Saturday, January 30, 2021

Movie Dearest's Top 10 of 2020

No doubt about it, 2020 was a long, trying, heartbreaking, infuriating, bewildering year. Yet amid all the social, political and cultural turmoil, I found comfort in "escaping to the movies", even though that generally meant relocating to the couch and firing up the Roku. I was rewarded with a myriad of cinematic delights, from a diverse array of filmmakers, ranging from eye-opening documentaries and eye-popping animated films to boundary-pushing dramas and subversive comedies.

Yes, 2020 will be remembered for many things (good, bad and very, very ugly) but, for me at least, I will hold the memories of my favorite movies from this past year close, and cherish them for offering welcome respite from the perils of reality.

Note: Although the Academy and several other awards groups, not too mention critics, have extended their eligibility dates into 2021, I decided to include below only films that were released - either wide or limited, theatrically or digitally, or any combination thereof - within the calendar year of 2020.

Road Trip

1. Nomadland - Chloé Zhao accomplishes a rare feat here, creating an intimate experience – about a woman (a sublime Frances McDormand) who has lost everything, struggling to survive as a literal "nomad" in contemporary America – within a larger message (how this country can fail its people) that never turns sentimental or didactic. A truly beautiful film that will stick to your soul for some time.

Female Trouble

2. Promising Young Woman - Carey Mulligan, irresistibly magnetic as the post-promising femme of the title, is on a mission in this blistering, darkly comic deconstruction of male/female relationships and everything that can go wrong therein. Actress-turned-writer/director Emerald Fennell goes far afield from her Call the Midwife past with this, her feature film debut. Challenging, chilling and shockingly cathartic.

Brian's Swan Song

3. Driveways - One can find kindness in unexpected places, a truth for the characters in this quiet drama from director Andrew Ahn as well as for those thankful viewers who have stumbled upon this "hidden gem" of a film. The late Brian Dennehy, in one of his last performances, shines as an unexpected grandfather figure to the lonely boy next door (Lucas Jaye). A simple, lovely story of love, loss and acceptance.

Eight is Enough

4. My Octopus Teacher - When one thinks of a nature documentary, words like "personal" and "intimate" hardly come to mind, but such is the case with this moving exploration of man's relationship with nature, specifically one man (documentary filmmaker Craig Foster) and one animal (the titular mollusc) and the surprising, unique relationship they develop over a year's time, together, in her octupus' garden under the sea.

Strangers on a Trail

5. News of the World - Tom Hanks (in, believe it or not, his very first western) portrays a traveling "news reader" who finds himself charged with returning a young orphan girl (Helena Zengel, in a dazzling debut) to a family she's never known in Paul Greengrass' sprawling, picturesque throwback to John Ford yarns of the past. Through their perilous travels, the two overcome hardships and language barriers to forge a connection beyond words.

Gingers, Snap!

6. Wolfwalkers - Ireland's Cartoon Saloon champions traditional animation once again with this, the final chapter of director Tomm Moore's "Irish Folklore Trilogy" (following the equally beguiling The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea). Filled with richly detailed backgrounds, expressive characters and dynamic action, each frame of this enchanting tale of lasses getting their lupine on is a work of art, a colorful, Celtic feast for the eyes.

The Farmer's Son

7. Minari - The Asian vegetable minari thrives in out of the way places, an appropriate metaphor for the South Korean immigrant family that relocates to rural Arkansas to start a produce farm in Lee Isaac Chung's fond remembrance of his own 1980s youth. As the parents, Steven Yeun and Yeri Han ground the tender story, while young Alan S. Kim and old Youn Yu-jung take turns stealing scenes... and hearts.

In Old Chicago

8. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - The real Ma Rainey was "Mother of the Blues", the "black bottom" was a popular dance in the '20s, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a dramatization of a turbulent recording session wherein Ma (a volcanic Viola Davis) clashes with upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman, simply electric in his final role), is director George C. Wolfe's mesmerizing screen adaptation of the August Wilson stage classic.

The Inspector, Generally

9. The Mole Agent - Meet Sergio Chamy, an octogenarian gent eager to try new things, who is hired by a private investigator to go undercover in a nursing home to find evidence of elder abuse. But Sergio finds something else entirely in this quirky documentary (Chile's submission for the International Feature Oscar) that plays like the oddest, most heartwarming reality show ever. If you're into Bernie Sanders mitten memes, this is the movie for you.

