Well, that’s over. I don’t have to go into detail about how 2020 worked. But one thing is obvious, seeing new films was more challenging this year (only got in two theatrical viewings before the pandemic exploded). There are still a handful of movies I’d like to have seen that didn’t become available, only became available at prices I couldn’t justify at the time, or only became available on platforms I don’t have access to (sorry, but I’m not getting Shutter just to watch “Blood Machines” as much as I think that movie will tickle my fancy). As always happens, I ran out of time near the end of the year, trying to cram in all the stuff that got squeezed out under the wire right at the very end. If I were going to name this year in film, it would be “The Year of Almost…” There were so many movies I saw that were almost good and a few that were almost great. There were so many movies that just needed one more pass on the script or one more pass in the editing room. Consequently, I found myself disappointed a lot, as films kept missing it by that much. Still, even with all that happened, I found my top 10.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always: This is one of those films that I think is very, very good, but can’t say I enjoyed. A bit like “Uncut Gems,” which while I recognize was a very good movie, I disliked the actual act of watching it so much I couldn’t put it in my top 10. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is not nearly as unpleasant a viewing, but it’s not easy watching either. It’s worth the effort. The two young women who play the film’s leads are quite good and I expect good things from them in the future.
9. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Filmed versions of stage plays can be a challenge. It’s often easier to craft a film inspired by the idea than to do a direct translation, because the storytelling mediums are so different. With this, there was enough flare and greater world-building that it didn’t feel as stuffy and ‘staged’ as similar films can. Obviously Chadwick Boseman is getting a lot of praise. He’s quite good. His role is somewhat flashy. He passed in 2020. All these things combine to mean he’ll probably get an oscar nod, at least in nomination. It’s that kind of role. And he was good, though at times it seemed like he was doing a Denzel Washington impression. However, I thought the real standout in the film was Glynn Turman who played a more subtle and interesting role and made it look easy.
8. Tremors – Shrieker Island: Look, I know. Sometimes when folks read my best of lists, they probably think I’m just trying to ‘take the piss out’ of high-falutin critical stuff like The Oscars. And while it’s true that I think The Oscars in particular are absolute BS, a money-backed high school popularity contest with arbitrary rules and shadowy backroom deals, my lists are honest and from the heart. This, the seventh film in the Tremors series was exactly what I wanted when I watched it. It’s a fitting end to the series if they don’t do any more. It was great seeing Michael Gross again, being a goof and having fun. Are the Tremors films high art? Hell no. Was this one of more fun and enjoyable viewings I had in 2020? Hell yes.
7. Save Yourselves!: A young couple goes on vacation and misses the alien invasion. There’s so much that could have gone wrong here. The couple are borderline insufferable, yet never quite tip overboard so that you can remain invested in their story. They make stupid choices, but they seem like reasonable stupid choices, and they’re peppered in among much more reasonable choices. It’s not like so many post 1980s Horror films where the plot is only propelled forward by characters making the dumbest choice possible. The film is weird, cute, funny, a bit scary, and just kinda cool. And it would have been so easy for any of the various elements to go a bit too far and ruin it all, but that never happens.
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Charlie Kaufman is an odd cat and he makes (often as writer, sometimes as writer/director) odd films. Sometimes I love them, like “Adaptation.” Sometimes I hate them, like “Anomalisa.” This time around, it was a good one, though likely not to everyone’s taste. The two lead performances are excellent. I especially enjoyed adult-sized baby Jesse Plemons who manages to be charming, scary, goofy, pathetic, and a million other things over the course of the film. Get the chains on the tires and be ready for a weird ride.
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire: This film is gorgeous. While there’s more to it than the visuals, you can’t get away from the ‘every frame a painting’ vibe of the whole thing. It’s also part of the new wave of LGBTQ-focused films that aren’t soley about bad experiences, depression and horror. I remember someone talking about “Love, Simon” and saying, “it’s about a guy who comes out as gay…and nothing bad happens.” That was such a refreshing idea. Anyway, there’s a lot to like in this film, and the look at art, models, and the tensions of capturing the essence of a person in another form is fascinating to watch. As a writer, I often struggle with trying to capture an image or a sound or an idea and putting it into words. Visual artists do the same with their medium, and this film gives a glimpse into that process.
4. First Cow: A reminder that the past was a horrible place, but also a strangely warm movie about making connections and trying to survive in a harsh world. It’s a Western about the people who appear in the backgrounds of Westerns.
3. Soul: Leave it to Pixar to make a kids movie about the meaning of life, of art, of passion, about finding the thing that gives you joy…but also about the importance of sharing that joy with others. Oh, yeah, and about death. It seems like so many Pixar movies are at least in part about coming to terms with mortality. This might be the most visually interesting and impressive Pixar film to date, in part because it’s so grounded in the real world. The ethereal stuff is cool, but the parts that take place in the real world are sometimes jaw-dropping. I don’t get jazz, but I definitely understand getting into the Zone. Great stuff.
