’ as the other one? Time levels all playing fields. I said last year felt underwhelming at the time and now I think it’s one of strongest years of the decade. I like all my choices even more now than I did at the time.
So, as always, what I’m trying to do when I make up this list (which is always done on the fly, under pressure and after seeing most of the films once, maybe twice. The second usually very quickly, especially if it came out late) is try to find the ones that I know in my heart are the ones I like the best. The ones I’ll keep getting excited about as time passes. And that requires looking past the trappings of the present. So, if it seems like things are ranked on this list differently than my ratings might suggest, that’s because the only proper way to make a list like this is to ignore ratings and ignore reviews and ignore hype and just go with what your instincts tell you. And so, despite a pandemic, despite the decimation of the year’s film calendar and despite what feels like a crop of films that, in the moment, feels every bit as uninspiring as all the other crops of films did in all the other years that worked out just fine, I’m gonna throw that paper airplane into the future one more time and hope it stays as in tact as possible.
This is gonna be fun as hell. Because I truly have no idea what my actual thoughts are this year. Most years, I’ve got things pretty settled by mid-December. I’ve got the majority of my list set, have maybe three or four potentially list-impacting films left to see, spend most of the final two weeks rewatching everything to solidify my opinions, and then, in the last few days, I’ll decide on the one, maybe two spots that aren’t locked down yet. This year? I didn’t even have half this list two weeks ago. I had close to ten list-impacting films left to see and was legitimately praying that I would like certain ones enough to put them on. The majority of this list was only set three days ago, I finished the last of the list-impacting films two days ago and I decided on the final spots yesterday. Oh, and my period of rewatching everything to solidify my thoughts? A day and a half. So I don’t know which way is up right now. And, just like in college when I had a giant paper due that I didn’t start until the day before… at a certain point ‘fuck it’ just kicks in and you no longer care. And you’re just willing to accept whatever comes of what you’ve done, because at that point… it’s not worth the extra effort. You’ve done what you could, and the rest is fate. So I got to that point, and here we are.
Welcome to my top ten films of 2020:
(One thing to note, since this is such a weird year — I’m skipping the documentaries section entirely. Most years, my ability to even create that section is due to a giant swath of docs that I watch based on awards shortlists. And since I won’t be getting those for another two months, I couldn’t properly make a list. So I just folded in the docs I liked the best into the actual list. It’s 2020. You work with what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.)
10. The Vast of Night
A surprise last-minute entrant to the top ten. I had the most trouble figuring out this final spot. I won’t get too deep into logistics, but at one point three other films from lower tiers were slotted here before I finally decided on this. And the reason I felt it had to be this film is because this is the one that, when I see the title, I get most excited about. I just love everything they accomplished with this movie.
It was made for $700,000. And it honestly looks better than most movies with 10-20 times that budget. But also, it’s just a brilliantly conceived film from top to bottom. It begins as its own Twilight Zone episode (essentially). You begin in a 50s-style living room with an old black-and-white TV and an announcer voice saying you’re about to enter a world of strange happenings. So you’re immediately put within that realm and know what to expect and are immediately ready to be taken on that ride. And then the movie delivers twice over on that promise. From the opening segment (and incredible long take) with the fast-paced, overlapping dialogue reminiscent of that era of filmmaking to the nearly-ten-minute sequence at the switchboard where we start to realize what’s going on, to the way the film builds tension through simple phone calls — this is filmmaking at its finest. I get so mad every year when movies have faster and faster pacing and heavy-handed scoring and don’t trust their audiences to intuit stuff. And this is a movie that has so many long takes and scenes where you never even see someone, despite them being an integral part of the movie (and speaking for multiple minutes at a time). And I dare you to tell me those scenes aren’t as riveting, if not more, than most anything else from this year.
The idea that we got a movie as exciting as this, with filmmaking as innovative as this and a narrative that’s stuck with me over the course of the year as much as this has, for the price of what would probably be a single effects sequence in a lot of other movies (if not single shot) — that was more exciting to me than anything else I could have put in this spot. I don’t know what the future’s gonna hold in terms of what movies hold up for me, but right now I’ll tell you that this film absolutely deserves this spot and is truly one of the best and most exciting pieces of filmmaking I saw this year.
I was real lucky to snag a spot in the film’s one-week digital qualifying run, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to see this before the year was up (a spot I imagine most people reading this are currently in). And while I sort of knew going into the year that this was gonna be something good, I also wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna be getting. Because films like this, especially from A24, tend to get overhyped for awards purposes and I never actually know how I’m gonna feel about them until I sit down to watch. But honestly — this was an incredible experience. I think what made it stand out even more was that we had another awards-type movie this year that tried to tread similar ground (albeit way less successfully) in Hillbilly Elegy. And you just saw this succeed in all the ways that one failed. And it’s funny to me (and fitting) that the film that felt more American of those two is the one that’s almost entirely in another language and about an immigrant family.
This is a movie about the American Dream. And honestly is one of the most American films you’ll see. Like a lot of great films (I said this after seeing Lady Bird too), when someone makes something that is so specific to their own experiences, that specificity somehow becomes universal. I am not Korean, nor did I grow up on a farm, yet I could identify with a lot of what happened in the film, and even some of the most minute details of the film. For example: in the opening scene as the family drives to their new home, the boy has in his hand that brown electronic baseball game that I still have from my childhood. That’s what’s great about this movie. It’s specific to Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing — Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 80s — and yet, watching this, you’ll feel such a connection to it. Because it taps into things we all felt at one point or another. It’s really beautiful.
At the end of the day, this is a movie about a family trying to make its way in the world. Maybe not everyone deals with the issue of assimilation (but you’d be a fool to assume that’s not a huge issue for a lot of people in this country). Maybe not everyone grew up on a farm. But you understand the things they’re going through. The father, the mother, the kids. It’s just a very human story. And even the elements that could have been wildly over the top (like the grandmother, or Will Patton’s character) feel completely natural. I really liked this a lot, and it’s really the fact that the movie isn’t trying to force anything on you and is just telling its story that made the biggest impression on me.
8. News of the World
Okay, so yeah, I’m predisposed to loving westerns. And if you give me a western with Tom Hanks in it, I’m probably gonna love it. So this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Is this gonna be a movie that appeals to everyone? Probably not. But I know what I like and I know what I respond to.
This is less a western as much as it is an ode to storytellers. It’s under the guise of the western and has the requisite shoot outs and beautiful landscapes. But ultimately this is a film that talks about the importance of those who will tell us stories and convey to us important information that we may not be getting otherwise. And that’s what makes it a true western. Because the western as a genre is one that cloaked itself in this history/mythology of America. Every western film that’s ever been made has been reaching back into the past to tell its story. But, all of them (especially the good ones) also had something to say about the present as well. High Noon, The Searchers, Outlaw Josey Wales — they all spoke to modern audiences under the guise of the western. And obviously, a story about a deeply divided nation, full of people who are unable to get the news of the day (some of whom are being actively kept in the dark by inaccurate news that exists as propaganda) and the importance of giving people information and helping them make educated, informed decisions instead of being ruled by fear… it resonates.
Hanks, as always, gives you a performance that is so much better than you realize (because we all take him for granted at this point), playing a former Civil War Captain (look at him… he is the captain again). Helena Zengel is fantastic opposite him as well. She’s a German actress who speaks Kiawah for the entirety of the film and mostly communicates with her face and with body language in extraordinary ways. And while the film does give you traditional ‘western’ moments (the shootout on the rocks is pretty great), it’s really more about the story of him and the girl. It’s more The Search than anything else.
The genre is a very comfortable one for me and is one I’m gonna gravitate to always. And this one just felt like a really good piece of work that managed to encapsulate everything that’s great about the genre, while also giving you Tom Hanks. What more could you want?
This feels like the most appropriate film for the year 2020. And I’m not just speaking to the extremely ill-advised decision to open in theaters in the middle of a pandemic. I just mean that it’s an absolute glorious mess.
I honestly spent the first 45 minutes of this movie wondering if it was the worst edited film I had ever seen or if it was just trying something so far out there that I just hadn’t yet fully wrapped my brain around it. I’m pretty sure the answer is somewhere in between. But still… man.
I’ll give Christopher Nolan credit — he took a narrative approach that forced the audience to figure everything out on their own. You hit the ground running, trying to catch up to what’s going on, and you stay running for quite a while. And nothing helps you. The sound design is such that you can barely hear whatever dialogue there is. Most dialogue is spoken so fast that you barely have time to hear it, let alone comprehend it. And for a while stuff is just happening and you don’t know why. Then, you get to a point where you kind of understand, so you don’t have to run as hard to keep up, and then eventually, by the time you get to the end of the film, you’re more at a reasonable pace and letting the film take you along with it. Does it work? Not always. But, after seeing this twice now, I get it.
I mean, I don’t ‘get’ it. Not even the actors understand what the hell is going on in this movie. I get the approach that was taken. And it’s a bold swing. I don’t think this works nearly as much as any of Nolan’s other films of this sort, but at least he’s good at entertainment and spectacle and trying something different when he does. Inception did something no one had really attempted with a blockbuster before. And Interstellar also, but in a different way. And then Dunkirk, which you might forget about — literally had three separate, wildly different timelines happening all at the same time pretty seamlessly.
