Nate Closes the Book on the No Good, Very Bad Year of 2020 (plus movies!)
This was a year that tested many of us and will always be remembered for its hardships, uncertainty, and potential change to the way we even digest movies. You can divide the year in film very clearly into Before COVID-19 and After COVID-19, as you could just about any other portion of life upended by the once-in-a-century pandemic. Hollywood punted many of its biggest blockbusters and was forced to re-schedule and re-schedule after costly blockbusters made a pittance at the box-office once theaters were re-opened in the fall. For most of us, movie theaters were our sanctuary from life, our church, and now we’ve been forced to abandon them for our own health. As a result, more movies have been released through streaming services and Video On-Demand experiments, and I doubt that things will ever go fully back to the way they were with how we watched our movies (look at Warner Brothers releasing their entire 2021 lineup through its streaming arm). Much of 2020’s film output bolted for the potential safety of 2021, but there was still winners to cheer and stinkers to clear. As always, I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I relive the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted cinema and the 110+ movies I saw this year.
But before going into all that 2020 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2019.
2019 Top Ten List 2.0
10) The Last Black Man in San Francisco (no change)
9) Ready or Not (formerly 7)
8) Knives Out (previously unranked)
7) Queen & Slim (formerly 9)
6) The Farewell (formerly 5)
5) Avengers: Endgame (formerly 2)
4) Portrait of a Lady on Fire (formerly 6)
3) Marriage Story (formerly 4)
2) Dragged Across Concrete (formerly 3)
1) Parasite (no change)
Not much movement. And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the big show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2020
Let Run serve as a prime example of how you can take a simple story and create a lean, mean thriller that provides doses of satisfaction and triumph. The focus is so condensed that writer/director Aneesh Chaganty (Searching) can provide set piece after set piece to demonstrate his skills in suspense. There is a lovely sense of fulfillment in watching smart characters intelligently think their way through challenges. The photography, editing, and score work nicely in tandem to raise the level of suspense. The command that Chaganty has over all facets of filmmaking to serve a common purpose is impressive. If you’re a fan of slick, intelligent, and sneaky fun thrillers, and why wouldn’t you, then seek out Run (not to be confused with the TV series of the same name on HBO in 2020). It’s well honed, well developed, and smartly constructed to deliver enjoyable thrills and payoffs for viewers. It might not have more on its mind than entertainment but that’s fine when the movie is this well done.
9) Sound of Metal
I don’t think I’ve better empathized with hearing loss and deafness than with Sound of Metal, a moving and observant drama about a heavy metal drummer quickly losing his sense of hearing. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) plays Ruben, a former junkie who is four years sober and attending a treatment center meant to cater to a deaf community and transition others into this community. The movie is at its best during its quiet and contemplative moments where we empathize with the terror and alienation of Ruben. The sound design is exceptionally utilized to illustrate Ruben’s changing perspective. The movie is exquisitely thoughtful and considerate while maintaining a subtle, character-driven approach that keeps things from wallowing in self-pity. For many of the deaf, hearing loss isn’t seen as a disability but a community with its own culture and quality of life. It’s understandable that Ruben is focused on loss but the movie doesn’t dwell in loss, more so transformation and acceptance. Ahmed is fabulous in the lead role which requires him to rely primarily upon non-verbal expression for extended periods. His eyes are his best vessel for communicating Ruben’s emotional state, and Ahmed is sensational. Paul Raci is also great as the leader of the treatment center and the responsibility and generosity he feels to those in his care. Sound of Metal is an immersive, sensitive, authentic and poignant drama with an Oscar-caliber lead performance and a depth of compassion for the many people of the deaf community.
8) Dick Johnson is Dead
Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man. Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
I already know the idea of watching a Romanian documentary is going to be a challenge for many, and that’s before I mention its core subject of government reforms, but this really is one of the best films of the year and worth your valuable time. Collective is an inspiring, crushing, and compelling document of corruption, incompetence, and the difficulty of trying to turn around a system too content on not doing more. The journalistic access is stunning and the movie is quietly powerful as we follow diligent politicians and reporters putting in the hard work of trying to make a difference and expose rampant maleficence. The filmmaking is very forceful without being strident, very political without being preachy, and it’s always moving forward even when it’s constantly looking at the faults of the past. Collective is a movie everyone should watch if they want to become a journalist or work in government, and it should be on a shortlist of 2020 films to see for everyone else too.
6) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career. While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.
5) The Invisible Man
Leigh Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age.
4) Da 5 Bloods
Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods is a great movie and invigorating reaffirmation that when Spike Lee really gives a damn he is one of our most essential filmmakers, even after 30-plus years in the director’s chair. The movie is packed with rich detail and character moments, little things to keep you thinking, and a blending of tones and texts that invites further analytical examination. The movie is about war and its representations in movies, as evidenced from those flashbacks, and then Da 5 Bloods becomes its own war movie. When the violence happens for real, it’s played differently than how it appears through the gung-hp flashbacks. It’s grislier, uglier, and hits you in the stomach. It’s not the rah-rah moments to celebrate in jingoistic fashion. Da 5 Bloods is an action flick that has much more on its mind, looking to the past, present, and a better future. At its core, it’s a story of friendship and legacy, and the actors are a great pleasure to watch grouse and weep and laugh together. Even at a taxing 154 minutes, I was happy to spend the extra minutes with these men and better understand them and their pain and their relationships.
3) Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective. Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”
2) Palm Springs
Palm Springs is a great detox of movie, with enough sunny comedy and winning romance to make you smile and enough tortured existential drama to provide substance. For as rightfully beloved as Groundhog Day is, there’s nothing that comes close to feeling like an emotional gut punch. With Palm Springs, the time loop is given its sci-fi examination, the comedy is given is full exploration, but it’s the characters that matter most, and director Max Barbakow prioritizes the right feelings at the right times. By the end, you feel sweetly fulfilled by these 90 charming minutes. There are so many wonderful little payoffs, little running gags, and larger payoffs to be had with the time loop formula. It also hooks an audience by watching a character fail, and fail, and fail, only to succeed. Palm Springs is a romantic comedy that can be funny, romantic, and make me care. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are terrific together and genuinely seem to enjoy one another. They have a combustible spark to them that reminded me of older screwball comedies. Everyone involved, from the writer to the director to the cast, is having a blast and it’s fun to join in the good times. When it comes to time loop cinema, Palm Springs is a respite of entertainment and smartly developed and richly realized execution.
And the best film of 2020 is…..
Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.
Honorable mention: Trial of the Chicago 7, The Wretched, An American Pickle
10) The Tax Collector
If you had told me that The Tax Collector was a parody of writer David Ayer’s hyper masculine, lurid, crime-ridden jaunts into the slums, police stations, and domestic lives of criminals, I would have completely believed you. We’ve been here before, with Ayer’s End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times, Dark Blue, Training Day, even the fantasy-mingled Bright looked like an Ayer battleground of gangs, crooked cops, hypocritical politicians, and godly family men who someone can justify the heinous acts of violence they do. This time Ayer is following a pair of gangsters that make their monthly rounds to collect their dues from the other gangs. These guys are not interesting and more place setters for more compelling characters to be developed in later drafts that never took place. There’s a paucity of thrills and action and general tension to be had here. It’s shoddily paced. The Tax Collector feels more like an old, incomplete screenplay Ayer had locked away in a drawer, a rough collection of his bombastic machismo crime thriller tropes that barely tops 80 minutes. The Tax Collector is awash in the same grimy gangland stereotypes that have populated most of Ayer’s professional work, but rarely has his moral ambiguity, nihilism, and envelope-pushing “rawness” felt more like self-parody. This is a thriller bled dry.
9) Artemis Fowl
Artemis Fowl is a bad movie and oddly, perhaps even to its credit, seems confident about being a bad movie. Why else impose such a terrible speaking voice for Dame Judi Dench? It’s reminiscent of that mid-2000s period where every studio was chasing their own Harry Potter and snatching whatever Y.A. Chosen One fantasy adventure I.P. they could find. you’re going to drop me in a new world, you better make it interesting and worthy of further exploration, and Artemis Fowl doesn’t do this whatsoever. I was not charmed by any of these characters nor did I find them remotely interesting. The plotting of Artemis Fowl is strangely unimaginative because it’s just one group trying to get inside after another, and ultimately once the location of the magic McGuffin is revealed, it makes even more plot feel lazy. It’s the kind of story that seems to just been importing elements from other derivative sources, becoming a derivation from a derivation, a copy of a copy, and losing any sense of identity. Disney was right to banish this.
