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.
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!