Director: Dan Scanlon Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin 102 mins. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.
Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature Film
Onward has a notable distinction as being one of the first films heavily impacted by the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, a piece of history that has changed cinema and the theatrical experience for years to come (and make no mistake, its effect on cinema is not the most important effect of the pandemic, but it is notable that this event has and will change the landscape). It had a release date, it met said date, and then it underperformed. I skipped the early screening due to the mounting concern that this virus might be hitting the US any day, and I only ended up going to the theater once more before the shutdown officially took place (I was concerned that it may have been my last chance to see a movie in the theater for some time, a notion I ended up being right about), and it wasn’t for Onward. Onward’s under-performance should forever be met with an asterisk and an explanation for why it seemed to fail, but time tends to smooth out the details and forget the context. Future generations will likely see this film as an underperforming Pixar film, a rarity for the company, and something that I was sad to have missed in theaters. Barring the Cars franchise, I like most of the Pixar slate, and I really wanted to see Onward after catching the trailer, and even though the film is overshadowed by the superior Soul (the other 2020 Pixar film), I still found the story to be heartfelt and the adventure enjoyable enough.
Onward is set in a fantasy world that has seemingly lost its magic. Technology has replaced mystical forces here, and the world has adapted. Unicorns are feral creatures that rummage through garbage cans, pixies are now part of motorcycle gangs, and the remnants of what came before are now a fantasy role-playing game. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cherry), a high-school age elf dealing with a massive confidence issue, lives in New Mushroomton with his mother and brother. Ian never met his father, Wilden, who passed away just before his birth, but on his sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Drefus, Downhill, TV’s Seinfeld) gives him a gift from his father, a magical staff capable of bringing his dad back to life for one day. When the spell is stopped midway, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks & Recreation), are left with only the bottom half of their father. Now, on a race against the clock, these two brothers must embark upon a mythical quest to complete the spell and see their father before the day is up.
It’s interesting that Pixar has never taken on high-fantasy before. The closest they’ve gotten is Brave, a film with fantastical elements but never to the extent that Onward gets. I really enjoyed this world that director/co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has given us. There is a genuinely interesting world that’s been created for this film with a level of meticulous detail that Pixar is known for. Scanlon showcases a love for all sorts of fantastical elements including iconic references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it never feels like a cheap shot or dunking on the accomplishments of these creators in the fantasy genre. If anything, Scanlon goes at these elements with a Mel Brooks-ian eye for having fun with the material while showing respect to it.
Within the confines of that unique and enjoyable world-building, I did like what Scanlon and his co-writers were going for with the familial story of these two brothers. This is a pretty heady little movie with an emotional punch that I expected and was still surprised by. What I really like about the quest is how it showcases for these two characters what is most important following the immense loss of a father figure, and it also doesn’t exactly go where I expected it, offering a gut punch in the film’s third act that strengthens the movie and ends it on a captivating and perhaps controversial note.
The journey in getting to that captivating finish, however, is a little simplistic and paint-by-numbers. There were many plot points in this film that I could see coming from miles away, a lot of setups that have easy payoffs, and a lot of character beats that I was expecting. That’s not to fault the film for trying, but outside of its finale, I was not surprised by anything in the journey of the heroes. There’s fun to be had, no doubt, and I don’t want to compare it to other Pixar films but I’ll say that so often recently, I have found myself shocked by many of the Pixar storylines (I’m looking at you, Coco), and their willingness to play with expectations, and though the film ends strong, I just feel like so many of the journey plot beats feel like unused Shrek story beats. In that way, the film is extremely accessible but, at times, a bit too easy and perhaps forgettable.
Onward feels like a gateway fantasy film that will likely convert non-fantasy children to this kind of storytelling. There’s a definite love for the genre on display here, and a genuine and compelling emotional work for its characters here, even if the film’s plotting feels a little too easy and expected throughout. Onward ends on a beautiful and risky note that will likely allow audiences to wipe away their tears and really think on the film’s message for some time after, though the bulk of the middle of it is forgettable. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have some nice vocal talents for a film like this, and Onward comes with a recommendation from this film fan.
3.5/5 -Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, click here.
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!