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.
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.
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.
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor
Screenplay: Christina Hodson
109 mins. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material.
It feels like the DCEU has found its footing under the new leadership. After Justice League, the DCEU was handed off to others, and both Aquaman and Shazam! achieved generally positive reviews, so where does Birds of Prey land in all this? Did it continue that hot streak? Well, yes and no, but mostly no.
The Joker has dumped Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, Peter Rabbit), and now the queen of mayhem is alone on the streets of Gotham and everyone wants her dead. It seems like all of Gotham has a vendetta against Quinn, including mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge!, Doctor Sleep), who tasks her with stealing a diamond, but this is all an attempt to take her out. Harley is in over her head, and in order to stop Sionis, she needs help from others who have been wronged by him.
Cinematic universes have changed the way these stories are told. Relationships and characters evolve across multiple films, but this is a problem for Birds of Prey. It seemingly assumes that we, as audience members, understand the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn. Hell, the inciting incident of the film is the destruction of that relationship. The issue with that assumption is that we didn’t get a good look at the central relationship in Suicide Squad; there simply wasn’t enough time dedicated to the relationship or the Joker in general to make the breakup have any impact. Since Jared Leto doesn’t appear in Birds of Prey, we again get nothing to go on that made me really connect with what Harley is going through in the film.
Thankfully, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role of Quinn, and yet again, she is such a dynamic presence onscreen that makes up for the lack of empathy and stakes to her central character journey. This is great because, for a film that sold itself as being a Birds of Prey film with a tiny hint of Harley Quinn, this is really a Harley Quinn film with a dash of Birds of Prey. Given that so much screen time is dedicated to Quinn, it’s great to know that Robbie continues to captivate as the Maid of Mischief.
Even Margot Robbie’s tremendous work as Quinn cannot save a very muddled and convoluted plot. I think the idea was to make Birds of Prey into DC’s version of Deadpool, so the film is edited to give it a loose narrative structure that hops around, but it lost me several times. I was never confused, but it lost my interest every time it left the main narrative.
Birds of Prey was very fun, but it struggled to consistently maintain my interest throughout its run time. I enjoyed several chunks of the film, and overall I really enjoyed the film, but altogether, this film is an absolute mess. It’s saved by an engaging Robbie performance and the awesome turn from Ewan McGregor, and I still believe that the film is worth watching for fans of the Harley Quinn character and the DCEU, but it’s a bug jumbled mess of a movie.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, click here.
For my review of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, click here.
For my review of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, click here.
For my review of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, click here.
For my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, click here.
For my review of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, click here.