And as much as I keep finding things to question in this movie, I still find myself admiring the finished product. I can’t explain it, much like I can’t explain most of the logic in the film. But at a certain point I feel like Nolan explicitly is telling you not to bother much with the logic and is explaining it just enough to go, “You get the concept, now just enjoy the ride.” And honestly, I do enjoy this ride. You can’t really be that choosy in a year like this.
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I will start by saying, as I must always do in a situation like this, I fucking love Charlie Kaufman. I love everything he makes, and I like how he picks apart these little pieces of the world and human existence and tries to make sense of it or at least talk about how crazy it all is even if it can’t ever be made sense of. This novel was absolutely perfect for him to tackle, which is rare that there exists such a perfect synergy between material and filmmaker.
The best thing about this film is that it’s impossible to spoil. Kind of like Tenet is. You can start explaining it, but eventually even if you think you’re making sense, the person who’s hearing this all for the first time is going to lose complete track of it all. And I like that aspect of it, because it’s less about the specific beat by beat of the story than it is about the general feeling that it evokes and what it leaves the viewers with. And this is one of those beautifully simple films to explain: a couple get in a car to travel to his parents house for dinner, and the woman is thinking of ‘ending things’. That’s it. Everything from there — have fun and enjoy the ride. And with Kaufman — after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine, Synecdoche New York and Anomalisa… you know you’re gonna get your money’s worth.
This is one of those movies that gets enhanced after you’ve seen it the first time and know all its ‘secrets’. Because there’s such richness to all the details in the film and all the little thinks that are slipped into the frame and all the little things that change and alter throughout the film. It’s brilliantly crafted and is just one of those movies I’m glad exists.
But really, with all that, I really could have just started and ended this entry with ‘I fucking love Charlie Kaufman’ and that would’ve about covered it.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
That image is perhaps the most raw and vulnerable single image of 2020. I’ll be honest — I expected this to be a good movie based on what it was about, but even with that I was not expecting to be affected by this movie the way I was. This came out right at the start of the pandemic, and I remember watching it right around the three-to-four week mark of being stuck inside. And by the time the above scene came on, I was standing in front of the TV, pacing back and forth in the same two foot radius and going, “Oh god, oh god” because it was just so brutal to watch.
The film is pretty simple — high school girl in rural Pennsylvania discovers she’s pregnant and, after realizing she won’t be able to get an abortion where she is, goes to New York City to get it. And so you follow her and her cousin as they go on this journey together. And that’s the film. It does not cover anything more than that. To the point where the film never even tells you who the father of the child is (and the potential people it could be ranges from standard fare to extremely disturbing). And it’s that dedication to being so straightforward that enhances the viewing experience. The film never makes a judgment on the stuff that happens, and leaves that to the viewer. It’s a brilliant way to highlight the difficulties of what women have to go through without ever having to explicitly comment on them. From the fanatical religious people lying to her under the guise of helping her, to not being able to get a legal procedure in her area and have to travel several hours by train to do so. Plus there’s the constant harassment at school being called a ‘slut’ by douchebag boys, to the general harassment by just being a woman in public — there’s such depth here.
Plus, there’s the scene pictured above, which provides the film with its title, and is probably the most emotionally affecting scene I saw in 2020. It’s such a tough moment to watch, especially because of all the thing it tells you about the main character and all the events we didn’t see on screen, which makes it so much more effective than if we saw any of them.
I really can’t say enough great things about this movie. It’s one of the best things I saw this year, and is something I could not have guessed would end up a top five movie for me this year. But that’s the beauty of seeing everything.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always you get surprises.
4. Small Axe: Mangrove
This is more of a spot for all the Small Axe films. Which — I’m not even really sure how to classify them, as they’re a miniseries of five films (all feature length) that were released on Amazon and all generally fall under the same general set of themes. Even at the beginning of the year, it felt like it was more of a TV show than a series of movies. But, after a global pandemic and a shifting of methods for watching content — and having seen all of the films — it’s a pretty easy call to include them here.
But the point remains — I’m shouting out all five Small Axe films, and chose those one because 1) it’s the one I liked the most, 2) wanted to give all five films their moment by including them throughout the article and talking about them separately, and 3) it’s the first one, so hopefully you’re smart enough to just watch all five of them rather than just watching this one and stopping.
Steve McQueen is a master filmmaker. Which you might know from just 12 Years a Slave, but if you watched Hunger, Shame and Widows (which I’m not sure most people actually have done. Especially in the case of Widows, which I consider one of the better films of the decade and don’t feel like anyone’s actually watched). And that’s really on full display here, with these films. They’re all about the West Indian immigrant population of London in the 1980s, and each deals with a real event or a specific social issue. It’s a stunning achievement.
This film in particular deals with the Mangrove Nine, who were sort of the Chicago 7 of the UK (in a way). The Mangrove was a Caribbean restaurant that catered to West Indian immigrants in London and was a major hub for that community. The police (naturally very racist toward outsiders and racist in general, being the police) decided to target the restaurant and began harassing owners and patrons, conducting an unconscionable amount of raids on the place within a very short time span, for no other reason other than discrimination. Eventually, the community staged a protest against police, which eventually led to the police becoming violent (obviously you see the parallels to today and all other days), and a number of people were arrested. Nine were put on trial. The film gives you background on the restaurant, its importance within the community, the police harassment and racial targeting as well as the incident and trial itself.
So, being a trial film, it’s incredibly interesting, especially with the way McQueen builds the community in the first section of the film. There’s a scene where, after the place closes, the owner and staff just start singing and dancing among themselves. You really get a sense of community from those moments, which enhances the latter half of the film, once these people’s lives are at stake. McQueen is the type of filmmaker who fills his frames with immense detail, some of which are so small and subtle that you don’t even realize what he’s conveying. It’s absolutely stunning, some of them. Some of them aren’t even particular details so much as moments he lets you sit with, like this moment after one of the raids where the camera cuts to a bunch of items on the ground, and there’s a colander that’s just rolling on the ground. And he lets that moment sit as the movements get shorter and shorter. And that little extra few seconds add a world of emotion to the moment. Similarly, at the end of the film, when the final verdicts are read, the audience pretty much knows where it’s going after the first two are read, yet McQueen allows them all to be read, giving you the full catharsis of the moment as you hear the same thing be said for all of the defendants.
All of these films are brilliant and worth seeing. And this one feels like it sets the tone perfectly for what the rest of the series is. They’re all some of the greatest pieces of filmmaking that came from 2020, and you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t see them.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Similarly to how I began the entry for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I can pretty much sum this one up with: I fucking love Aaron Sorkin. I love the way he writes, I love watching the things he’s involved with. A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game. All of them incredible films. His new career as a director is wearing quite well on him, as he finds a way to take his scripts and maintain their cinematic nature. Molly’s Game was an incredibly sure-handed debut and this was a really terrific follow-up for him. That film really only had two main characters. This one has about ten. And he handles it really well.
The film is yet another telling of a historical event with ties to the present day, telling the story of the seven people put on trial for allegedly inciting a riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The film focuses on the trial essentially being a ‘fuck you’ to the previous administration by Nixon’s administration, and a complete pig circus all the way through, with an openly biased judge who barely hid his contempt for the defendants, openly showed signs of senility while on the bench and allowed one of the defendants to be tried without counsel for half the trial. It’s just an insane story.
The film is cast pretty well, and features a standout performance from Mark Rylance as the lawyer defending the group. It’s got your typical great Sorkin dialogue and is just well-paced and well-told. Sorkin, in his writing, can sometimes feel a bit forced and repetitive, but if there’s one thing he’s good at doing, it’s getting people who might not care at all for historical events or politics and get them interested in hearing a story. Which is a pretty invaluable skill to have (even if you might dislike some of his methods in doing so).
I just really like this movie, and as with most Sorkin films, I find that I like it more each time I go back and watch it. But again, I probably could have just began and ended this entry with: I fucking love Aaron Sorkin and it would have accomplished just as much.
This is a movie that was made for someone like me. David Fincher, who, for the entirety of his career (discounting his first film, which he had no real control over) has made nothing but incredible films. It’s almost a sure thing that a film of his will enter into my top ten, because he’s just one of those filmmakers. I think, between Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, Benjamin Button, Social Network, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and this, the only one that didn’t make my top ten is Panic Room. So the idea that he made a movie about classical Hollywood, in black-and-white, evoking the style of Classical Hollywood and starring Gary Oldman — it was almost a foregone conclusion that it would end up here.
The film is the story of Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of the movie Citizen Kane. Which doesn’t mean the filming of Citizen Kane — Orson Welles features in about five scenes total, most of which are on the other end of the phone. You don’t see anything involving the film itself whatsoever. The film is about Mankiewicz, his character and life, and the events that led to him writing that film. It’s a really fun piece of work. Oldman is great, doing essentially a Lionel Barrymore accent (which also kinda sounds a bit like his Churchill, if he Americanized it. But also — Lionel Barrymore) and spends half the film absolutely plastered, because Mankiewicz was a bad alcoholic and degenerate gambler. The film spends a lot of time in flashback, giving you the background of where a lot of famous scenes and moments from Kane originated from, specifically in regards to Mankiewicz’s relationship with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.