8) The Witches
Rare is the Hollywood movie where the biggest question afterwards is simply, “What in the world were all these talented people thinking?” Why did Robert Zemeckis want to remake The Witches after a perfectly good and eerie 1990 movie starring Anjelica Huston? Why did the screenplay adjust the action to be set during a segregationist South without any added social commentary? What exactly is Anne Hathaway, as the lead witch, even doing with an accent that sounds like she’s blindly jumping from nationality to nationality? In one second she’s Hungarian, in another she’s Scottish, in another she’s Swedish. How could a screenplay, that includes the likes of Oscar-winner Guilermo del Toro, include lines like, “That’s the thing about snow — it’s slippery”? I was groaning throughout this movie and just beside myself trying to make sense of the inexplicable creative decision-making on display. I also felt embarrassed for Hathaway, an actress I have enjoyed and find to be quite accomplished, who is just inhaling every piece of scenery that is not bolted down on set. It’s such a crazily misconceived performance of theatrical bombast that I felt like Zemeckis had done Hathaway wrong. This is a big hot mess of a movie and it’s so joyless.
7) The Last Days of American Crime
Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.
6) Worst. Christmas. Ever.
Worst. Christmas. Ever. was a difficult movie for me to watch. Even at little over an hour, I struggled to keep my attention and I rarely laughed. More often I was befuddled at the sloppy attempts at comedy that too often settled on shock value and bad taste because it couldn’t be bothered to actually think about jokes. There’s a difference where poop is a funny joke and when it’s just gross, and this movie doesn’t quite comprehend that distinction. Frankly, there just isn’t enough going on here to merit your time. his brings me to the fact that this 80-minute movie is really only a scant 63 minutes long. The end credits begin shortly after the one-hour mark and from there we’re treated to short additional scenes for resolution and then bloopers and then an extended music video of our rapping Santa. From a comedy standpoint, there’s little to leave you satisfied. I laughed more from Killer Raccoons 2. From a character standpoint, there are weirdos who get their individual scenes but the main character’s unplanned pregnancy feels like an afterthought for how little it pushes the other characters. Imagine Juno if nobody paid attention to Juno’s pregnancy. From a production standpoint, there are definitely limitations given the lower budget and the wintry Midwestern climate but this doesn’t lead to necessary creative ingenuity. I saw more than a few not great Ohio indies this year but limited only ons spot on my Worst Ten list to them. This is the one. Worst. Christmas. Ever. peaks at its poster.
5) The Wrong Missy
This isn’t just an obnoxious comedy but an aggressively obnoxious comedy, one that wants to push the envelope with edgy situations and crazy characters but instead just wholly depresses. It dials the Missy character up into a horrifying cartoon psychopath that nobody would want to send a second with, and then it tries to say we should fall in love with her like David Spade’s character eventually does for some inexplicable reason beyond Stockholm syndrome. Much of the humor is just patently gross. I expect a sex comedy to feature bad taste but it’s another matter when the movie feels like it’s trying to so hard to make you uncomfortable, and failing that, The Wrong Missy will just resort to being obnoxious and loud. Lauren Lapkus deserves better and a real star-making vehicle for her to display her physical comedy talents. The Wrong Missy is wrong in about every way a comedy can go and it’s, easily, one of the worst films of 2020.
