Director: Shaka King Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen Screenplay: Shaka King 126 mins. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.
Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya) [PENDING]
Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Lakeith Stanfield) [PENDING]
Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Fight For You” [PENDING]
Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [PENDING]
Judas and the Black Messiah, according to the Academy, doesn’t have a lead actor. Both Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) received nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So who is the lead for Judas and the Black Messiah? Let’s break it down.
The follows Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal-turned-informant for the FBI, as he infiltrates the Black Panthers and becomes acquainted with Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the passionate and charismatic leader. Along the way, lines start blurring between Bill’s alliance to the FBI and his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and the Hampton’s quest for equality and freedom from impression in the highly divisive 1960s.
The first element of Judas that struck me was the cinematography. This is an excellently-shot piece of cinema. Starting with Bill’s criminal activity at the film’s start, this camera is commanding the screen, almost a character of its own. Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) has a true handling of the action set pieces, and he knows when to let his powerhouse performers have the spotlight.
Kaluuya and Stanfield are electrifying as Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya’s is the more flashy of the two performances as Hampton, who is presented with a silver tongue for unity and a restrained fire to protecting his people, both within the Black Panthers, and for Black Americans across the nation. On the opposite is Stanfield, who is able to access a subtlety in his absolute terror as he stands by Hampton and the rest of the Black Panthers, forced to confront a choice within him that could forever alter the Civil Right Movement. Not knowing a lot of the real story of these two men, I was entranced by the quality of these two performances within the confines of the tension that director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) has constructed.
Let’s be honest here. Stanfield is the lead of the film and Kaluuya is the supporting player. We’re following Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal throughout the narrative, and the decision to push them both for Best Supporting Actor is likely to split the votes and garner neither of them with wins.
It’s shocking to note that this is only the second feature film for Shaka King as a director. King had served as director on a few television series and shorts, and I’m not denigrating those accomplishments, but a show, a short, and a feature film, while being genuinely the same, are very different undertakings. When I watch King’s understanding of character and plot while also being able to give an extra stylistic flair to Judas, I can see how all of that previous work helped and developed the work seen here, but the scale of this particular project is so much larger.
Judas and the Black Messiah was initially envisioned as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)” and that is essentially what we get from a story perspective, but King comes at the material with a totally different and distinguished voice than Martin Scorsese had with The Departed. Judas is blessed with some incredible performances from not just Kaluuya and Stanfield but the entire principal cast, some real lions in the room. King’s film pairs well with another Best Picture nominee in The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Hampton plays a role in both, and it should make an intense and thoughtful film that will captivate your night.
Nominations are officially out for the 93rd annual Academy Awards. This year, it almost didn’t happen, and to be true, as I’ve said before, it’s been a weird year. I’m happy to have the Oscars occurring, even with the adjusted eligibility window making it very confusing as to what is allowed and what isn’t (and I’m sure, next year, it’ll be weirder when we talk snubs only to have forgotten that snubs for next year’s awards may actually have just been nominated this year and we forgot, much like the entire fourth season of Community), but I digress. The Oscars are here, and I’m so happy to have this feeling of normalcy in a very abnormal year.
The pandemic has had a shroud of much of the film community since last year. I recall that the last group party I attended was an Oscar party. There was a lot of us having fun, laughing and yelling at the TV, and we all joined together in praise when Parasite took the top prize.
It all feels like so long ago. I haven’t been in a theater in over a year. I can’t wait to go back to some kind of normal.
And normal is coming. With it, one of my favorite events is gearing up. In fact, the nominees were announced on my birthday, an altogether strange happenstance that likely won’t happen again. So here are the nominees. I’m sure you already know them, but I’ll be using this page to link the reviews that are incoming.
I’m ready to begin the 2021 Oscar death race. It’s a term I heard many years back, referring to the attempt to see every Oscar nominee before the big night. In recent years, I’ve been rather successful, at most missing a short here or there and perhaps a foreign language film that hasn’t reached wide release in the states. If you’d like to join in the Oscar death race this year, feel free to drop the hashtag #2021oscardeathrace so I can see what you’re watching and what you think on these nominees. It’s one of the best times of the year, and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Director: Robin Wright Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir Screenplay: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam 89 mins. Rated PG-13.
The story behind Robin Wright’s directing of Land, her feature directorial debut, came about by a mere scheduling conflict. Wright, who had previously helmed several episodes of House of Cards as well as the short film The Dark of Night, was asked to direct the film when all the pieces had come into play but there was no director, and the film had to be completed with production in 29 days. The entirety of Land was shot in those 29 days with Wright, who appears in every scene, behind the camera as well as in front.
Land is the story of Edee (Wright), a grieving woman who has purchased a plot of land deep in the Wyoming forest. She doesn’t seem particularly skilled at living off the grid, minus a phone and any technology, and when she nearly dies in a snowstorm, she is luckily rescued and brought back to health by Miguel (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight, Chaos Walking), who also lives in the wilderness nearby and has passed her house several times. Edee would much rather be alone, but she’s in no condition to push Miguel away. Miguel instead offers to teach her to successfully hunt, fish, and care for herself in the wild. Edee takes him up on his offer, and she begins to see all the ways that they are more similar than she expected.
Land is a solid debut for Robin Wright as a feature director, but it is not without its faults. The pacing of the narrative holds mostly well for 89 minutes, but this is a case where even 89 minutes feels a little too long. I don’t think the extended periods of Wright all alone on screen consistently maintained my interest. I held this criticism for the Robert Redford film All is Lost, another movie with even less dialogue than Land, but both struggled to keep my focus on the narrative with the lack of visual action onscreen. I never had flat-out signs of boredom, but I found myself checking the time more than once.