I really admire Fincher’s desire to emulate a 1940s movie. Of course, I expected him to go the full nine, but I get why he didn’t do that. Though what he does achieve is only because he has achieved a certain level of status and can get people to give him millions of dollars to shoot in black and white and in this style. And good for him. I love that he was able to get this made (and honor his father, who wrote the script before he died) and I love that this film exists.
Leave it to Pixar. Somehow they’ve found a way to once again transcend even themselves. Other animation studios are making these bright, colorful animated films with very rudimentary themes, meanwhile Pixar’s out here teaching kids about death and learning to embrace all your emotions and shit. And we’re just used to them dealing with stuff like this. Yet, this movie — so much further than anything they’ve ever done. They’re literally contemplating what makes a life fulfilling and how we can find a way to make life feel worth living. It’s insane that they’re able to do this under the guise of a kids movie. And yet, kinda wonderful, because its stuff like this that allows me to begrudgingly accept when they put out crap like Incredibles 2 and Cars 79 and all these unnecessary sequels.
I’m not sure if this movie will hold up as my #1 film from this year over time, but at the moment I’m not sure I could have put anything else in this spot for this year. I still can’t get over what I watched in this (plus it’s not like the specific rankings really matter past this moment anyway). They literally made a movie teaching kids to learn to enjoy life and not take it for granted and taught them to live every day as if it were their last. And they did it by literally showing you a guy DYING. I still can’t get over that.
But anyway — the movie is stunning to look at. The animation transcends even the usual Pixar greatness. Having just watched a bunch of great animated shorts over the past decade for the purposes of this site, I recognized where some of their influences for some of the animation in this came from, which was exciting. But it was nice to see them do something that felt like it was trying to mix things up from just being the normal CG animation. Plus, all credit to them for a Black protagonist. (I won’t get into the fact that the Black protagonist is dead for the majority of the film and spoiler spoiler spoiler for much of the second act as well, because that could be seen as problematic. I’m focusing on the fact that this is a Black protagonist who is lit like a Black performer — which is a hugely underrated aspect of this movie. The fact that they actually lit the film to fit its characters — and that the film features a lot of terrific aspects of Black culture that you never get to see in movies like this. Sure, they somehow were gonna make this movie about a white scientist at one point before realizing the absolute gimme of the Black musician in a movie about souls. But as long as they got it right in the end, I’m fine.)
There’s just such amazing things in this movie, and while it has shades of Inside Out (also a Pete Docter movie) and might not be the absolute ‘best’ film Pixar has ever made, it’s the themes of this one that stand out to me. I’m still in awe that they found a way to convey such complex themes in such a way that might actually register to kids who are not even remotely at the age to even begin comprehending stuff like that. That alone makes this feel like the most worthwhile piece of filmmaking I saw in 2020.
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11. Hamilton — It’s a filmed version of a stage show, and for that reason alone, I couldn’t put this in the top ten. But also… I never saw the show, nor did I listen to the soundtrack (aside from hearing other people sing some of the songs and/or parody them). So this was pretty new for me. And now, something like four years after the fact, I understand what all the hype was about. It’s a wonderful show. And, given how little good stuff there was this year, this was legitimately one of the best things I saw. I don’t need to tell you. You’ve probably had more time with this than I have. So yeah, no qualms putting it on here, just can’t, in good conscience, have it in the top ten.
12. American Utopia — Another filmed version of a stage show, this one David Byrne’s show based around built around his most recent album, plus some Talking Heads songs. And it’s just a brilliant piece of work. Another one where, had I not had the disinclination toward including a filmed version of a stage show, I easily could have had this in my top ten. This film is the grown up version of Stop Making Sense. Stop Making Sense is for when you’re doing cocaine and dancing around a theater in your 20s. This film is when you’re in your 40s and sitting on the couch at home, getting age-appropriately high. It’s a beautiful companion film to that one, and is just incredibly well-crafted by Byrne (and directed by Spike Lee).
13. What the Constitution Means to Me — Our third filmed version of a stage show, this one probably lesser known than the first two. This one’s Heidi Schreck’s play about her experience growing up as a Constitutional debater. Which meant that she would go to competitions and answer questions about the U.S. Constitution and debate other people over specific amendments and issues therein. It’s one of the best-written shows I’ve ever seen, as it highlights her distinctly unique experience with such specificity that it’s both fascinating and hilarious at the same time, but also broadens to talk about major issues with the Constitution being such an outdated document, such as abortion, women’s rights, social injustice and institutional racism. It weaves all of this stuff so beautifully without ever specifically becoming about the present day (even though one can easily see reflected in every line all of the issues we currently face as a society). And the play ends with a bit of audience participation as, after she brings out a current child Constitutional debater and they debate a few topics, they leave the question to the audience as to whether they feel the Constitution should be abolished. And so the third act of the show, as it was on stage, is completely different every night, as she and the child debater will randomly be placed on different sides of the debate and the audience, being different each night, will vote differently each time. So this filmed version is a very specific performance that only existed for one night during the course of the run, but it’s a pretty ingenious concept for the show and makes it one of the most unique and memorable things you’ll see. This really should be required viewing for everyone in this country. And I’m very serious about that.
14. Bad Education — It’s always surprising to me when a film from the first third of the year ends up maintaining a high spot in my year-end list. Because typically we’re wired to think of the first four months of the year as largely disposable, with all of the ‘quality’ stuff coming in the latter months. And generally that does hold up (though now in the age of VOD that’s been tested slightly). So even when there’s something I like as much as this early on in the year, I never expect it to withstand all the stuff that comes out after it. But this one did. Because it’s just an incredible film. Based on an insane true story, the film takes the fantastic path of starting at the top and then slowly peeling back the layers to show just how fucked up everything is. It’s wonderfully done. And Hugh Jackman at the film’s center gives yet again another incredible performance that (yet again) will be completely ignored. I couldn’t believe people didn’t see how terrific he was in The Front Runner. Here, I think people saw this one, mostly because it debuted on HBO during the pandemic, but still, people take him for granted as an actor despite some really great performances over the past couple of years (and throughout his entire career, honestly). This is just a wonderful dark comedy with some great, great things in it. And going back to see it again, it maintained every bit of watchability that I felt it had the first time, and I’m glad this didn’t get lost in the shuffle and maintains a spot in the top 20.
15. Sylvie’s Love — This is one of the films that was strongly considered for that final top ten spot. Part of me thinks it might still have a shot there come next year when I come back to revisit everything and watch it all again. This is, in a similar way to Vast of Night, which is trying to be a specific type of experience, a film trying to be a melodrama from the 50s. Remember Far from Heaven? Which was basically a Douglas Sirk pastiche, only since it was made in 2002, it could do things like make her love interest the Black gardener and have her husband be secretly gay. This is a melodrama that you would have seen made during that time, only it stars a predominantly Black cast, as they were the ones who were excluded from films like this at the time (unless they were playing ‘the help’). Those familiar with melodrama will understand the film immediately — starting with the pair meeting and then flashing back to everything that happened before it. And it’s just a lovely film. It’s deliberately a genre film, because the point is to show Black people in these roles, telling these stories. It’s not trying to be something you haven’t seen before, it’s trying to show you that they could have been in these movies all along, yet were unfairly excluded from them. It’s a great piece of work that I truly, truly loved.
16. Sound of Metal — I was thrilled about the concept of this movie from when Derek Cianfrance was trying to make it a decade ago. That film was ultimately abandoned, until his co-writer asked him if he could rework it and run with it, and the result is this film. Riz Ahmed is the star, finally getting a lead role, and is quite good here, as is Olivia Cooke as his girlfriend (who isn’t in the film nearly enough, even though that is by design). I like that the film focuses on sound design and features actual deaf people and long sections of sign language. I like that it doesn’t spoon-feed everything to both the audience and the character, and in the early sections before he learns to communicate, we aren’t told what the people are saying as they sign around him. Overall, it’s a fantastic journey that never overshares character information and never tries to do anything more than tell its story.
17. On the Rocks — Sofia Coppola is a hit-and-miss filmmaker for me, because I feel like she’s constantly straddling the line between very good and extremely superfluous. And sometimes I find her films to be ‘good, but I’m not sure what the point was’. And I can never tell just quite what I’m getting with her, even though I’m always interested whenever she makes another movie. This one I assumed I would like because Bill Murray is in it, plus Rashida Jones is a criminally underused talent, especially in drama. But I didn’t really know just what the film was gonna be about other than the father-daughter relationship (because it’s a Sofia Coppola movie. Of course daddy issues are gonna be a part of it. Sorry, but that’s just the truth). And the plot is honestly a pretty straightforward story. It’s honestly usually the B plot of a lot of rom coms — woman feels her marriage is starting to drift and begins to suspect that her constantly-away-on-business husband may be having an affair with a coworker. And then her playboy father (who is constantly traveling and constantly picking up women) shows up to be like, “Let’s investigate this.” The ‘is my husband having an affair/let’s follow him around’ thing is something you’ve seen before. But really that part is just an avenue for there to be the father-daughter stuff in the film and for Bill Murray to do his thing. He’s really the star here, getting to show off his particular brand of charm, knowing all the waiters and doormen and making friends in every room he walks into, even so much as getting out of a ticket because he knew the cop’s father. There’s a weird alchemy to this movie in that it’s doing absolutely nothing new and almost does things that are stale, and yet somehow this movie feels really charming and really comfortable and is just really pleasant to sit and watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and I just like having it on. It feels like a nice scotch in front of the fire on a cold day. You know what I mean? There’s just a smoothness to this that makes it work.