4) 365 Days
I never thought I would say these words but I am now reconsidering the artistic merits of the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, and that’s because 365 Days is an even more problematic and pathetic imitation of something that was already problematic and pathetic. 365 Days seems inordinately confused about the simple concepts of consent and romance. Massimo is meant to seem gentlemanly when he says he’ll allow Laura to come to her own conclusions; he’s just so confidant in his charms. If that was simply the case, he wouldn’t need to kidnap and imprison her. He could try introducing himself and dating her. 365 Days is two hours of rearing back in your seat wincing and groaning. While the cinematography is lush and the locations in Italy are idyllic, there is nothing sexy about this movie whatsoever. That’s because it’s built on a reprehensibly flawed premise of romance that doesn’t remotely understand consent. At no point does Laura really have an actual choice here. She is a prisoner who falls in love (or so she says) with her abuser. The fundamental draw of an onscreen romance, the desire to see people together, is absent with this twisted power dynamic. This is bad. All the way bad. Please don’t even spend one solitary day of your life, even during a pandemic, on 365 Days.
3) The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson
As soon as I read about the director of The Haunting of Sharon Tate’s follow-up movie, I knew it was destined for a spot on my worst of 2020 list. The very nature of its premise alleviates the guilt from Nicole’s abusive, controlling husband. Oh sure, the movie still says O.J. is dangerous and jealous and protected by his personal relationships with many of the local law enforcement, but this is mitigated by the very act of using O.J.’s own half-baked alibi assertion from the infamous cash-grab hypothetical literary tome, “If I Did It.” The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson might not be as offensively bad as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, but even that declaration is not exculpatory. There is no thought put into any part of this movie outside of its outrageous premise. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson wants to position its lead heroine as a tragic figure, but she was already a tragic figure, and it definitely doesn’t earn the artistic right to play Nicole’s real-life 911 calls where she frantically begs for help from her enraged husband. You don’t get to present a feature film that says O.J. didn’t do it and then play her real 911 calls of abuse from O.J. It’s a stark reminder of the resolute bad faith of the people involved in this lousy production. Beware famous dead celebrities, because even the grave can’t protect you from director Daniel Farrand’s gross revisionism for profit.
2) Trump Card
After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.
And the worst film of 2020 is….
Someone did it. Someone finally dethroned D’Souza from his bi-annual perch atop my worst of the year lists. I was left dumbstruck by the level of incompetence over the course of 89 ponderous minutes of awful. This goes beyond Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen into downright Ed Woodian territory of ineptitude. I couldn’t turn away because I was trying to simply process everything I was seeing onscreen, to boldly attempt to understand so many choices made by Glenn Danzig as a filmmaker and storyteller. Even as a low-budget sleazy exploitation film, Verotika cannot even succeed by that metric. The gore effects are few and far between and Danzig likes to linger over what he can get. If he bought the makeup for one girl to be skinned faceless, you’re going to see that effect a dozen times. With every conceivable level of filmmaking and storytelling, Verotika shows that Danzig is not remotely ready for the big screen. The paltry story is kept at premise-level, there’s a decided lack of characterization and stakes and intrigue, lots of repetition, and shaky direction that leaves actors astray with over-extended scenes. Even as an exploitation movie, you will be sorely disappointed. As a hopeful heir apparent to the so-bad-it’s-good club, Verotika is not the next The Room. Not even close. It’s bad and inept and boring and flabbergasting but it lacks the bewildering appeal of the best of the so-bad-it’s-good crew. It lacks a sense of sincerity. I doubt Danzig thought he was making great art or even something cool. It feels like he took a music video concept and bloated it to bursting. Danzig actually has another movie scheduled for release in 2021, Death Rider in the House of Vampires, starring Devon Sawa, Julian Sands, and Danny Trejo. I can only hope he’s learned from this baptism by fire (and blood).
Dishonorable mention: Brahms: The Boy II, Like a Boss, Fatale, Hillbilly Elegy
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: She Dies Tomorrow, The Vast of Night, You Should Have Left, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Miss Juneteenth, Promising Young Woman
Worst titles of the year: Guns Akimbo, Project Power, Secret Society of Second Born Royals, The Rhythm Section
Titles that could be confused with porn: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Verotika, No Man’s Land, Come Play, An American Pickle
Biggest Disappointment of 2020: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. To be fair, there were few movies with as much hope riding on them as Nolan’s backwards-time spy thriller, which was supposed to save theaters at the close of the pandemic summer. It didn’t turn out that way, and I truly believe if more people had seen this headache of a movie upon its initial release, the consensus would have been immediate. This was not a fun movie. I had to go back over past year-end wrap-ups, and lo and behold Nolan’s last three movies have won this same exact prize (2014 for Interstellar and 2017 for Dunkirk). Maybe I should stop getting my hopes too high for the next Nolan cinematic experience.