The film’s cinematography makes up a lot of ground, though, thanks to some truly striking imagery of the beauty in Wyoming (well, the film was shot in Canada, but we are meant to see Wyoming). The shot composition did a lot to position me in the world with Edee. I felt cold watching the snowy environment and I could almost smell the morning dew on the blades of grass. It’s a wholly arresting bit of scenery that evokes every sense.
I also found Wright’s performance to be quite strong as Edee. I would have liked to peel back the layers of her character earlier on in the narrative. We get a big emotional information dump at the end of the film that would have been more interesting had it shown up earlier than the final ten minutes. We get bits and pieces of her backstory as the film moves along, but we never really get the ability to reconcile with her past and her pain because the movie ends as soon as we get the story that Edee’s been struggling to bury at the very end and therefore the reckoning that we’ve been waiting on never really occurs, though we are meant to believe it has.
Wright plays off of Bichir very well. In fact, so often, Demián Bichir is the secret weapon of any film, as he can do so much with so little. He’s easily the best part of the underwhelming The Grudge from last year, and he even stand out among The Hateful Eight with limited dialogue and screen time. Bichir and Wright have such solid chemistry and they each come at their roles differently, Wright with stoic sadness and Bichir with a limited sense of hope and happiness. The scenes with the two of them onscreen are electrifying.
The only element of the film that flat-out doesn’t work is the invasive and, dare I say, annoying score that invades every scene like an unwelcome intruder. It grates on the ear drums and, though I can sense what it’s trying to do, it never seems to add anything to the film but irritation.
Land has more strengths than weaknesses, and the strong acting from Wright and Bichir as well as an arresting bit of visual delight save an otherwise more forgettable movie. There’s just a lot here that has been done before, and better, but I wouldn’t say that Wright’s feature directorial debut is a bust. It’s a solid little movie for an afternoon matinee, and I would still give it a slight recommendation, if you can handle the score.
Director: Kevin Macdonald Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch Screenplay: Michael Bronner, Sohrab Noshirvani 129 mins. Rated R.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people haven’t heard about Guantanamo Diary or Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I had only heard bits and pieces in passing and had never taken the chance to look into the story of Slahi and his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, but that’s where film can help to cohesively relate the story of a man without freedom in the aftermath of 9/11. Of course, we can’t always rely on film to “teach” us anything; that’s not its most important purpose. We are merely here to be taken away, to experience the world in a different light, and through that lens, The Mauritanian has a lot to show us.
After an opening sequence just months after the terror attacks of 2001, we jump to 2005 and meet Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs, Contact), a defense attorney who is brought in to help with Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, The Kindness of Strangers) and his case, or non-case really. Slahi has been held at Guantanamo Bay for years. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, and yet, he is interrogated for 18 hours a day and treated like a prisoner. He is not allowed contact with his family, and he’s run out of ways to say that he doesn’t have any credible answers to the questions he’s being asked. Now, Hollander has to prove that the United States has no legal rights to hold him, but her quest becomes more complicated as various agencies are unwilling to part with, what they call, classified evidence.
I’m not alone amongst viewers of this film that recognize The Mauritanian’s problematic pacing issue. I don’t think it ruins the film by any stretch, but the film flip-flops between a fast and pulse-pounding movement and an agonizingly slow plotting that damages the second act. In a way, this pacing helps to underline the frustration that Nancy feels in trying to peel back the layers of this mystery, but after a time, it just started losing me. If not for the captivating finale, I don’t know if I would have been as engaged with the film to the extent that I was.
And make no mistake, I think The Mauritanian is quite good. It’s cast is captained by the always-excellent Jodie Foster, a uniquely-talented performer who turns in another impressive role in a way that only she can. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the way Foster acts; she isn’t bombastic or explosive, but there’s a simmering to the way she acts that showcases a lot of storm beneath the calm that she exudes, and her take on Nancy is no exception. The scenes she shares with Rahim are layered and powerful.
Rahim is also getting a lot of attention as Slahi, and though I can’t really recall being aware of him before, he definitely leaves his mark on the character and the film. Rahim has the toughest role in the film. To those of us who don’t know how this story played out in real life, we can’t be honestly certain of his guilt; perhaps he has a dark secret, perhaps he is truly innocent, and a good amount of tension is mined from that question throughout the narrative. Rahim has to play Slahi with a level of humanity that makes us uncertain to trust him as much as he has uncertainty to trust Nancy, and then his performance must make the audience question why they do or do not trust him, and he capably holds his own with a powerhouse like Foster.
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 1917) appears in the film as Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor for Slahi’s eventual trial, and yet again, he confirms that he can do just about any role. His screen time is short, but he provides an interesting antagonistic approach to essentially the same task as Hollander. He’s looking through mountains of evidence, trying to find something that can be linked to Slahi, and he’s doing it with a timer ticking down to a forced trial date.
If there’s a weak link in the main cast, it’s Shailene Woodley (Divergent, Endings, Beginnings), who plays Teri Duncan, associate of Hollander’s who finds that her connection to the case is creating more problems at home. I can’t fault Woodley for her performance, but more because she really isn’t given anything to do that allows her to actually perform, and the one interesting facet about her character is given surface-level screen time and nothing really gets fleshed out. It’s not that her performance, it’s merely that doesn’t need to be there.