Swimming with Shark

10. The Assistant - As a day in the life of the junior assistant (Julia Garner, quietly riveting) to a New York City film producer of the Harvey Weinstein variety unfolds, we are witness to mundane office tasks, unnerving outbursts and a prime example of how not to conduct a Human Resources meeting. In her narrative feature debut, writer/director Kitty Green teaches a master class on the slow burn.

Honorable Mentions – The Next 10:
Why stop at just 10? In alphabetical order...

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm - Sacha Baron Cohen finally won me over with this razor-sharp, ripped-from-the-headlines satire co-starring 2020 "it girl" Maria Bakalova.

Boys State - The best of this year's many political documentaries isn't even about a real government, a good thing as no real one could be this engrossing and enthralling.

The Gentlemen - Guy Ritchie's rollicking crime caper features delicious turns from its all-star cast, especially Michelle Dockery, Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell.

Mank - David Fincher's homage to/dissection of "old Hollywood" by way of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), brought to life in gorgeous, glorious black and white.

A Secret Love - 2020's best LGBTQ movies were non-fiction, as seen in this bittersweet gem about the remarkable, decades-long romance of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon - Everyone's favorite Plasticine ovine-of-few-words returned for another outrageous outing, taking him to outer space and back.

Soul - Flavored with a heaping helping of NYC jazz, Pixar goes all existential in this imaginative Heaven Can Wait-meets-Nine Lives (?) fable.

Swallow - Haley Bennett is stunning as a woman obsessed with ingesting various knick-knacks as a means to cope with her crumbling psyche in this not-quite-horror horror film.

The Vast of Night - Moody and steadily unsettling, director Andrew Patterson's thrilling debut turns back the clock to a 1950s "Small Town, USA" on the evening of an extraordinary (extraterrestrial?) encounter.

Welcome to Chechnya - A harrowing, horrifying look into the atrocities inflicted upon gay and lesbian people in modern Russia is without a doubt a hard watch but an absolute must-see.

More Honorable Mentions – What the heck, here's another 10 to enjoy:

  • The international true crime/high crimes docs Assassins and The Dissident.
  • Gay faves The Boys and the Band and Uncle Frank, headlined by knock-out performances by Jim Parsons and Paul Bettany, respectively.
  • Gunda: Pigs is pigs.
  • The bittersweet Italian drama The Life Ahead, starring the legendary Sophia Loren and young newcomer Ibrahima Gueye.
  • Netflix and Frills: the fab biodoc Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado and the all-star, all-camp musical The Prom.
  • The charmingly offbeat indie dramedy Saint Frances.
  • Aaron Sorkin's timely take on The Trial of the Chicago 7, featuring a stellar ensemble including Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance and Jeremy Strong.

Streaming Guide:

  • Amazon Prime: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Uncle Frank and The Vast of Night
  • Apple TV+: Boys State and Wolfwalkers
  • Disney+: Soul
  • HBO Max: Welcome to Chechnya
  • Hulu: The Assistant, The Mole Agent and Nomadland (available February 19th)
  • Netflix: The Boys in the Band, The Life Ahead, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, My Octopus Teacher, The Prom, A Secret Love, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon and The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Showtime: Driveways, The Gentlemen and Swallow
  • Starz: Saint Frances


By Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

MD on IG Review: Fun with Dickens, Jane

The most recent screen versions of the oft-adapted literary classics The Personal History of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Emma by Jane Austen have much in common, and not just their impending rivalry in Best Costume Design categories everywhere. Both take a decidedly 21st century approach to their material, from David's colorblind casting to Emma's post-MeToo attitude, yielding mixed results, alas, and longings for earlier, more straightforward adaptations. 

Yet, like a Broadway revival of an old chestnut, it's a treat to see familiar material dusted off and performed with gusto by new faces, and this double feature has the likes of Miranda Hart, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy and Tilda Swinton, not to mention Dev Patel as Mr. Copperfield and Anya Taylor-Joy as Miss Woodhouse, to fit that bill.

MD Ratings: The Personal History of David Copperfield: 6/10
Emma: 7/10

Emma is now streaming on HBO Max.