Runners-up: Jon Stewart returns to political satire and it’s so toothless and dated, Irresistible; Charlie Kaufman’s first notable miss for me with I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The “Roma/The Irishman” Award For Netflix Disappointing Oscar Contender: Mank
About-Face Casting That Worked: Kevin James as a neo-Nazi heavy in Becky, Kristen Stewart as a badass in Underwater, Carey Mulligan as vigilante in Promising Young Woman
The Best 10 Minutes of 2020: Chadwick Boseman’s hypnotizing monologues from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Just wow.
Runners-up: the taut opening to The Invisible Man; the dread-fueled tragic conclusion of The Lodge; “Catch ya down the road,” in Nomadland
The Last Movie I Saw in a Theater: It was in mid-March, and it was my second viewing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. At least it was a great one. I miss you, movie theaters. This is the longest I’ve gone in my adult life without being in a theater.
Fun Puzzles: Black Bear, Antebellum, The Lodge
Irritating Puzzles: I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Midnight Sky, The Beach House
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2020: This category seems especially cruel considering my limited opportunity with only the first three months of the year in play. I’ll go sentimental and say it was while watching Jojo Rabbit for the second time in theaters after its Oscar nominations because I spent the entire time working up the courage to hold my date’s hand, which she kindly accepted. Also, the movie improved for me upon that second viewing and some of my earlier faults faded away. Maybe it was the hand.
Not Worth the $30: Disney’s live-action and COVID-delayed Mulan. Sorry. After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed.
Surprise of 2020: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club.
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2020: Verotika’s final segment is the most pointless of them all and feels like it should be visual accompaniment for talking heads on a History Channel special about Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious sixteenth century Hungarian noble who would bathe in the blood of virgins to stay young and vibrant. “Drukija Contessa of Blood” stars Alice Tate as a woman who rubs blood on her face and body. That is literally the plot for thirty minutes. She slices some helpless women’s necks. She luxuriates in a bath. She rides a horse. She decapitates a runaway. She eats a woman’s heart while that victim inexplicably still writhes in agony well after the fact. There isn’t even the faintest hint of a plot here or characters. You would think we would follow one of the imprisoned women as she plots an escape. We watch Drukija stare into a mirror and make poses for several minutes. We watch Drukija sit in her creepy skeleton-lined bathtub for several minutes. The cruelty just becomes boring and as gratuitous as any other unfortunate moment in this unfortunate movie. The whole segment feels like watching a bored model on a cosplay photo shoot.
Runners-up: spending 78 minutes before getting to the It’s a Wonderful Life concept, The Wager; Tom Hardy crapping himself THREE times in Josh Trank’s “comeback vehicle,” Capone
Worst Excuse to Get a Full Chest Tattoo: The Tax Collector. Apparently Shia LaBeouf got a full-sized chest tattoo to play a gangster character that is never seen shirtless. Something tells me he used this movie as an excuse to get this tattoo, a constant reminder of this not-great movie.
Not So Happy Award: The problem with Happiest Season, a gay rom-com where the girlfriends have to pretend to not be girlfriends under the parents’ roof, is that everyone is a big jerk. Harper’s parents are jerks. Why would it be such a big deal for a conservative politician’s daughter to be gay… in 2020? Hell, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter and he’s done okay for himself. Why would Harper want her girlfriend to spend upwards of five days with these awful people and under the guise of having to hide who she is and their relationship? I think it’s because Harper is also a jerk. She dismisses Abby’s feelings and misgivings, ditches her to hang out with an old boyfriend, and doesn’t seem to recognize how uncomfortable any of this is making the woman she reportedly loves. And then it’s revealed that Harper outed her high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) and said she was obsessed with her in an effort to not be seen as gay when she was younger. That’s not endearing. This person doesn’t deserve Abby, and that’s the problem because when the happy ending and sweet kisses fortuitously come, I wasn’t feeling joy but contempt. I kept yelling for Abby to leave this family to their own miserable devices.