The Mauritanian also struggles with its narrative timeline. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Life in a Day 2020) plays with some aspect ratios to highlight the jumping-around-in-time narrative structure, but each time we flashed back, it took me a minute to ascertain where I was in the timeline. This is far too dense a story to make this leaping from time period to time period really work the way Macdonald envisioned it. It also underplayed Rahim’s impressive work by jarring me out of the film for every flashback, most of them surrounding Slahi’s incarceration.
The Mauritanian doesn’t get everything right, but its shining performances make up for a plodding execution and a screenplay that seems, at times, unfocused. With Foster and Rahim at the head, though, we get some truly memorable work from a giant of the business and a rising star. It also has a third act that left me emotionally drained. It’s not the feel-good movie of the year (in fact, its at-times bleak outlook may prove too much for 2021 audiences), but I still think it’s well-worth your time.
Director: Mickey Reece Cast: Mary Buss, Ginger Gilmartin, Ben Hall Screenplay: Mickey Reece, John Selvidge 82 mins. Not Rated.
Recently, I was able to virtually attend the Dark Star Festival, where I was treated to several new and upcoming releases. While I was not fortunate enough to catch all the films that played, I was able to see Climate of the Hunter, a low-budget horror film with a lot of style and a unique filmmaker behind the camera. Today, let’s take a look at this “vampire” film and see if it’s worth hunting down.
Climate of the Hunter is a small story, mainly concerned with two sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Buss, Lord Finn, Camp Cold Brook) and Alma (Ginger Gilmartin, Fingerprints, Hosea) as they meet up at a cabin to reunite with an old friend they’ve not seen for twenty years, Wesley (Ben Hall, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, Adventures of Rufus: The Fantastic Pet). As Elizabeth and Alma each try to gain the romantic interest of Wesley, Alma begins to suspect that he is a vampire.
There’s little new in terms of story for Climate of the Hunter (it almost feels like a mumblecore vampire film in the simplest terms), but the real impact of the film is in its director, Mickey Reece (Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart, Arrows of Outrageous Fortune) and his uncanny ability to present a simple and easily accessible story within the confines of a gorgeously atmospheric dreamscape of a film. Reece has crafted a visually arresting world here that is unlike much of what I’ve seen before, even though the film’s cinematography evokes elements of 1970s horror cinema in its execution. There’s also bits of Napoleon Dynamite-like meal platters and bits of dialogue that seemingly misdirect viewers in the narrative. It’s almost like a hangout movie mixed with gothic horror to great appeal, but it never feels like it’s trying to be smarter than its audience. Though full of dreamlike, striking imagery, it isn’t attempting to go over your head, at least for the most part.
Where the film ultimately stumbles for me is in its climax and closing moments, for I was quite enthralled by most of the story up until that point. I felt like the narrative was driving us somewhere captivating and unusual for its finale, I ended up being quite let down by an easily guessable, underwhelming end that left a sour taste in my mouth, and not in any way that works. It’s an ending that we’ve seen before, and it never seems to work for me. It’s also an ending that leans away from the atmosphere that the whole film has been building to. It’s just all-around a disappointing way to complete a journey like this one. I won’t go as far as to say that it is a bad ending or that it ruined the film. It just lessened the impact of the movie drastically.
Climate of the Hunter works until it doesn’t. Thankfully, it works for the first 90%, and the swift run time allows for a less-than-stellar ending to not fully detract from the overall experience of the film. It also gets my recommendation. It’s a weird, wild, surreal, and memorable movie that makes a hell of a case for its crew. Mickey Reece is a director to keep an eye out for, and Climate of the Hunter is a strong outing, for the most part.
2020 has come to an end, thankfully. Now, we must reckon with the rubble of 2020’s unreleased films and the evolving film landscape that we will be living in through at least the end of the year. Now, we don’t really know what movies are officially coming out this year. Many of the films on this list were supposed to come out last year, and they simply…didn’t. No matter. We will still get excited for what is on the way and celebrate the (possible) films of 2021 that I am clamoring to see. It’s the next best thing to actually seeing them.
Just a couple notes:
-This is my most anticipated, not what I think will be the best films of the year by any stretch. Most of the films that end up on my Top Ten at the end of the year are ones I might not even have heard of at this time.
-There are always a lot of blockbusters on these lists, because these are the films that are most often discussed in the months and sometimes years leading to their release. That’s just the way it works.
NOTE: THIS IS NOT A COUNTDOWN. IT’S JUST A LIST AND THE FILMS ARE LISTED BY THEIR (TENTATIVE) RELEASE DATE.
Well, we’ve waited a year to see some of these. Let’s not wait any further…
Godzilla vs. Kong
-Ugh, I’m so sad that this is coming out before I’ll be vaccinated. I would really rather see this thing on the big screen, but I’ll have to settle for HBO Max. The wacky release off this and other WB films have taken a bit of the wind out of my sails, but these movies will need releases and the studios need to start making money to survive at this point. All the same, I’ve enjoyed all three entries in the MonsterVerse to varying degrees, and the choice to bring in Adam Wingard to direct this cinematic beatdown is a rather interesting one. There is so much setup, specifically from Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters that I can’t wait to see how it all comes together. Here’s hoping that Wingard and WB can pull this off as the MonsterVerse has seen diminishing returns on their cinematic universe and they need a win to keep this thing going.
