I saw one film in the theater in 2020 and it was the great 2019 French language film “Portrait of a Lady On Fire.” I miss the quiet, put-your-phone-in-your-pocket, freedom of sitting in a dark room in front of a massive screen without any interruptions. Fifteen years ago, going a year without seeing a movie in the theater would have been impossible during the age before steaming, but luckily we find ourself in this golden age where almost everything is available through wifi and the major services are slogging it out making studio quality films for viewing at home. This past year, I watched a lot more TV than film for the first time ever. This is a shorter than usual list, but it is all very accessible and critical viewing.
- Small Axe: – Dir. Steve McQueen (Gary Beadle, John Boyega, Sharlene Whyte)
There was no film project as ambitious and politically relevant as this five film series all set in and around London in the 1980’s. Each story focuses on some aspect of the extreme racial divide that existed between the largely immigrant Carribean population and racist white policeman. Each film looks and feels as authentic as anything I saw this year. The costume design, with the brown-beige tint ages it perfectly, dropping you directly right into the heart of shabby, dreary 1980’s London.
The best of the series is the sublime “Lover’s Dance” which is essentially one long groove at a stony DJ’d house party, where the music just oozes like some sort of primal energy through the bodies and minds of the hipsters moving through the smoky haze of the night. “Mangrove” tells the story of a Jamacian restaurant that becomes the center for black activism and becomes a target for relentless police harassment. “Education” continues on the theme of racial tension that exists on the police force when a young well intentioned black man abandons his science education to help make his community safer and more equitable. This collection is a truly profound project both in terms of scope and theme, and should be required viewing for everyone.
- Sound of Metal – Dir. Darius Marder (Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke)
In a year where I saw exactly one film in the theater, “Sound of Metal” was the most timely reminder I can imagine to remind me of why I love movies so much. It is a story about love, loss (of all kinds) and the importance of struggle to reach any sort of lasting inner peace. Riz Ahmed (Ruben Stone) continues to establish his place as one of the finest and most serious actors of his generation. This time he plays a hardcore drummer who suddenly loses his hearing while scraping out a bohemian existence with his girlfriend and bandmate played by a wonderful Olivia Cooke.
Much of the film focuses on Ruben’s excruciating struggle to come to terms with the end of the only life he seemed capable of pursuing. The rugged middle of the film takes place at a rustic recovery center for deaf addicts learning to face a new reality, which adds a kind of naturalistic mirror to the substance of the story. This is a bleak and somber affair, but beautiful in its ability to reveal the pain of the past through the many small details that eliminate the need for a backstory: cutting scars, needle marks and the ever present sadness buried beneath the eyes. The metaphor for the loss of senses, is more a reminder that life is filled with opportunities to evolve and to appreciate those moments where we can be still and be one with the ephemeral moments that define life. In many ways this is the perfect movie for these times, because, as we know, things will never quite be the same again.
- Promising Young Woman – Dir. Emerald Fennell (Carey Mulligan, Alison Brie)
Carey Mulligan delivers one of the fiercest leading actress performances of the year as a med school dropout dead set on a twisted revenge on behalf of an old friend. She is too complicated to ever really understand, but she owns every scene with a toss of the hair and a smile that covers up a sadness that has eaten her heart and ambition.
By day she works in a spartenly hip coffee shop delivering coffee with a healthy dose of cynical apathy with looks that could kill. At night she trolls bars feigning drunkenness only to miraculously sober up and hold a mirror to potential molestors to their malicious intent. The first two acts flow like a river of elegantly produced indie cinema before becoming decidedly darker towards an unexpected climax. No film was as deviously fun as this one.
- First Cow – Dir. Kelley Reichardt (Orion Lee, John Magaro)
Director Kelley Reichardt makes films that move slowly, and usually marry the rustic beauty of the natural world with the inner struggle of her characters. This time out she drops us into 1820 Oregon, a stark and brutal place where trappers and outlaws meander through small outposts struggling to survive on the edge of civilization.
This story tells of the unlikely friendship between a Chinese immigrant and a baker who set up shop making the best pastries in the region by stealing milk from the only cow in a small beaver trapping outpost. Beyond that basic plotline, “First Cow” is really about friendship, and the tenuous relationship between all the people who find themselves living off the land: English, Native Americans, Chinese, Russians, and white Americans looking for a ticket to a better life. This is a patient and pure meditation about a time before industrialization when America was figuring out what it would become in the new frontier.