Ohio Indies Reviewed in 2020: The Street Where We Live, Contained, Minus One, Mock & Roll, Alan and the Fullness of Time, The Wager, Killer Raccoons 2, The Incredible Jake Parker, Moondance, Worst. Christmas. Ever., Evil Takes Root, and The Right to Remain. Let’s keep ‘em coming, Ohio.
Best Movie I Saw in 2020 (That Wasn’t Released in 2020): Hamilton. This may be a bit of a cheat considering it’s a filmed version of the stage musical from 2016. While I graded the near-three-hour production an A (and it is everything people have hyped it to be and more) I felt like I couldn’t qualify it for most awards because, at its core, it’s a recorded stage musical and not so much a new movie.
Not Worth the Three-Year Wait: At long last, The New Mutants was finally released. It’s a middling super hero movie with flashes of potential, especially when it could have been something so different and new than any of the previous X-Men flicks. The movie is so easily predictable that I’m shocked more effort wasn’t put into its scary set pieces to better compensate. There are more twisted accents in the movie than genuine twists and genuine scares (your ears may bleed). It’s barely 85 minutes long and you feel like it’s gasping for breath by even that modest run. It never quite feels like the concept of a horror movie set with super heroes was ever really well imagined. If this is the actual preferred version Josh Boone always had in mind, it still manages to feel incomplete and underwhelming in execution. It’s not exactly a good comic book movie, or a good horror movie, or even a good movie. Thus ends The X-Men. Rest in peace.
Runner’s-up: the many, many deaths of Andy Samberg (“I just want to beat the traffic”) in Palm Springs; charnel house vengeance in Antebellum; grenade down the pants in The Hunt
Best Villain of 2020: Ranger Danger in Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Night of the Dark. Yeah, I said it. This otherwise far too specific and ironic parody of Under Siege 2 is saved by the performance of Mitch Rose as its eyepatch-adorn villain. Ranger Danger is a twangy hoot chiefly because of the comic timing and impressive gusto of debut actor Rose. He takes okay jokes and adds such professional polish that got me to laugh out loud (“A gazillion dollars?” “I just… look, I made up a number”). Several of his line deliveries are pure wonders (everything about the golden VHS tape he so reveres), and Rose is the kind of capable comic actor that could be the anchor of a bigger vehicle. Somebody get this man more work in the funny industry, pronto.
Runner’s-up: Frank Langella’s ethically challenged judge in Trial of the Chicago 7; the monstrously unhelpful HR rep in The Assistant; Samara Weaving in Guns Akimbo
The Cuties Controversy: Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen). It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2020: “This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.” –Ammonite
Runner’s-up: “I think the filmmakers were going for a combination of an indie Christian YA character and their own version of a Jason Bourne spy thriller (you better believe I’m trademarking the term “Jesus Bourne” for future franchises).” –Alan and the Fullness of Time
“The title is apt because I was thinking of ending things myself after an hour of this movie.” –I’m Thinking of Ending Things
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies listed below.
Da 5 Bloods
Dick Johnson is Dead
The Invisible Man
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Promising Young Woman
An American Pickle
I’m Your Woman
Love and Monsters
One Night in Miami
Sound of Metal
Totally Under Control
Trial of the Chicago 7
Bill and Ted Face the Music
Birds of Prey
Color Out of Space
Feels Good Man
Gretel & Hansel
The King of Staten Island
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The Vast of Night
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm
News of the World
On the Rocks
The Right to Remain
Sonic the Hedgehog
Vampires vs. Brooklyn
The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Class Action Park
Evil Takes Root
The Incredible Jake Parker
The Midnight Sky
The One and Only Ivan
Pieces of a Woman
She Dies Tomorrow
The Way Back
The Beach House
The Craft: Legacy
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I Still Believe
Killer Raccoons 2: Christmas in the Dark
The New Mutants
The Old Guard
The Rhythm Section
Shadow in the Cloud
Alan and the Fullness of Time
Brahms: The Boy II
Like a Boss
The Tax Collector
The Last Days of American Crime
The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson
Worst. Christmas. Ever.
The Wrong Missy