No Time to Die
-I’m not entirely convinced that this will make the release date, but that doesn’t change my excitement. I don’t think many film fans are really remembering the caliber of talent to this next installment of the James Bond franchise. It’s expected to be the final outing of Daniel Craig, an actor considered in the upper echelon of Bond performers, and it also happens to have the stamp of a director like Cary Fukunaga, director of the entire first season of True Detective. This installment further builds on Spectre (a film I liked while acknowledging its faults) and where this Craig storyline has been building, and that trailer was excellent. I see nothing about this film that makes me nervous, and seeing that the studio has pushed it enough times for a stronger release window tells me that they think it’s pretty special too.
A Quiet Place Part II
-It’s frustrating that there are reviewers and general audience film-goers that have already seen A Quiet Place Part II. I believe I was even invited to a screening of it last March alongside Mulan, and I elected not to go because I was tired and it would be out in a week or to anyway. I have regrets. Still, I’m very excited to eventually see this movie, and this is another that I would rather see on the big screen because I still remember the experience of seeing the original film in a packed theater opening weekend. That extremely quiet theatrical experience was so strange and intense that I want that feeling back, and the idea that the sequel will address events both before and after the original, like a sci-fi/horror Godfather II, is very interesting.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw
-This is where I show my serious bias for horror. The Saw franchise has been incredibly near and dear to my heart since the first film came out, and I’m overjoyed that the franchise is getting started again with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, releasing (as of now) in May. The ninth film in this franchise shouldn’t be getting me as hyped as it is, but with the return of director Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed 3 of the franchise’s sequels) and Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson leading the cast, how could I not be excited? Rock even helped to develop the story for the new film, being a big Saw fan, and the trailer was very interesting and unusual. There’s just so much mystery for me, a die-hard Saw fan, that I cannot wait to get back in a theater to see this one.
F9: The Fast Saga
-Justice for Han! This is another franchise that’s so stupid, and yet, I’m always looking to see what they do next. Each sequel seems to heighten the silliness while maintaining that cheesy emotional beat: FAMILY. Here’s the thing: what these films do, they do well. The entire franchise has become Grindhouse B-movies with a budget, and I continue to consume. The trailer for F9 did exactly what I wanted, psyching me up for a return to this weird group of characters, and this being one of the first pushes of 2020 means that I’ve been waiting extra long for the next installment. Bring it to me!
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
-This sequel has a lot to live up to. The first two Conjuring films are almost certified classics of the horror genre at this point, and while James Wan is no longer directing the third installment (this one is helmed by Michael Chaves of The Curse of La Llorona), I’m still excited to see Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson returning as Lorraine and Ed Warren. Beyond the changes behind the camera, we’re also seeing a very different story in front of it. The first time demonic possession was used as a criminal defense in a court of law. To me, I’m feeling Exorcism of Emily Rose vibes from this one, and I’m hoping for a unique blend of courtroom drama and horror film, something that could prove to be difficult to pull off. I’m praying for this one, and I’m hoping to be able to catch it in a theater.
-The world deserves more Ghostbusters films. I grew up terrified of the ghosts and completely bought into the mythology and the fun characters that brought this franchise to life. I even enjoyed the most recent reboot, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, with the exception that the film completely mishandled its marketing and misused these really stupid cameos from the original stars instead of just being a follow-up sequel. Well, that’s what we are getting with Afterlife. The film is being helmed by Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and the trailer has its own unique tone while seemingly paying homage to what came before. I like the serious take on the action and I like the Stand by Me/Goonies take that is seemingly being placed on our new characters. I think it could be incredible, and I’m very excited to see what we have in store for us here.
–Dune has always been the tough nut to crack for Hollywood. The Jodorowsky version never came to fruition, the Lynch version is strongly considered poor and difficult to access for casual viewers, and the miniseries just hasn’t aged well enough to see now. Here’s the difference between all those previous attempts and the current iteration: Denis Villeneuve has seemingly cracked a few tough nuts in his limited time in Hollywood. He’s successfully directed a sci-fi film that was nominated for Best Picture (Arrival) and he’s crafted a long-gestating sequel to success with a film that rivals the original (Blade Runner 2049). So far, he has a track record for difficult projects, and I have faith that he has crafted yet another interesting new vision. This is, yet again, another film I’m so excited to see but I really don’t want to watch this one at home. Dune, more than any other film this year, feels like a theatrical experience. I know, broken record here, but that’s how I feel and it hasn’t changed since I started writing this. Looking at this whole list, Dune is probably the most exciting film of the year.
-Rounding out this list is the sequel to the reboot of the original 1978 film Halloween. As much as I loathe the naming scheme of this new iteration of the Halloween franchise, I cannot deny that I am very excited to see where David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are taking the story in this two-part finale to the franchise (it’ll be back, but I feel like their notion is true to sticking to a finale). Now that the 2018 film has been done (basically a greatest hits of the various sequels with a much better handle behind the camera), we can move into uncharted territory, and that’s an exciting thing for a horror fan like myself who is unsure of the next time I’ll be seeing Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger on the big screen. Halloween has had so many timelines and permutations, but the original film is still my favorite horror movie of all time, so I’m in this to the end, and then long after.