- Palm Springs – Dir. Andy Siara (Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti)
In an age without theaters and with indie films dying a slow death to serial television and Covid, along comes a hipster Groundhog day. This is the kind of quirky rom com that seems a product of the “Little Miss Sunshine” era of Sundance more than it does the Summer of 2020. Samberg has never been more consistently funnier and like a much less understated Sandler. He wears his hipster cred like a Coachella lifer both at peace with the in between but also stuck like a frustrated rat in a maze.
There is a kind of breezy optimism that flows through each scene with the lovely Cristin Milioti lighting up the screen as much as any actress this year. It seems like we’re all just living in a Netflix world, but Hulu is really starting to own a slightly edgier territory off to the left. Watching this film makes me long for all the things I used to do before we ended up in what seems like a real life Groundhog year. Long live indie films.
- The Bee Gees: How To Mend A Broken Heart – Dir. Frank Marshall (Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Andy Gibb)
They weren’t always about disco. In fact for the first 20 years of their career, the Aussie brotherhood sounded more like the Beatles than the Studio 54 posterboys they eventually came to represent. Most rockumentaries tend to tell a story with a well known arc and ending, but the beauty of Frank Marshall’s poignant and pitch perfect chronicling of familial dissension and perpetual reinvention focused largely around the origins and early ascent and failures of the band.
By the time this film was made, all but the brother Barry was still alive. “How To Mend A Broken Heart” showcases the band’s relentless drive and endless talent that kept them in the game for over four decades. This could have been a story just about the “Saturday Night Fever” Disco revolution they became synonymous with, but this is more a story about four brothers and their careers that was as long and varied as almost any artists in modern times.
- Tenet – Dir. Christopher Nolan (John David-Washington, Robert Pattison)
No one makes films as beautiful, complicated and easy to get totally lost in than Christopher Nolan. “Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “1917” pushed every boundary in filmmaking and raised the intellectual bar in modern popular cinema. “Tenet” will be remembered as the first serious potential blockbuster to have its wings clipped by Covid. But even if it had made it to the screens before the shutdown, it’s questionable whether mainstream audiences would have enjoyed the maddeningly disorienting plot line.
To that end, any synopsis I might attempt to review would likely be off in many ways because I found myself barely clinging on to the plot. This sci-fi espionage tale runs right into a wall of quantum physics with a new twist on the space time continuum. As this all-star cast travels into the future to help the destruction of the past, nothing is as it seems, and Nolan’s frenetic and polished craftsmanship makes getting lost enjoyable enough. Over time I’d imagine this becomes a classic but it deserves a massive screen and your undivided attention.
- The Go-Go’s – Dir. Alison Ellwood (The Go-Go’s)
The Go-Go’s were the first all girl band to write and play on a number one album. What you probably didn’t know is how punk rock they were at the start. Not wannabe punks, but the real deal LA riot girls, long before that scene even existed. After slogging it for a few years, the band struck gold opening for the Specials and Madness in Europe, after which the band shot out of a cannon turning pop in mid air, but in a credible kind of way that defined the early 80’s.
Like every good rock story, there were plenty of drugs, lots of interpersonal drama and songs that still stand the test of time. Admittedly I’m a sucker for any rock-doc featuring a band that I love, or at least used to, but the The Go-Go’s were that band that hit me just when my tastes were turning to the god stuff. After all, good taste is objective! It’s so good to hear these songs again in a time when the ‘old days’ seem so far away.
- The King of Staten Island – Dir. Judd Apatow (Pete Davidson, Bel Powley)
I’m not sure I think Pete Davidson is ‘funny,’ at least not this time out. That said, he is a compelling enough character here, especially playing a semi-autobiographical version of himself floundering through his early 20’s with only the slimmest of ambitions. Although there is nothing particularly creative about the story here, heartbreaking perhaps, it’s a rather glumly entertaining film in a theatrical desert.
But like most Apatow films, he is still the best assembler of talent of my generation. This time we get stellar performances by Marissa Tomei, Bill Burr, and Bel Powley. For a rom-com-coming-of-age affair a 2:16 run feels long at times, but once the dust settles, there is much humanity here. Staten Island looks beautiful in every shot, bathing in its dumpy glory just a ferry ride away from all sorts of big dreams.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Dir. Eliza Hittman (Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder)
This bleak and hyper-real coming of age tale about teenage pregnancy feels like a remnant from a distant past, when festivals like Sundance created a market for sparse character driven stories that could actually be released and seen in art theaters. As the two young women protagonists wander around the city broke and toting a massive suitcase, this adventure plays out in slow motion.