18. Palm Springs — A movie that I started hearing buzz for back in January from Sundance. And, when that happens, especially given premise, genre and people involved (especially when they’ve made stuff that I’ve very much not liked in the past), I start to think, “Oh boy, here we go.” Because I’m just waiting for everyone to overhype it and for me to see it and go, “Ehh.” And this felt like it was gonna be that movie for me. I deliberately avoided everything I could about this before I saw it (which was probably like a month after it came out), and all I really knew going in was that it was a Groundhog Day situation and that it took place long after the situation began. So like, during those scenes when Bill Murray knows all the answers to Jeopardy. And that’s all I knew. And, pretty quickly I found this quite charming, and was delighted to find that not only did I enjoy this movie — I really enjoyed this movie. It works so well. The writing is smart. It doesn’t fall into the usual trappings that these movies tend to fall into, maintains the proper level of both cynicism and optimism throughout, and features a star-making performance (hopefully?) from Cristin Milioti, who I’ve been waiting to see get the proper material for a bunch of years now. I’m glad I can say that a movie that received a lot of hype from people actually is worth it and actually is as good as people have said.
19. Promising Young Woman — I was so excited for this one all year. It just looked nuts. And even better is that the way this was/is marketed is not what this movie is about. Which is both simultaneously a good thing and an amazing thing, because all I’m imagining are some pissed off dudes who thought they were getting one kind of movie and are getting a decidedly different one. (Admittedly, I think we’d have been fine with the version we thought we were getting, but I’m so much happier knowing that people will get pissed off even more from this because it’s not what they were expecting.) This is a movie for women. Full stop. Dudes don’t really get to have strong opinions on this past ‘I really liked it’. And I will say — I really liked it. And since this is not meant for me, nor will it speak to me the way it will speak to women, I will simply shut the fuck up and spend the rest of my time extolling the virtues of this movie: namely Carey Mulligan. She is one of those actresses I never see enough of on screen and really gets a wildly different role for herself in this movie. Something she’s never played before and, I suspect, something that will now define at least part of her career. (Part of me hopes she gets nominated for this, just as a highlight to how wildly different this role is from An Education.) This is truly one of the characters of the year and performances of the year, and this is one of those movies that I can’t wait to see again, because I know it’s gonna stay with me and be something I keep thinking about. So do yourself a favor and see this one as soon as possible if you haven’t already.
20. Herself — This is a film that took me quite by surprise. I knew it was dated for the end of the year (yesterday, in fact) and I knew it would be on Amazon very quickly (next Friday). But I didn’t really know all that much about it and assumed it wouldn’t be something that would factor that greatly into this list. And within an hour of starting the film… boy did that sure change. This is by Phyllida Lloyd, whose previous two films are Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady. It’s a verite style film, in the vein of Ken Loach and the Dardennes. It’s about a woman who gets out of an abusive marriage and, struggling with being a single mother and difficulties of the housing system, decides she’s going to build her own house for (insert title here) and her children. It feels very much like those realist style of films, only because it’s written and directed by a woman, it has its own very particular point of view and voice to it that it would otherwise have lacked if it were made by one of those other filmmakers. Claire Dunne is incredible in this movie and the film really strikes that wonderful balance between realism, the horror of being the victim of abuse, social commentary about the broken housing system in the UK and being a Frank Capra movie. Because she ends up building the house with this group of people who all decide to help out of the goodness of their hearts, and for a while, feels a bit like one of those Frank Capra movies (Lady for a Day/Pocketful of Miracles springs to mind). It’s very well done and, as I said, was not a movie I was expecting to have affected me as much as it did.
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- The Assistant
- Beastie Boys Story
- Blow the Man Down
- The Half of It
- I’m Your Woman
- The Midnight Sky
- Olympic Dreams
- Saint Frances
- Small Axe: Education
- Small Axe: Lovers Rock
- Uncle Frank
- Vampires vs. the Bronx
- Yes, God, Yes
Olympic Dreams is perhaps the most aspirational film of this year and the one that makes me happiest to bring up to people and talk about. Because I just adore the way they made it and the attitude they had in going about this. The film came from Alexi Pappas, an Olympic long-distance runner. I first heard about her from a Twitter Q+A with Paul Thomas Anderson where he shouted out her movie Tracktown and said it was something he’d seen recently and really liked. So I, of course, looked it up and saw it, knowing nothing about it. And that movie was something that she wrote, starred in and co-directed with her husband. And it’s essentially based on her own experiences. She’s a runner training for the Olympics who only knows hard work and training. And then one day she gets an injury and is now faced with doing nothing for a period of time. Which, for an athlete, is torture. And it’s just this absolutely charming movie with so much heart and personality. So when I heard she was making this film, I was really intrigued. And so what this is — Olympic Dreams — is a film that she shot at the actual winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. They shot in and around Olympic Village. And she stars as an Olympic skiier who finishes with her events pretty early and is sort of left to hang around for a while. Meanwhile, Nick Kroll stars as a dentist who has volunteered for the Games and is also just sort of hanging around outside of the times he’s in the clinic. So the two, sort of lonely and aimless, meet and start hanging out. And it just becomes this charming little rom com that, like Tracktown, has so much personality and heart and is just this incredibly likable movie. I call it aspirational because this, to me, gives you that excitement that you really want when you talk about and think about making a movie. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you why you love this stuff and what it’s like when you make something out of creativity and love rather than simply trying to make money by putting a bunch of people into theaters with explosions. I’m such a huge fan of this movie and I want as many people as possible to see it.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock is the ‘second’ episode of the Small Axe series, if you’re watching them in order of ‘release’. And while Mangrove is a very narrative film with a definitive story, this one is much more about mood and feeling. It’s simply a bunch of people getting together for a house party for an evening. And so we spend a little more than an hour with them as they dance and chat and hang out and drink together. And while that may not sound like the greatest thing ever… trust me. It’s utterly captivating the way McQueen does it. In fact, most people have called this the best of the entire series. As I said up top, I think this entire series is absolutely brilliant and needs to be seen by everyone. I felt it was unfair to each of the films to lump them into a single entry, so I’m making it a point to talk about each of the films on their own here, just to highlight how much I love each of them and not just the series as a whole. Which brings us to Education, the ‘final’ episode of the series, which explicitly deals with the racial bias within the national school system. It features a child (who very clearly has a learning disability, very likely dyslexia) who, because he is Black, is treated like he is stupid and incapable of going to school with the other children. So the school tosses him out and makes him go to a remedial school, which is sold as a place where the teachers can properly look after him, when in reality it’s basically a hell hole where the kids are not properly taught, the teachers are barely present and is basically a way to put the child down and keep him from ever getting into a proper school and get a proper job, which is essentially a way they keep most children and people from these backgrounds from ever advancing in the world. It’s yet another incredible piece of work from McQueen, and at this point, I don’t really know what else I could tell you to try to get you to see these films. They really are that good.
The Assistant is the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ movie. Which is what they say to get you in the theater. Really, it’s more of a universal story about how badly assistants to Hollywood people are treated (especially women). Julia Garner plays a junior assistant to a high-powered New York-based producer, and the film is a day in her life. So you see her having to get up at an insane hour, doing all these myriad of things, just waiting for the first time that day she’s going to be screamed at. And what’s great about the film is that it operates on this level, showing you what a lot of these people (who no one thinks about) have to go through on a daily basis (because trust me, it’s real), while also operating on the Weinstein level, as her boss — who is never directly seen (you see him once in the background, and his profile seems to match that of Weinstein) and who you only ever really hear through a phone (albeit faintly) — is very clearly based on Harvey if you know anything about Harvey. And you get this fantastic moment in the middle of the film where Garner begins to suspect that her boss has lured a young woman from the midwest and given her a job (which she’s very unqualified for) as a ploy to lure her into the city to have sex with her. And the scene where she confronts HR about this is absolutely stunning and one of those moments that is sadly all-too-common in the world. The beauty of this movie is that it acts both as a movie that highlights the Weinstein stuff without making that the primary plot of the film and also gives you a movie about how shitty it is to have to work for these people in general. And it’s really one of the better films of the year.