The Matrix 4
-Wait, there’s one more, and I’m probably more excited for this one than you are! Back in 1999, I was not initially big on The Matrix. In fact, it wasn’t until I revisited the film in 2003 in preparation for the two sequels coming that year that I realized how terrific that original film is. Then, I saw the sequels, and I kid you not, I loved them both more than the original! From there, I became a huge fan of the Wachowskis. Speed Racer is one of my all-time favorite movies. Cloud Atlas is an astoundingly ambitious film that topped my “Best of” list for 2013 films. I even liked Jupiter Ascending (though I will admit that one is a bit of a mess). For me, the Wachowskis are some of my favorite filmmakers currently working, and I’m so excited to see this return to a familiar world that will hopefully have some more surprises in store.
So there you have it. 2021 is a long year, and we can only hope that we see half of these released, but maybe we’ll get more. For now, stay safe, sit back, and enjoy the year in film (in whatever form that takes).
Well, I’m glad that is over. 2020 has come to an end, and with it, we see a very unusual year with a very unusual effect on the film industry. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without setting foot in a theater. The last movie I saw at the cinema was The Invisible Man back in early March. That was before my birthday so I can officially say that I haven’t been to the movie theater at all in my 30s. Geez, this year could not end fast enough. And no, we won’t see theaters immediately come back to the way they were in 2021, but there’s hope. There’s been some serious vaccine development happening. My wife is expecting her second dose of the vaccine next week, and hopefully I’ll be in line soon enough.
One of the biggest differences between our current situation and pandemics and illnesses past, though, is that we have the luxury of many at-home devices and personal entertainment options. In 2020, I watched a ton of movies that I’ve owned for years and haven’t seen yet. I’ve read books and played video games that were on my list. I listened to new music and explored new genres. Money was also tight, though, as many people went without their normal income for months on end. My family unit was pretty concerned about this, so we canceled many of our unneeded services, and I went to watching older movies, classic movies, that I haven’t seen before as opposed to whatever was being dumped on Netflix. All this is a roundabout way of saying that I didn’t see a lot of newer movies this year, so my list won’t be as eclectic as it has in previous seasons, but I’m going to move through it the best I can and give you my thoughts on the best movies I saw last year. Really, though, I missed a lot of films I desperately wanted to see, so you could call this a list of 10 solid movies from last year. When it all shakes out, there may be a completely different set of films that would have made my Top Ten if this year had gone normally.
So, let’s do this the same way we’ve done it before, with a few obligatory stipulations and notes:
-As stated above, I did not see every film that was released in 2020. That would have been an impossibility, even in 2020. I saw as many as I could. Of course, as always, life happens and some films were missed. So if you don’t see something on this list, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t belong. I may just not have see it…yet. That, or it doesn’t belong.
-These are MY personal picks from the options available this year. These are not predictions for the Best Picture nominees of the Academy Awards nor are they undeniably the best films of the year where there is no cause for discussion. In fact, I pray for challenge and discussion. Some films have different placement at the end of the year than they would have based on their initial scoring, and some may have major flaws. Like I’ve said before, enjoyment goes a long way…
Alright, no more fluff, let’s do this thing.
The Way Back
-This is a hard movie to watch, but I think we knew that going in. Ben Affleck, a recovering addict, in a movie, playing an addict. It was a recipe for a rough viewing, but the film comes off tremendously cathartic. It’s hard to call it a sports film because so much of the narrative seems to be focused on Affleck’s performance, but his work is so strong and painful that it stays with you long after the movie ends. My only problem is that the film seems to veer away from his alcoholism in order to give a classic sports film finale that seemed to reckon with his character arc, but other than that, this was an unforgiving character study.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge
-I told you there might be some odd surprises here, and I wasn’t lying. Scorpion’s Revenge is probably the best Mortal Kombat film yet, an animated telling of the original mythology seen from the eyes of one of its most popular characters. The film is simple, and it’s purpose is only to entertain, but it does that and more with its stylish, hard-hitting action and an unforgiving and almost cruel fight sequences. I grew up playing the Mortal Kombat games and watching the (original!) movie, so it was great to see the WB Animation team (known for such tremendous work on the DC Animated films) to take a stab at this mythology, and it paid off.
Gretel & Hansel
-I put off on watching this one back when theaters were still open. I really didn’t like Oz Perkins’s previous work on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (in fact, it was my least favorite film of the year back when it came out), so seeing his take on the classic fairy tale Hansel & Gretel just didn’t seem to win me over. Even with the solid posters and trailers for the film, I felt like I was being set up for disappointment. Finally, I was swayed late in the year to check this one out and I’m so happy I did. There’s style and tone unique to this film that makes the classic story all anew once again. Sophia Lillis was tremendous in the lead role (a fitting choice to invert the names as such, as she owns the narrative), and I was impressed with Alice Krige’s take on the witch. This film oozes atmosphere and doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you slept on this horror tale like I did, seek it out as soon as you can.
Da 5 Bloods
-I was on the opposite side of things for Spike Lee’s newest film. BlacKkKlansman was my favorite movie the year of its release, and the idea that Lee’s next film would be a Vietnam War film with a touch of the search for buries treasure was just bonkers enough to get my full attention. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I made sure to give the film the proper attention on the soonest night that I could sit back for the 150-minutes it required. Da 5 Bloods is not as polished as BlacKkKlansman, but it is nonetheless a staggering movie that attempts to reach a whole lot of different subjects, from war to friendship to aging to race and of course politics in our current state of the nation. Lee jumps from one unusual and captivating sequence to the next, all the while remembering to keep the film entertaining beyond anything else. I just had loads of fun with the movie’s action while also a quiet contemplation for some of its most serious and heartbreaking beats as well. This is another win for the exciting filmmaker.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
-It’s tough to make a sequel. It’s even tougher to make a comedy sequel. Even more so when it is a long-gestating comedy sequel of a pop cultural icon like Borat. Back in 2006, it was a huge success, so why did Sasha Baron Cohen return to make a sequel 14 years later? Trump, and the current political state. I was initially worried, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a largely successful comedy sequel that tells a very simple story, mostly to get back into the undercover interview-style that Cohen’s comedy is usually mined from. I don’t think the movie 100% works as well as its predecessor, but it is a scathing view of American politics through an outside lens, one that asks more questions about the state of the nation while it also tackles a very human story of Borat connecting with his daughter. It also has one of the most shocking and talked about endings of any film from last year. I very much enjoyed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and I hope we see him again some day for a trilogy capper.