2. Possessor: Human chameleon Andrea Riseborough is secretly becoming the queen of genre film while maintaining her prestige film cred. I love that she keeps making these completely bugnuts choices in what roles she takes, perhaps sliding into a career path similar to Tilda Swinton…and I am here for it. Brandon Cronenberg’s retro-futurist, semi-Cyberpunk thriller explores some danged upsetting ideas and does it well. Cronenberg will doubtless always draw comparisons to his father, yet he has his own thing going and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
1. The Vast of Night: I heard a few whispers about this film before I sat down to watch it, and it just put a big smile on my face. A reminder of what can be done on a small budget when you have people who really care putting in the effort. I’ll take a movie like this over another James Cameron (or dare I say Christopher Nolen?!) mega-budget blockbuster any day of the week. Clever writing, solid acting and excellent cinematography. What more can you ask for?
Best Score: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (& Jon Batiste) “Soul”
Best Director: Céline Sciamma for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Best Actress: Andrea Riseborough for “Possessor”
Best Actor: Jesse Plemons for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Best Supporting Actress: Amanda Seyfried for “Mank”
Best Supporting Actor: Glynn Turman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Movies I really, really didn’t like:
5. Wonder Woman 1984: After really loving the first film (in spite of its lackluster 3rd act), I was very much looking forward to this sequel. Sadly, it’s a jumbled mess. Too long, too many storylines, too long, too little cohesion, too many unearned moments, and also it’s way, way too long. There are still editors, right?
4. The Grudge: Such a good cast. Such an uninspired and boring film.
3. Bloodshot: I’m not surprised that this was bad, but I am disappointed. Valiant Comics has some good properties that would probably make good films, but I’m afraid they’re all too likely to end up like this.
2. The Turning: More like, The Boring.
1. Ava: Truly a waste of a great actress in a profoundly uninteresting bit of rehash. Everyone involved in this should know better. If you spent much time renting straight to video movies in the 1990s, you’ve seen this film a hundred times over.
Cleo from 5 to 7: I’ve been trying to explore the French New Wave over the last couple years, as it’s one of those cinema neighborhoods I haven’t spent much time visiting. I think Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” is my favorite film from the movement so far. It lacks the macho posturing of some of the others I’ve seen, for one thing. That was a welcome relief.
Odds Against Tomorrow: A movie I’d been trying to see for years, but something kept happening to block me. It actually lived up to that kind of build-up. A fantastically acted, tensely filmed crime caper that digs right into America’s particular brand of racism. Truly a great and sadly mostly forgotten film.
Dean Jones: I ended up watching a bunch of old Disney live action films and discovered my love of Dean Jones. Affable everyman Jones is the heart of a whole bunch of goofy films. It started with “Snowball Express” and went on through “The Love Bug.” I look forward to seeing more of his work in the new year.
Moontide: They tried to make French mega-star Jean Gabin into a Hollywood darling, but he just didn’t fit the mold. However, this film shows a bit of what we could have had if Hollywood had been a different animal at that time. He’s a powerhouse, starring along Ida Lupino in this deeply sad crime film. Another often forgotten gem, it’s worth tracking down.
Watchmen: Who’d have thought that HBO’s Watchmen miniseries would be anything but a cheesy cash-grab? It’s such a strange beast. Taking its visual design cues from the Zack Snyder film (which I actually really enjoy, by the way), story-wise it’s rooted in the original Alan Moore (look at me, mentioning the author by name…jackass) & Dave Gibbons graphic novel. Where the original took on Margaret Thatcher & Ronald Reagan’s domination of the 1980s, this new series pulls back the curtain on America’s dark heart of systemic racism. What a time for it to come out, too. Jeez.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: An intimate epic. This film was really something, and not easy to explain. It really shouldn’t work. Yet, it’s fascinating and fun and never gets dull, even with its long runtime. I did not anticipate enjoying this film nearly as much as I did. I’ll be revisiting it, for sure.
Best Filmed Stage Performance:
Hamilton: Obviously. I loved seeing this musical live on Broadway with the original cast and it was really nice to see it again in this filmed version. Obviously, there’s a difference between seeing it live and feeling that energy and seeing a filmed version. But this was really good and it let me see the actors up close and really get their performances. When I saw the play originally, we were in the nosebleeds and I know there was stuff I missed. I still really want to see it performed with different actors some time, because a few of the roles are so linked with the actors I saw and heard on the cast album. I want to see someone else’s take.
Here’s hoping 2021 will be a better year for everyone. I don’t want to say I hope it gets back to normal, because if 2020 showed us anything, it’s that maybe normal wasn’t so great, and maybe we could make things a hell of a lot better and make that the new normal.