Yes, God, Yes is a movie that you will completely understand if you were a child in either middle school or high school between 1998 and 2002 and grew up in the old school dial-up AOL days. It’s a movie about a girl in a Catholic high school who is just starting to learn about sex and masturbation. And the film is about her — you know how a rom com is a couple trying to be together but circumstances keep them apart until the very end of the movie? That’s what this movie is for the main character and masturbation. She’s discovering how much fun that is, meanwhile she goes to a place that’s trying to keep the kids repressed and is telling them their feelings and desires are wrong, plus no one’s around to really give her an honest education and teach her about this stuff, so she’s left trying to find answers from AOL chat rooms and random strangers — it’s so good. This movie is so well-written. It’s full of lines that highlight what it’s like to be that age when you’re just learning about all that stuff, so every odd turn of phrase comes across as absolutely filthy. It perfectly captures the awkwardness of high schoolers, and (as far as I can tell) also seems to nail what it’s like going to Catholic school as well. It’s all around just a fantastic movie and really worth seeing. Freaky is from Christopher Landon, who brought us Happy Death Day. And, like Happy Death Day, this is a really smart and fun twist on a premise you know well. Essentially, it’s Freaky Friday but with a serial killer. A serial killer and a high school girl switch bodies on Friday the 13th, and so he (in her body) goes around school murdering people, while she (in his body) has to figure out how to switch back before she gets stuck in it forever. It’s so fucking good, and so funny. Vince Vaughn (walking around as a teenage girl in his body for most of the film) is incredible, as is Kathryn Newton, who is great both as her character and as the serial killer in her body. It’s so well done and one of the most fun experiences you’ll have with a movie this year.
Vampires vs. the Bronx is a movie that I did not expect to love this much. It’s essentially a kids movie — local kids trying to save the bodega end up encountering vampires trying to take over the neighborhood. It’s a movie straight out of the 80s. But it’s also insanely smart, since it’s a movie about gentrification — all the vampires are buying up Black and Latino-owned businesses and forcing them out and replacing them with juice bars and artisan coffee shops. And I love that they took such a real world issue and used the vampires as a metaphor for it. It’s absolutely phenomenal. And it’s fun. The kids are charming, the writing is smart and the movie is just so enjoyable. Plus The Kid Mero plays the bodega owner and Method Man plays the local priest. How can you not love a movie like that?The Midnight Sky is George Clooney’s… I’m going for it… anti Gravity. Gravity is about an astronaut stuck in space trying to get home. This is Clooney stuck in the Antarctic, trying to help astronauts. Wildly different movies, but they’re going to be compared to one another no matter what because of him, so you might as well get it out of the way. The film is based on a novel, and is way more bleak than I expected it to be. It begins with a global disaster and the knowledge that Earth is about to become uninhabitable and that basically everyone will die in short order. Clooney is a terminally ill astrophysicist who chooses to stay at a remote Antarctic outpost in isolation. While there, he sees that, while most spacecrafts on missions have aborted them and returned, one remains on mission (they were traveling to the far reaches of space — to a planet he discovered — to see if it is habitable for humans to potentially move there). They’re not yet within reach of Earths’s communications and have no idea of the situation back home. So he has chosen to stay there to warn them. And the film is him, stuck on this base, eventually encountering a child who was left behind with him, having to find a way to communicate with these astronauts before it’s too late. It’s a solid movie. A bit… I wish it were longer and had more character stuff in it. It feels like they pared it down to streamline the story, and I kind of wish they gave it more room to breathe and really get to learn about these people and their situations. But overall it’s a solid piece of work and becomes yet another of Clooney’s directorial efforts that contains a wildly tricky tone to try to pull off. And, like Suburbicon and like Monuments Men, it sort of falls in the middle of pulling everything off, which leaves it in that gray area of likely never properly finding the right audience, yet still being an admirable piece of filmmaking.
VHYes is the kind of movie that was made for someone like me. It’s a celebration of all the weird shit on late 80s/early 90s era TV. The premise is, a kid’s father buys a new camcorder and the kid begins to experiment with it by recording home movies (and in doing so, accidentally tapes over his parents’ wedding vide). And the bulk of the film is him and his best friend up late one night, recording stuff they’re taping off the TV as they flip through the channels. And so we just watch this recreation of all sorts of weird commercials, public access TV, softcore porn, those home shopping shows… all of that stuff. Trust me. If you remember what TV was like during those years, you will enjoy the shit out of this movie. It’s the right kind of insanity to just sit at home and enjoy. The Half of It is a wonderful Netflix rom com that flips the script on how these types of films usually go. It’s a same-sex Cyrano, essentially. Smart high school girl earns money by writing essays for her fellow students. She does this because she needs to. Then one day one of the jocks comes up to her and says he has a crush on one of the pretty, popular girls and wants to impress her. So he hires her to write letters for her, from him. And she does this (also becoming friends with him in the process)… only to realize that she actually has a crush on this girl as well. So while writing the letters for this girl, she’s actually putting her own feelings into them and pretending as though they’re his. It’s a really sweet and wonderful film, and one of the best things on the Netflix platform. Saint Frances is a wonderful little indie from Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote herself a part that she could play (and is fantastic in). Which is just admirable as hell. She plays an aimless woman in her 30s who simultaneously gets pregnant from a casual fling and needs to get an abortion and also takes a job as a nanny to a child. And it’s just this really nice character piece with great writing and great performances. I really liked this one.
I’m Your Woman is a film by Julia Hart, who is quickly establishing herself as one of our great directors. (Last year she made Fast Color, which I’ve been talking up ever since I saw it.) This is a revisionist crime film, told from the perspective of the wife character. Usually in the crime movie, you watch the guy and his buddies go rob the bank (or what have you), and then you see them get in trouble with the crime boss and go on the run, and there’s the scene where he sends the wife and baby away to go to a safe place, and then you never really see them again. Here, you’re following only the wife and baby. So one day she gets told, “You gotta go, now.” And so the movie is what happens to her during all of this. And it’s pretty wonderful. The film is set in the 70s and looks great, and it never betrays the story its trying to tell. She’s around violence but never overly directly, and all the stuff that involves her feels incredibly realistic to what this person would normally deal with in a real-life situation such as this. It’s a really great movie that people ought to see. Uncle Frank is an Alan Ball film with Sophia Lillis and Paul Bettany. Lillis plays the college-age daughter of a southern family who has always had an affinity for Bettany, her uncle, who lives in New York and is completely unlike the rest of her family. After deciding to go to New York for school, she finds out her grandfather (Bettany’s father) died — and that her beloved uncle is actually gay and has been keeping it from the family all this time — and the film is her and him taking a road trip down to attend the funeral (along with his longtime boyfriend who also wants to tag along, even though that, naturally is gonna cause much more confusion than it’s worth). It’s really nice little drama with standout performances from its leads. Babyteeth is a movie that I did not expect to love as much as I did. It reads as Australian Fault in Our Stars. Instead of a sappy romance about a dying girl, it’s more… that with some attitude. The premise is: dying teenager decides she wants to ‘live’ before she goes and ends up falling for an older drug dealer, which of course drives her parents nuts. And it’s this weird, charming movie that is told with a lot of flair by director Shannon Murphy. Eliza Scanlen is a straight up movie star and I cannot wait for everyone to take note of that. There’s such wonderful stuff here and the film gives you such wonderful characters, especially with Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis as the parents. Trust me when I say this — this is not the movie you think you’re getting, and it’s so much more entertaining and substantive than you think it can be. Highly recommend it.
Beastie Boys Story is a documentary about the Beastie Boys, who were one of those seminal bands for me growing up. And rather than being a typical documentary, it’s the guys (well… Ad-Rock and Mike D, since sadly we lost MCA this past decade) telling their own story, with the help of Spike Jonze, who was there for a lot of their best moments (and directed both the “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic” videos). So it’s the two of them (who have incredible chemistry and are incredibly funny people) on stage, doing this sort of two-man show for an audience, introducing clips sections that act as documentary pieces the way one would normally see them. It’s so well done, and so much more entertaining than a regular documentary. It’s pretty ingenious, and if you at all like this band, you really need to check this one out (and even if you don’t, this is a great alternative narrative style for documentaries, if you have the right people to pull it off). Blow the Man Down is such an awesome little crime thriller. It takes place in a small fishing town in… New Hampshire, I think? Maybe Maine? It’s somewhere up there in New England even if it reads as Boston with the accents. The main characters are sisters, one of whom lives in the town and stayed there to care for their sick mother while the other has now come back because the mother has died. After a fight, one of them goes and picks up a guy at a bar. But… that turns into a very violent confrontation, and the dude winds up dead. So now the two of them have to cover up this murder. And the rest of the film is them trying to hide this murder from both the local police and the local crime element of the town (with which the dead man was involved). It’s such a great little movie. The tension is handled really well, and it never tries to do anything like have gunfights or car chases or anything like that. And each section of the film is broken up with scenes of sailors singing sea shanties, which honestly should just be in every movie. It’s so damn fun. I really like this one a lot, and this is the epitome of the hidden gem. I hope people seek this one out.