The Invisible Man
-Man, I was so excited for the Dark Universe. Finally, a return to Universal’s monsters in a way that felt fresh and exciting in the wake of the successful MCU and cinematic universe model. Damn, I was disappointed when the entirety of the plan fell apart due to the poor quality and reception of The Mummy, so when I heard that Leigh Whannell would be helming another stab at the Universal Monsters with a simplistic and new take on The Invisible Man, I was excited with a hint of trepidation. I mean, The Invisible Man is not the most popular of these characters, he never interacted with the other monster in the way that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, of The Wolf Man had. Still, he is an exciting filmmaker who has never steered me wrong, ever since his breakout writing work on the Saw films. Thankfully, The Invisible Man is an exciting and terrifying update on the mythos of the character (that has absolutely nothing to do with the H.G. Wells novel) and changes the central players to fit a more 2020 theme. It’s scary, exciting, and bold while all maintaining a $7 million budget. How Whannell was able to pull all that off with such a small budget is incredible, and outside a little bit of a uninspired ending, the film is a constantly galloping bit of excitement and shocks, with a phenomenal performance from Elisabeth Moss.
-It’s nice to see a company like Pixar really flex their creativity with films like Soul. I’ve often recalled Pixar’s promise that they do not make animated movies strictly for children, and Soul is a movie that I can see not many children loving in the way they enjoy Toy Story. Soul is very much an adult animated movie that has a lot to say. I wasn’t really sure where it was going with its message (it seemed early on to shun those who chase their dreams) but when the film arrived at the destination, I found myself overwhelmed with the ideas at play and the gorgeous animation on display. The voice cast is terrific, the world-building is stunning, and the film’s themes are universal. It’s a heady movie, closer to a mix between Inside Out and Coco, that begs for multiple viewings. It’s just a shame it wasn’t a theatrical release because it would have been an incredible audience experience.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
-I had forgotten this one was based on a play when I started it, and I recall reading the play years ago, but a play like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is impossible to enjoy from reading in the same way as it is viewed and performed. This is an excellent cast, including a potential career best from the late and great Chadwick Boseman, but make no mistake. There isn’t a single bad performance in this movie. It’s a bluesy and heartbreaking viewpoint into a world that I know little about. Boseman’s playing off of the other performers, specifically Viola Davis, is wonderful, but I have to sing the praises of Colman Domingo, who is an unsung hero in this movie. Domingo consistently puts out great work and never gets the credit I feel he is deserving of, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is just another one of those incredible performances from the character actor. The run time is tight, the ending is impactful, and the staying power is strong. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incredible movie experience that adapts its source material better than even Fences a few years before (not to knock that film, but Fences felt like it was a filmed version of the play, whereas Ma Rainey felt more like an adaptation to film).
The Trial of the Chicago 7
-I may be biased in selecting this for my #2 (either way, it belongs in the Top Ten), but I love a courtroom drama, and Aaron Sorkin’s newest film captures the excitement and tension of a great courtroom drama expertly here. Yes, you can throw all of your complaints about its accuracy, but this list is not the Top Ten Most Accurate Films of 2020 (that list would be boring). Sorkin’s fire-spitting dialogue makes for an excellent screenplay and his cast executes it perfectly. I never felt bored, I never checked my watch, and the film’s timeliness was oh-so-strong that it feels all the more present in 2020. Perhaps Sorkin’s directing has not reached the levels of the many filmmakers who have directed his previous screenplay’s, but it’s capable filmmaking with no flair but no flaws either, and his story and performers more than make up for it.
-The strongest films of the year in 2020 seem to be the ones most excellently written. Look at the top five here. So many incredible stories that were written with precision and all meat, no fat. Uncle Frank is no exception. I honestly hadn’t heard of this film before getting a screener from Amazon. I didn’t even know that Alan Ball had written anything new recently. His direction is maybe a little more fine-tuned than Sorkin’s, having trained so much on his television work in Six Feet Under and True Blood, but again, the screenplay is what makes this film. That, and the excellent work from Paul Bettany in a restrained and honest performance. Sophia Lillis (she had a damn good year between this and Gretel & Hansel) keeps up nicely, as does Peter Macdissi, an actor that I’ve never seen so joyful and liberating as he is here. Even the supporting cast, from Steve Zahn to Margo Martindale, everyone is playing to their strengths. The story is simple, it’s one we’ve heard before, but its “truth” in realistic portrayals and difficult emotional character beats make Uncle Frank my favorite film of 2020.
There you have it. My Top Ten films of 2020. It was a tough year, and many of my most anticipated films from the beginning of the year were pushed off to this year, but what I did see was a big mix of films both good and bad. Here’s hoping 2021 gets us back to normal.