With music and a cameo from Sharon Van Etten, and two star making performances from the young actresses who journey from Pennsylvania to New York City to get the procedure, the film is the perfect sized story for this age old dilemma.
- Soul – Dir. Kemp Powers and Pete Docter (Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett)
It’s been a while since I loved a Pixar film, but this one hit me right where it matters. It is loosely about a jazz musician who gets caught in the nether world between life and death right after getting his big break playing piano with a famous Saxophonist. This strange world is filled with adorable creatures who are actually souls waiting to get assigned personalities. It’s a bizarre but curious idea that makes you wonder and draws you deeply into this curious world of ideas.
Of course like all Pixar films, this main plotline is really just a vehicle to tell another story which, in this case, is about understanding that life isn’t about the singular pursuit of the one thing, but more the simple pleasures that exist everyday on that journey. Somehow when this lesson is illustrated by illustrations it makes everything both obvious and achievable in a way that real life just doesn’t.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Dir. Aaron Sorkin (Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen)
Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin and his rapid fire writing and politically leaning filmmaking, but this under appreciated story that seems particularly prescient these days with all of the unsolved race issues and general hate based dysfunction we have been living through. Packed with an incredible cast of actors who make what would have been a dry court procedural, “The Trial” is a fast moving film that highlights yet another low light in the history of racial activism.
Sacha Baron Cohen is incredible as the freewheeling Abbie Hoffman who spars comically with the inept and unrelated judge Julius Hoffman played by Frank Langela. As a period piece Chicago looks and feels like it did in 1968, and as we move mercifully into a new era of humanistic government this film couldn’t come at a better time.
- Da 5 Bloods – Dir. Spike Lee (Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo)
Spike Lee does a lot of things in this Vietnam buddy film that shouldn’t work. The aging characters play themselves 50 years earlier, looking for a missing treasure that is absurdly easy to find after 50 years, and the crew seems to be carrying a laughable small amount of water for jungle travel.
This is both a classic Lee film in that it brings racial politics, adventure and a stellar crew of character actors who share the screen equally. That said there is a looseness to the filmmaking that smooths over the rough edges and allows for one of his best films in a decade.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Dir. Charlie Kaufman (Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley)
Charlie Kaufman’s films alternate between the incredible (Being John Malkovich) to the frustrating (Synecdoche, New York). This time out he has made a kind of satisfying compromise where the storyline isn’t exactly linear, but there is enough to hold your interest as you bathe in the otherworldly cinematography and bizarre mental gymnastics he puts you through.
Two college students drive through a blistering snow storm to meet two odd parents living in a remote farmhouse. They seem neither well suited nor particularly close, but the real question is whether it is really their story or one imagined by a different minor character. None of this ever becomes clear, but by the end we realize that time, space and memories play weird tricks that perhaps we’ll never really ever understand. I barely did, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
A few more that are very worthy …
- The Assistant – Dir. Kitty Green (Julia Garner, Alexander Chaplin) In this slow boiling look at what life as a Hollywood assistant to a Weinstein-esque abusive creature is depressing and stark but feels ripped from the pages of a real life script.
- The Invisible Man – Dir. Leigh Wannell (Elisabeth Moss, Harriet Dyer) This is a just scary enough psychological thriller driven by the frenetic energy of Moss trying to unravel the death of her abusive ex.
- The Vast of Night – Dir. Andrew Patterson (Sierra McCormack, Jake Horowitz) This is a perfectly retro low budget 1950’s sci-fi romp about a DJ who finds a strange frequency that changes everything, ripping a page from a young Spielberg.
- David Bryne’s Utopia – Dir Spike Lee. There is almost no ‘alternative’ artist who has managed to remain as vibrant, creative and unique for as long as Bryne, and although the film version couldn’t possibly hold a flame to what happens live, Spike Lee has managed to capture the magic.
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Dir. Bill and Turner Ross … Community is a human instinct. Although it’s hard to imagine how watching a bunch of drinkers chatting deep into their perennial buzz would be as compelling, but this is pure genius.
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Dir. George Wolfe (Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis) This film just taps into the raw nasty beauty of jazz and the characters that made music beyond the music.