Wolfwalkers is another stunning piece of animation from Tomm Moore, who previously gifted us with The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. The film is very much in that visual style, which makes it a sumptuous feast for people who like traditional animation (instead of that boring, photoreal stuff everyone’s trying to do now). It’s about a girl who lives in a medieval city where the people hunt the wolves who live outside their gates. The main character is the daughter of a wolf hunter who comes to help rid the town of wolves. She dreams of becoming a wolf hunter one day. Then, one day, she meets a native girl who is a mythical ‘Wolfwalker’, a person who can transform into a wolf while sleeping, and slowly befriends her and starts to realize that the wolves may not be the real threat she thought they were. It’s a gorgeous film. And with so few animated films that came out this year (and so few that feel actually worthwhile), it’s nice to have this here. Kajillionaire is a Miranda July film about a family of con artists living off the grid in Los Angeles. The parents are Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger and their daughter is Evan Rachel Wood. And it’s just this fascinating look at people on the fringes and particularly Wood’s character, who only knows this life she’s been raised in, never being given any sort of school and knowing absolutely nothing of the world. And she begins to have a crisis of conscience when her parents take on another person (Gina Rodriguez) in this new job they’re planning. I can’t really explain this one except to say — it’s wonderful. Evan Rachel Wood is so good here (as are Jenkins, Winger and Rodriguez) and it’s just a great little gem of a movie. Ammonite is a really solid period romance with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Unfortunately the plot and feel of the movie are very much similar to last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which some people will hold against this movie. But it still very much succeeds on its own merits, and features two very fine lead performances from its actors. In a year like this, you can’t really afford to look past a well-made film with two strong performances from two of our finest actors.
– – – – –
- Bill & Ted Face the Music
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- The Boys in the Band
- The Brilliant Biograph
- The Broken Hearts Gallery
- The Climb
- The Coldest Game
- Da 5 Bloods
- Enola Holmes
- The Forty-Year-Old Version
- Happiest Season
- The Invisible Man
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- One Night in Miami
- Project Power
- Small Axe: Alex Wheatle
- Small Axe: Red, White and Blue
- To the Stars
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle. Here we go again. I’m telling you, these Small Axe films are terrific. Alex Whealte is the ‘fourth’ film in the group, and the second to be directly about specific events. This based on the real life author and the events of his life, specifically his upbringing and arrest and imprisonment for his involvement in the Brixton uprising of 1981. The film maybe doesn’t go as deep as you’d want for its particular subject and setting, but when viewed as a piece with the other Small Axe films, it really does create a beautiful landscape of all of the themes and issues McQueen is trying to talk about with them. And then, our final Small Axe film is Red, White and Blue, which stars John Boyega as the Black son of immigrant parents who decides to join the police force in order to try to root out its systemic racism from the inside. And the film deals very specifically with the attitudes of police (then, though you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s still the case) toward immigrants and people of color, even when they’re colleagues. It’s another incredible piece of work from McQueen, and only adds to the rich tapestry of stories he’s created with this series. I’m being extremely serious here, guys, you owe it to yourself to watch these movies.
The Coldest Game is a movie that I’m shocked to say I didn’t already know about going into this year, which is disturbing to me because it’s about an alcoholic chess master played by Bill Pullman. Which is like, the holy trinity of what I look for in a movie. And yet — no clue. But I’m so glad I found out about it, because it’s great. It takes place during the Cold War, during a Fischer/Spassky-style chess match between American and Soviet grandmasters. Only the American player mysteriously (yes, he was murdered) dies before the competition can begin. And because of a clause in the contract, he can only be replaced by the last person to beat him or else America forfeits. And, the last person who beat him just happens to be Pullman, some 30-odd years ago. So they come and pick him up and get him on a plane. Only he’s now a drunk professor who’s barely able to function (and especially not able to function sober). So the film is them trying to keep him conscious (and drunk) enough to play these matches, all while all this spy intrigue is going on around them (often involving Pullman after a certain point). It’s awesome. One of my favorite scenes of the year involves him getting absolute blackout drunk and passing out and then waking up and going, “Oh shit, what happened? Did I miss the game? Is it over?” And they’re like, “What are you talking about? You played the game. You were brilliant.” And he remembers absolutely none of it. Which is just the most awesome thing ever. I really liked this one. I know it’s not for everyone, but this is exactly the kind of movie that I gravitate toward and enjoy. The Brilliant Biograph is an incredible documentary. Basically it’s an hour of remastered silent films that were uncovered during the early days of cinema. Those old school three-minute Edison and Lumiere-style shorts. So you’re just watching an endless stream of those. And it’s just spellbinding. I’ve been saying it ever since I saw it — I’d have these movies just playing on a loop in a screen in my house, that’s how much I love this stuff. This is exactly the type of thing I want to be watching.
The Broken Hearts Gallery is one of the most refreshing rom coms I’ve seen this decade, and for a change, is not a Netflix one. Since Netflix is really the only studio putting out traditional rom coms (a genre they’ve single-handedly helped revive). So to see one from another studio come out is really exciting. This one also has a pretty terrific premise — the main character is addicted to love and relationships and always keeps some sort of memento from the relationship. Some people might see that as cute, others might see that as being a hoarder. And after yet another bad breakup (and a professional nightmare, as those often go hand and hand in this genre), she decides to channel her sadness into art, by creating the titular gallery, which is where she is purging herself of holding on to all of these things (and feelings) and finally getting over them by giving away her mementos and displaying them as part of the gallery, along with the story of the relationship. Which is a really brilliant idea for an art exhibit. And so this gets a lot of other people to donate their own items and heal from their own heartbreaks, all while she meets and starts falling for a new guy. It’s a rom com, you know how that goes. It’s really sweet and really well-written and well-made. One Night in Miami is Regina King’s directorial debut, and revolves around a fictional meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke on the night when Ali first won the Heavyweight Championship in 1964 in Miami (and the day he came out publicly as part of the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay). It’s a sure-handed debut that manages to largely overcome the theatrical trappings of the material (it’s based on a play and a large chunk of it takes place in a single room). All the actors do their jobs very well, and you rarely feel that thing that movies about famous people have where it’s just a caricature of the person and never really gets anywhere close to the surface of who they were/are and what they represent. So I’m definitely a fan of this, much more than I was expecting to be.
The Climb is a very alt-comedy indie that I honestly wasn’t expecting much of. And then within about ten minutes, I found myself laughing my ass off. It’s written and directed by its stars (and premiered at Cannes, which should tell you that it’s not the kind of comedy you might expect it to be) and there really is no premise here. It’s mostly just a look at these guys’ friendship over a number of years. But even that’s misleading, because the whole thing is so wonderfully absurd. Here’s the start: the two of them are biking and struggling to ride up this giant hill, and a few minutes in, after some inane conversation, one of them tells the other that he slept with his fiancée. And it just gets funnier from there. Within 20 minutes, there’s a scene where one of the characters is dancing in a basement in his underwear to Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby” (yes, that one. ‘Rockabye’). It’s absolutely nuts, but absolutely hilarious at the same time. I’m very picky when it comes to comedies, and this one I really, really enjoyed. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one of the few bright spots in the entire D.C. Universe nowadays. Which isn’t saying much, but at least it’s something. This is a comic book movie that knows it’s a comic book movie and embraces the fact that it’s a comic book movie. And I know you might say Deadpool does the same thing, but that’s wrong. Deadpool knows it’s a movie. This knows it’s a comic book movie. Which means that it does stuff like heaving someone see cartoon birds when they get hit over the head, and is willing to do stuff like put up the old school Batman ‘POW!’ and ‘WHAM-O’ bubbles on the screen during fight scenes. It’s that kind of playful tone that separates this from the rest of the garbage D.C. has given us since Christopher Nolan left. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but when you put it up next to all that other crap, this is a real breath of fresh air and (probably erroneously) makes you think that just maybe D.C. can figure things out and actually start making good movies for once.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is from Radha Blank, who wrote, directed and stars. And it’s a movie about a playwright who was hugely successful in her 20s but is now staring down 40, not really going anywhere, still teaching high school drama during the day and not really getting anywhere with her plays at night. And so, seeking a change of pace (and facing the prospect of having to ‘sell out’ for a paycheck) she decides to try to become a rapper. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s clearly such a personal project to her, but mostly is just charming as hell and feels like a true, scrappy independent movie rather than a lot of other ones that feel like they have proper budgets and are made by independent wings of actual film studios rather than actually being shot on shoestring budgets on real streets around actual people. This is one of the most admirable films of 2020 and really deserves to be seen. Enola Holmes is a fun young-adult movie centered around the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. It gives Millie Bobby Brown a rare film performance (I think this is only her second screen role since Stranger Things went on the air, the other being a forgettable role in the Godzilla sequel), directed by one of the directors of Fleabag. So the film has some of that show’s playfulness, as Brown does some fourth-wall breaking throughout. But largely it’s a fun version of Holmes for kids that doesn’t feature the same tired old characters. Sherlock and Mycroft feature in the story, but only occasionally pop in and out. The film really does center around Enola and her search for her mother, who has suddenly and mysteriously gone missing. And so she’s running around London trying to solve this mystery (and of course discovers a whole other case to solve at the same time). It’s fun. It doesn’t have to get into the whole ‘Sherlock is a bare-knuckle fighter’ like the Guy Ritchie movies do and gets to give you a fresh new take on a character/world that always manages to be interesting (otherwise why would they keep making them?). It’s a fun one.