But hey, I want to see your Top Ten films of 2020. Leave them below and let me know what you thought of the films on my list! Happy New Year!
Director: Adam Mason Cast: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Demi Moore Screenplay: Adam Mason, Simon Boyes 90 mins. Rated PG-13.
Songbird is a film I didn’t know anything about before I started my screening. All I really had going for me was a very Quiet Place-y looking poster and the notion that it was written, filmed, and edited during the 2020 pandemic. I didn’t know what the plot was but the cast list was pretty respectable. Also, Michael Bay produced it, so I wasn’t sure how he could put explosions into a movie that was made during a pandemic, but I was curious to find out. I always have a laugh when Michael Bay produces a movie that uses his name in the marketing because he isn’t a great director, so the name doesn’t help, but Songbird is a film that couldn’t be any worse than if Bay himself had helmed. I can make it pretty clear for you: this movie sucks.
Set in 2024, Songbird tells the story of the world of COVID-23, a much more deadly version of the coronavirus that has a higher mortality rate, as it ravages the world. We are given several interconnected stories mostly set in the LA area, mostly centered around Nico (KJ Apa, I Still Believe, TV’s Riverdale), an immune delivery boy who wishes to get an illegal immunity bracelet for his girlfriend in order to free her from lockdown in her apartment. We also get a look at a budding friendship between artist and streamer May (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch, 1 Night in San Diego) and one of her followers, Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Da 5 Bloods), as she struggles with a relationship with someone who promises to help her career but seems to only want one thing from her.
I’m not sure if there’s a message to Songbird. In fact, I hope there isn’t one, because this movie is riddled with issues, most notably the main character, someone we should want to root for, is breaking the law to free his girlfriend, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. Why should we feel for them? Why should we want them to win? Then, there’s the narrative that people go to the “Q Zone” when quarantined but they don’t come back. Now, I get that the virus of the film is not COVID-19, but naming your virus COVID-23 creates the sense you are trying to connect the two. It’s clear that director Adam Mason (Blood River, Alice in Chains: Black Antenna) doesn’t understand how COVID-19 works, and he just decided to make COVID-23 do whatever is interesting for his narrative, unaware of the perception he is creating for viewers.
None of the stories in the film are entertaining, and none of the characters ever get out of a place of stock character tropes and plot points seen before in more interesting stories. The screenplay, co-written by Mason, just kind of has a lot of things happening, none of the very interesting. The idea, from the very beginning, that anyone would want to watch a pandemic horror movie about COVID is fundamentally flawed, and his storytelling showcases a lack of respect for the current situation of the country, where we are right now, where we were just months ago, and where we may be in a year. I’m not sure what the plan was for this narrative, for these characters, and for this movie, but it feels like this respectable cast owed a favor to a member of the production staff.
Even from a technical perspective, nothing in the film is very engaging. The cinematography is simple (the production crew needs a lesson in lighting), the editing boring, and the sound design rather dull. I could get past all of this in the grand scheme of things (filmmaking with a small crew and social distance guidelines) if the story wasn’t just so dull. As it comes down to it, the technical aspects of the film are the least of their problems. Hell, I’m not even sure what Songbird means as a title. Did I miss something?
Songbird is a bad movie on every level. There’s nothing that works here, from the inception of the story to the completion of the final product. Beyond that, this is just a tone-deaf piece of cinema that is clearly missing the mark in every way. This is a pandemic horror-thriller that should stay quarantined from viewers. I wouldn’t be so mad if this film didn’t try to make a mockery of the pandemic we’re currently in, but that’s exactly what it does. Seriously, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Ever.
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick
136 mins. Rated R.
Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing
IMDb Top 250: #103 (as of 9/30/2020)
I remember where I was when I first watched A Clockwork Orange. I was a teenager, jammed into my bedroom back home with two buddies. We had rented the DVD (my local video store had a 5-5-5 deal, 5 Movies, 5 Days, 5 Bucks) along with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and we planned for a midnight double-feature. I was eating a 3-foot gummy snake that would give me a rough stomach ache the next morning. As we settled in for A Clockwork Orange (my memory is a little hazy on this, but I believe we chose Clockwork first), I didn’t know what to expect. Both films were ones I knew little to nothing about, and that’s usually the way I like it. No research, just experience. I recently looked back on A Clockwork Orange, it being a film I haven’t watched in years, and I elected to dive back in, see if my initial thoughts on the film have changed and what, if anything, I was able to pull from it this time around.
A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek: Generations, Bombshell), a deviant youth who spends his nights robbing, assaulting, harassing, and of course, drinking some delicious milk at the milk bars. Alex and his droogs are fans of all sorts of malicious mayhem, and Alex being the leader, he gets to have the most fun with displaying the “artistry” of his violent psyche. When he is caught by police, though, Alex is sent to prison for one of his more horrific deeds. There, he is given the opportunity for a strange and unorthodox method of treatment, said to fix his criminal ways, called the Ludovico technique. This possible treatment method could get Alex out of prison years ahead of schedule, so he elects to try it. Now, Alex has become a pawn in the rehabilitation process, one that may fundamentally alter his perception forever.