To the Stars is a coming of age movie set in Oklahoma in the 60s. A shy, unpopular girl meets the new girl who comes from the city and immediately finds herself fascinated by her and soon becomes very close with her and starts to come into her own by knowing her. There’s some wonderful stuff here, especially as you start to unpack the layers of the girl and all the other people of the town as you get to know more about them. There’s some really terrific stuff here, along with two great central performances from Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato. I highly recommend this one. It’s a real gem of 2020. Project Power is an enjoyable high-concept sci-fi movie. It’s from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made Catfish and directed another solid high-concept sci-fi movie a few years ago called Nerve. This one is about a street drug that’s been hitting New Orleans that, when taken, gives people superpowers for exactly five minutes. Each person has a different superpower, and the drug unlocks it. Though the problem is, depending on what the power is, it could potentially kill a person when they take it. So the film follows three people — a teen girl who sells the drug on the streets, a cop trying to track down who’s bringing the drugs into the city (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a father also trying to track down the source of the drugs in order to take them down in retaliation for losing his daughter. It’s a lot of fun, and they find some cool things to do with the different superpowers. As far as Netflix movies go, this feels like a really appropriate one for them to have and is one of the better ones that exists on the platform. The Boys in the Band is an adaptation of the landmark play that was one of the first to prominently feature gay characters. It was made once before, in 1970 by William Friedkin. But this one is noteworthy because it’s an extension of the stage version that came out a few years ago that, I believe for the first time, featured a cast of entirely openly gay actors. Which is something they continued here. So, on top of being noteworthy and admirable for that alone, it’s also a good movie. The play is a great piece of writing and because this is an adaptation of that (and by definition is very stagey, since it takes place entirely in a single location), it’s going to be extremely watchable. But it’s the combination of everything (and the fact that it was put on a platform that allows it to always be accessible to people) that really makes this a noteworthy film.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the play by August Wilson (who wrote Fences, for you heathens who don’t already know that), and is essentially a showcase for Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (though there are also very strong performances here from Colman Domingo and Gylnn Turman). The film takes place on a hot day in Chicago in 1927 as jazz singer Ma Rainey goes to the recording studio to record some of her songs. She’s largely a sideline figure for most of the story, occasionally getting her moments to shine. The film largely centers around the members of her backing band, namely her horn player who is young, overly ambitious, loud and brash. That’s Boseman, and I know a lot of people have been really touting his work here since he died, but let me tell you — it’s not just because he died. He’s truly terrific here. It’s a hell of a performance. Davis also does a great job in more of a supporting part (even if she is the lead of the film and may seem like such). The film manages to not feel like a play despite having very long scenes that take place in the same room and is just a really well-made piece of work. The Invisible Man is Leigh Whannell’s update of the classic story, this time from a very specific perspective. Everyone knows the concept of the Invisible Man, but this movie uses the Invisible Man/monster as a metaphor for abusive relationships and trauma. And, kind of like Whannell did with Upgrade (which is a smart and well-made twist on the Six Million Dollar Man), this takes the kind of movie you’d normally expect in a situation like this and packs it with actual themes and human drama that elevates it from the typical fare you’d expect. I love the way, in the early sections of the film, the camera will just slowly pan away from the action to seemingly nothing, making you wonder if the guy is actually there in the room. And each time all the weird stuff starts happening, the people around the main character play it off as being the result of stress or don’t believe her (which is both a trope in the monster movie — that no one believes the monster exists until they see it and also what they say to victims of abuse and women who come forward with allegations of things like this). It’s really well made, and really aside from people talking it up a bit too much in the early part of the year, remains one of the more successful films of 2020.
Swallow is such a weird, wonderful movie. It’s got a very deliberate tone, which could be off-putting for a while, but is really terrific to look at. Haley Bennett plays a housewife who lives in a perfect place with a perfect husband and has a (seemingly) perfect existence. And she drifts through this listless existence, essentially stuck in a cage, meant to simply be there to cook and care for her husband and eventual child. Though she starts developing this compulsion to put increasingly dangerous objects in her mouth. Thumb tacks, marbles — and it just gets worse from there. It’s such a weird movie, yet the things it’s trying to say about women and motherhood and body autonomy and a number of other topics centered around women are all spot on and quite wonderful. The film also looks fantastic and Haley Bennett is terrific in it. I can’t say enough great things about this movie. Extraction is, on its surface, a pretty standard, generic action movie. Chris Hemsworth is an elite mercenary who is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped son of an international crime lord. Seems pretty simple, right? That’s what I thought. But this movie is so much more than that. Kind of like how, on the surface, John Wick is a pretty standard revenge thriller. And, while this movie is no John Wick, it’s also not (insert any number of generic action-thrillers here). This movie, like John Wick, was directed by a stuntman, which means that instead of the generic shoot-em-up action sequences and normal ‘punch-punch-stab’ scenes in confined spaces, they find some really cool ways to give you action, including one sequence that feels like a single take (but almost certainly isn’t) where the camera passes through car windows and does all sort of crazy movies that you’d never see in most movies. It’s really, really well done and definitely elevates this to a level above your standard fare for this kind of movie. Happiest Season is a nice little lesbian holiday rom com. It stars Mackenzie Davis (who is wonderful) and Kristen Stewart (who is quite good here) as a long-term couple who go to Davis’ family’s house for the holidays. Only Davis is not yet out to her family and is/has been struggling to tell them for years. And now her father is running for local office, so that only makes things harder for her. But she tells Stewart that she will tell them as soon as the holidays are over and brings her there under the guise of being her roommate who doesn’t have any family. And so a lot of the movie is the struggle of Davis trying to hide everything around her family, Stewart starting to question if she really knows who Davis is, all sorts of family hijinks, and Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza coming in to steal scenes (him as Stewart’s gay best friend and Plaza as Davis’ ex, with whom she had a nasty breakup years prior). It’s a very charming movie, even if it has some pretty on-the-nose writing at times.
Bill & Ted Face the Music is an absolutely delightful return to these characters for the first time in almost 30 years. Keanu and Alex have been trying to make this for years, and every time updates came about I kept going, “Really? Are you guys sure? Do we really need this?” And I wasn’t entirely sure we did. But then, when I saw it, I got it. It felt like an actual worthwhile sequel rather than a money grab. You knew they did it out of love and they still managed to keep the movie feeling pure and fun and everything those first movies were. The premise is that Bill and Ted, after supposedly writing a song that would save the world, are now middle-aged and still have yet to do it. And now the time has actually come for them to write it, or else the world is actually gonna end. And it’s just this wonderful journey involving their daughters (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving are both terrific as Billie and Thea, aka Little Bill and Little Ted) and all sorts of classic and new characters (a highlight is Anthony Carrigan as killer robot Dennis Caleb McCoy). There’s just so much innate likability here, and heart. And it’s one of those movies that will win you over by the time it ends. Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie. It’s several things in one, all of them interesting. Mainly the plot deals with a group of friends who all served as a unit during the war. And, in a Three Kings fashion, they managed to get a hold of a bunch of gold and buried it deep in the jungle, vowing to return to get it one day. So the four of them (the fifth, their leader, died in combat) come back in the present day to retrieve the gold. And that’s the film. It’s pretty great and has most of Spike’s usual filmmaking trademarks. It might not reach the heights that BlacKkKlansman does, but it once again reminds you of how vital a filmmaker and a voice that Spike is and has always been. Nomadland is the indie darling of the year. Directed by Chloe Zhao (known for The Rider, an indie darling from a few years ago), it’s got Frances McDormand as a woman who decides to live out of her van, traveling around the country, taking odd jobs where she can (Amazon warehouses, truck stop diners, etc) and learning to live off the grid. It’s a nice, relaxed little movie that’s really well-made and has a lot of down-to-earth charm about it. Plus it has David Strathairn, and I love him.
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- An American Pickle
- Another Round
- Charm City Kings
- Critical Thinking
- The Devil All the Time
- The Gentlemen
- The Last Shift
- Let Him Go
- Let Them All Talk
- The Old Guard
- Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
- Save Yourselves!
Let Him Go is an exercise in star power. It’s a modern day western with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. And the majority of the film is just the two of them and their respective screen presences. I’d be surprised if Costner spoke more than 100 words over the course of the film. Most of the time he’s just there, using his natural gravitas to convey everything he needs to say. The film is pretty straightforward — their son, shortly after getting married and having a child, dies suddenly. Some time later, their daughter-in-law remarries. Only the man she remarries starts to seem like an abusive piece of shit. And then, out of the blue, the pair up and disappear with her son and Costner and Lane’s grandson. So Costner and Lane are left to try to track them down to try to get their grandson back, which involves going out west to a rural part of the country where his family lives. It’s literally the plot of a western, only with cars instead of horses. Costner and Lane are great, the film looks terrific and there are strong supporting performances from Jeffrey Donovan and especially Lesley Manville as the matriarch of the wife’s husband’s family. It’s one of those supremely underrated little gems that unfortunately feels destined to never get the proper dues it deserves. Save Yourselves! is a fun comedy based on people’s addictions to technology. The idea is that a couple decides they’re gonna take a two-week vacation to completely unplug and repair their relationship. And of course, the minute they do that, aliens attack and none of their loved ones can get a hold of them. So they’re completely unaware of what’s going on. And a lot of the comedy comes from that. It’s fun. Indie, and maybe doesn’t fully deliver on its premise as much as it could, but still a good time.
Vivarium is a great little Twilight Zone meets Kafka movie, about a couple going house hunting who wind up in a strange new development that they soon find themselves unable to leave. And then it just becomes this absurdist movie where they’re stuck in this weird simulation of marriage/living in the suburbs where every house is the same/raising a child. It’s a fantastic little movie with great lead performances from Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. A weird little gem of an oddity for people to discover. Run is Aneesh Chaganty’s followup to Searching, which was a film that took the gimmick of ‘taking place entirely on a computer screen’ and elevated it to probably the highest it could ever go. That was a movie that, based on all the other films of its ilk, seemed like it would be bad but ended up being one of the better films of its year. And this film does something similar. It takes a well-worn genre where you pretty much know all its tricks from the minute it begins and somehow makes it feel fresh and fun. The film is about a disabled girl living at home with her mother who is never let outside and slowly starts to think her mother may be lying to her and making her think she’s more sick than she actually is. Like I said — you hear that and think, “I know where it’s going.” And you do. And yet, somehow… Chaganty makes it work. I can’t explain how, but the way he builds tension and organizes scenes… it works. And you know what? Good for him for being able to pull that off. No one else seems to be able to.
Buffaloed is really just a star turn by Zoey Deutch. It’s also this weird little independent movie that’s almost unclassifiable, which usually makes for a pretty entertaining kind of movie. It’s directed by Tanya Wexler, who did Hysteria (which is another nice little gem of a movie), and is about a young woman in Buffalo who grew up learning how to be a hustler. Scalping tickets, that sort of thing. Of course, it usually ends up getting her in jail and in debt. And eventually she discovers the ultimate hustle of all — debt collecting. She uses her considerable charisma to become a master debt collector, which eventually (and here’s where the movie takes a more exaggerated turn) puts her at odds with the ‘king’ of the loan sharks in the Buffalo area. It’s fun. A bit over the top, but a lot of fun, and brilliantly anchored by Zoey Deutch, who is slowly showing why she’s a true blue movie star. The Old Guard is a fun Netflix movie that’s basically Charlize Theron and an immortal team of mercenaries fucking shit up. That’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s very enjoyable and just one of those real easy watches. Stargirl is a much stronger coming-of-age movie than you might expect at the outset. That’s because it’s directed by Julia Hart, who did the wonderful Fast Color last year and already had a movie on this list with I’m Your Woman. This is a movie you feel like you’ve seen before — shy high schooler meets the new girl, who is extremely outgoing and goes by a nickname she gave herself, and quickly finds himself coming out of his shell as he starts to befriend and fall in love with her. And it’s exactly that. And yet, I can’t explain how, but this is just a different movie from those other ones. And I think the way I can explain that is — look at how good Hart’s other films are. There’s a certain level of uniqueness she brings to this because of her skills as a filmmaker. And it’s quite a lovely film because of that.
Tigertail is basically ‘What if In the Mood for Love happened to my father?’. It’s about a Taiwanese factory worker who meets and falls in love with a woman but decides to leave his homeland for the America. And we watch as he enters into an arranged marriage and endures years of boring work to become this hardened older person whose daughter cannot connect with. Ultimately the film is about the child of an immigrant wondering what made their parent the way they are and, depending on which it is, either romanticizing it or simply hearing the story of their life and better understanding why they are who they are. It’s a nice film, as much as I wish there were a lot more meat on the bone. It’s still a very worthwhile film for people to see. Capone is the Tom Hardy Al Capone movie. Yet another entry into the ‘Tom Hardy gives a great, weird performance in a movie that people rarely see/don’t really care all that much about’. This movie — not the best. Yet Hardy is so committed and so great to watch that he single-handedly makes the movie worth seeing. The film is about the last days of Capone, as he is under house arrest in Florida, slowly dying of syphilis and losing his mind. Hardy is wearing a bunch of makeup and mumbles and grunts his way through this in the most fascinating way. I’m telling you. You normally can’t take your eyes off him anyway when he’s on screen, but this in particular is one where he just has complete freedom to do what he wants. And the result is a flawed, yet fascinating movie. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is documentary about The Band. And it’s great. There’s really not much more that needs to be said there. A rock doc about a supremely undervalued aspect of music history.
Critical Thinking is another one of those inner-city teacher movies. Only this one stars John Leguizamo (he directed it too) and instead of teaching the kids calculus, it’s chess. Those teacher movies are usually pretty interesting, but add chess and Johnny Legs to the deal? How could you not love this movie? It’s just entirely my alley and is just a lovely piece of work. Charm City Kings is a wonderful fictionalized version of the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, which is about the bike riders in Baltimore who ride around the streets in the face of local police and get their names from the position they lift their bikes as they ride. And the film focuses on a high school kid and younger brother of one of these riders (who died), who dreams of getting his own bike and struggles to stay out of all the trappings of the neighborhood. It’s a really charming movie with a lot of great stuff in it. It’s co-written by Barry Jenkins for one, but also just features so much flavor and personality. It’s such a worthwhile film and I hope it eventually finds its audience. Rebecca is a completely satisfactory, yet completely unnecessary remake (well… re-adaptation, I guess is more accurate) of the novel which was already made perfectly by Alfred Hitchcock. Everything in it is completely admirable and even well-done… yet you watch it and go, “I’m getting absolutely nothing out of this that I didn’t already get with Hitchcock, save color.” So, when it comes down to it, sure, just watch the original. But otherwise, you could do worse than watching this version.
The Gentlemen is Guy Ritchie making an original film. These are becoming rarer for him, which makes them all the more precious when we do get them. It’s almost impossible for him to reach the heights of Snatch and Lock Stock, but I’ll take him trying stuff like this over taking for-hire jobs like Aladdin and King Arthur any day. This one — lots of fun. Matthew McConaughey as a king pot dealer trying to retire, Charlie Hunnam as the Michael Clayton of London gangsters, Hugh Grant doing an 80s-era Michael Caine impersonation… Colin Farrell in there for shits and giggles… it’s just fun. It’s so enjoyable and I really hope Ritchie goes back to making more stuff like this. Shithouse is a really interesting twist on the rom com genre. It takes place in college, as a lonely freshman struggles with the transition from home life. One night, he meets an RA, and the two strike up a friendship. And even as it seems like your standard rom com journey, the film tries to subvert that every way it can. And you know, you expect them to sleep together and for the relationship to build over the course of the year… but the film is not that at all. And I kinda love how it’s not that at all. I’m not sure what it does will appeal to everyone, but it did feel like one of the more satisfying cinematic experiences I had this year.
An American Pickle is the Seth Rogen pickle movie. Where he plays a Jewish man working in a pickle factory at the turn of the century who falls into a pickle vat (as you do) and gets preserved for 100 years, emerging to find everyone he knew and loved long dead, yet finding a great grandson who takes him in. Both roles are played by Rogen. Mostly the fun is seeing him, as a European Jew from World War I, come to present day Brooklyn and have no idea what the fuck people are doing and how they’re living. And yet, of course, when he decides to start up a pickle business, the fucking hipsters think it’s amazing and artisanal and pay way inflated prices for them. That’s really the joy of this movie. The jokes at how people live today along with Seth Rogen threatening ‘to do violence’ to people. And there’s some heart thrown in as well, for good measure. It’s a good film. The Devil All the Time is an Antonio Campos film. His last film was Christine with Rebecca Hall, which I loved. This one is an adaptation of a novel, and it feels that way. It’s this sprawling movie, with like a dozen really great actors in it, all of whom have their own subplots, some of which are delved into, some of which aren’t. It’s a fascinating movie that largely works, even if it does feel like they took an unwieldy novel and tried to cram it into 130 minutes. There’s a lot of good stuff here, particularly in the performances (and specifically in whatever the hell Robert Pattinson is doing). The Last Shift is basically a showcase for Richard Jenkins, which is something we can all get behind. It has things to say about capitalism and race and society, but doesn’t really get too deep into any of that stuff. So really it’s just Jenkins. He plays a man who’s worked at the same fast food restaurant for over 40 years and now is about to leave to go down to Florida to take care of his aging mother. And so it’s this really interesting portrait of a man who’s been stuck in this same place for so long and now has to come to terms with change. Jenkins is terrific here, and he’s really the thing you want to see when you watch this.
Let Them All Talk is Steven Soderbergh yet again trying something different. He took Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges and Gemma Arterton, put them on a real cruise ship with a loose outline of a story and just let them improvise the movie. It’s fascinating. I like when he decides to make these experimental movies, because he as a filmmaker always (always, always) gives you something worthwhile. Whether you like it as much as his more narrative works is one thing. But the fact remains that you will never fail to get something out of a Steven Soderbergh movie, and that’s what I love most about him. Another Round is just a film about the joys of drinking. Not entirely of course, but kind of. Mads Mikkelsen plays a high school teacher whose life has become boring. His marriage is stale, his students have stopped listening to him and he has no joy in his life. So he decides, along with his friends, to try an experiment wherein they will constantly maintain a certain level of alcohol in their system and see what that does to them. And pretty soon, being slightly drunk all the time, he finds that suddenly things are so much better. He’s got energy again, teaching his fun, his students listen, life is great. And so he tries a little more. And a little more. And so do his friends. And we see the after-effects of all of that. Not all of them are positive. But it’s really a celebration of both drinking and life, and learning to find the joy of being alive. It’s pretty great. And is one of the only films to utilize Mads Mikkelsen’s background as a professionally trained dancer.
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