I still remember watching this film for the first time. I was in awe. As I took the occasional bite of the 3-foot gummy snake, I was entrance with what I was seeing. Certainly, at this point of my youth, I’d never seen anything like A Clockwork Orange. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I’ve seen anything similar. After that viewing, it had become clear that this was my favorite Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon) film, as it was the only one I didn’t initially hate (I had this rhythm with Kubrick where I hated his films on first watch only to rediscover them later and love them). Looking back on it now, I cannot say that it is still my favorite Kubrick film, but it feels the most unhinged and wild of his pictures, one that imprints itself onto the mind and stays there.
Malcolm McDowell’s take on Alex is so memorably menacing. It’s neither the way he speaks nor the horrible deeds he commits. Instead, it’s the way he derives joy from these acts, the way he views them. He is our narrator so we spend the film in his head, and we see that this violence, this debauchery, is merely his art, much in the way that music was Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He gets glee from the pain and mistreatment of others, singing Gene Kelly musical numbers while he inflicts physical harm on his victims. He’s the kind of young man who would enjoy kicking a puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s not a likable protagonist, but he is an interesting one, and I was fascinated in what would happen to him, how he would be changed by his arrest, incarceration, and “treatment.”
The film has a perfect three-act structure, one aided by intelligent and thoughtful filming techniques. Each of the three acts is easily separated from the others by unique choices in framing, lighting, and sound. Early on, there’s a menace to the filming techniques, but when we arrive in the prison with Alex, we get a colder, less-colorful world, and then there’s what comes after, something I’ll avoid getting into as you’ll want to see it for yourself.
There are themes abound in Clockwork, and so many of them resonated with me back then, in the basement, on a cheap projector, with two late-night friends, and they resonate all the more with me now. The way Kubrick showcases behavior conditioning and criminal reform is disturbing, and I think it’s great that Kubrick never feels like he is shoving his opinions down our throats here. In fact, he sort of feels like a curious child asking questions and letting us formulate our answers. I also really like the priest questioning Alex’s choice and free will in choosing to do good. He asks whether we’re really good if we’re conditioned to be afraid of being bad and how that loss of free will loses humanity as well. This question has been asked many times before, but not in this way, and rarely this effectively.
One wonders how A Clockwork Orange would have looked if made with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones as the droogs (which is how it originally would have been when Jagger owned the rights to the novel), but what we have is astounding nonetheless. It’s neither an easy film to watch but it is a wholly effective experience unlike any other. That’s what many of us search for in film, the unique experience, and Clockwork gives that in abundance. If you’re looking for a messed-up movie for your messed-up mind, give A Clockwork Orange a try.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, click here.
Director: Alan Ball Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root Screenplay: Alan Ball 95 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual references and drug use.
On first look, the poster for Uncle Frank didn’t really win me over. It wasn’t until I saw the cast list and realized that it was written and directed by Alan Ball (Towelhead). Now, that got me interested. I’ve been a big fan of Ball’s work in the television field with shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for American Beauty, but I hadn’t heard of Uncle Frank at all until seeing this poster, usually a bad sign. I was hesitant but intrigued as I prepared for this screening (thank you to Amazon for letting me stream the film in advance from my home), but I’m pleased to say that Uncle Frank is one of the best movies of the year.
Told from the perspective of young college-bound Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, It, TV’s I Am Not Okay with This), the film is a recounting of the events of 1973, in which she traveled back home to attend her grandfather’s funeral with her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Frank is heading toward the reunion with trepidation. He’s a homosexual, and he’s been keeping his secret for years. His family doesn’t know, and his deceased father hated him. Frank’s journey is further complicated when he is join by his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, The Losers, TV’s Six Feet Under). As Beth attempts to understand her uncle in this new way, she sees him heading for a confrontation with his past.
I love a good family drama with enough dry wit to keep the tone bubbling, and that’s something that Alan Ball excels with. Uncle Frank is like the best of the family dinner episodes of Six Feet Under, where awkwardness and drama hold hands at the table and force everyone to air their dirty laundry. His writing is witty, his emotional beats pack a punch, and his direction is very character-focused. Ball’s camera is laser-focused on the character interactions and he lets them drive his story, and while that story has been told before, it’s done so here with a sense of joy that these types of stories don’t often get. You can critique the occasional schmaltz of the narrative, but I really needed that, and the catharsis is both interesting and relatable, proving that it isn’t the story you tell, but how you tell it, that matters.
Paul Bettany has always had the ability to disappear in the role by mixing elements of the written character with his own natural charisma, but as Frank, he plays it so well that you forget he’s even acting. It’s hard to even call his work a performance because it’s so real that I couldn’t find the theatricality behind it. Perhaps that’s because he is so well-paired with the overly-theatrical Peter Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s secret partner. The two have such tremendous chemistry, and Macdissi is much less hard-edged than I’ve seen him in other work, that the dramedy mined from their relationship just feels lived-in.
I was also impressed with Sophia Lillis, who burst onto the scene back in 2017 with It and the 2019 sequel. Oftentimes, you wonder if these younger actors have the experience to flourish as they select new projects, but Lillis proved to be capable in commanding the screen with more well-known performers. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with veteran performers all giving solid supporting work, from the always underrated Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Tall Girl), as Frank’s brother Mike, to the sharp-tongued Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, The Kitchen) as Frank’s mother.
Uncle Frank does not reinvent the wheel. This story has been told many times, and yet, under the strong screenwriting hand of Alan Ball, and with his keen attention to character, this story is a lovely and sometimes joyful but always poignant story that deserves being told again. While I wished we got to see more of the journey to the funeral (it sells itself as a road movie but spends a lot less time in transit), I was still entranced from beginning to end. See this movie. It just might be one of my favorites of the year.