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Friday, January 8, 2021

MD on IG Review: Law & Disorder

The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin's dramatization of the infamous court case from the late 60s, is even more timelier than ever following the appalling acts of domestic terrorism seen in our nation's capitol this week. Stellar performances from an all-star cast (including stand-outs Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance and an almost unrecognizable Jeremy Strong) propel the film through its at-times unfocused narrative to a powerful closing statement.

MD Rating: 7/10

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

MD on IG Review: There Will Be Jud

I'm Thinking of Ending Things
is perhaps the most "Charlie Kaufman" of all Charlie Kaufman films. Where else would you find an agonizingly long, snow-swept road trip peppered with internalized relationship issues, depressing poetry readings and bizarrely lengthy diatribes about such disparate topics as A Woman Under the Influence and "Baby, It's Cold Outside", capped off by the main event, a family visit best described as "Franz Kafka's Meet the Parents". And how does this all tie in with a certain Rodgers & Hammerstein antagonist and an animated maggot-infested pig? Heck if I know, I gave up trying to figure it out during the dream ballet.

MD Rating: 5/10

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is now streaming on Netflix.

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Monday, January 4, 2021

Reverend's Reviews: A Cinematic Bounty in the Midst of Despair

At the risk of sounding redundant, 2020 was a terrible year. Too many people got sick and died, theaters and other businesses closed and many jobs were lost. Movie studio revenues plummeted during what was expected to be a hugely successful year primarily due to Christopher Nolan's ultimately ho-hum Tenet and the oft-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 which, while not great, isn't as bad as many online wags have condemned it. And don't get me started on our US political situation!

I was myself unemployed for two months last year. Though frightening in the short term it turned to be lucrative in the long term, not only because I eventually got a new and better job but because it gave me more time to watch 2020's many movie releases. Many of these were made available for viewing in one's own home much sooner than usual due to the nationwide closure of movie theaters. As a critic, this made my annual task of compiling the best and worst movies of the year somewhat easier because I was able to watch more contenders than usual during my unanticipated downtime.

I'm happy to report there were a lot of very good to excellent movies released one way or the other last year. Here is my rundown of the 10+ best films (in order of preference or recommendation) and worst films of 2020:

1) Nomadland (Fox Searchlight). A movingly naturalistic portrayal of a woman (the latest terrific performance by Frances McDormand) who decides to live on the road in her RV, lovingly named "Vanguard," after she loses both her husband and her job. Inspired by true stories of similar "nomads" with some of the real-life subjects appearing in the film, Chinese-born director Chloé Zhao has crafted a memorable ode to the spirit of America as well as a meditation on our timeless connections with others. "See you down the road!"

2) Mank (Netlix). An excellent movie about the making of a true cinema classic. Director David Fincher and his late screenwriter father Jack pay overdue tribute to Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning but disputed author of Orson Welles' groundbreaking Citizen Kane. Known simply as "Mank" in 1930's-40's Hollywood, he is vividly, lovingly reincarnated by Oscar winner Gary Oldman. Fincher recreates Welles' directorial style impeccably and the film is beautifully shot in black and white. It also boasts great supporting performances by Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies and Arliss Howard as studio titan Louis B. Mayer.

3) First Cow (A24) and True History of the Kelly Gang (IFC Films). A pair of extraordinarily intimate, immersive period films. The first, directed by the accomplished Kelly Reichardt, details a mismatched pair of pioneering men in the young US of A and their deepening relationship. The second is about Ned Kelly, an Australian folk hero. He and his devoted band of followers fought to drive the British out and restore the land to its native citizens during the 1870's. Alas, Kelly was ultimately executed for his efforts. A number of previous movies have presumed to tell his story but none have taken such a gender- and sexually-fluid approach as Justin Kurzel's impressive production, with rising star George MacKay (1917, Pride) as Kelly.

4) Da 5 Bloods (Netflix). In what may well be Spike Lee's most entertaining and accessible film to date, four African-American Vietnam War veterans reunite in modern-day Saigon to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade as well as a fortune in lost gold. That being said, there is still plenty of the director's trademark social critique and questioning attitude on display. The superb international cast includes Delroy Lindo, Jean Reno, Ngo Thanh Van and the late Chadwick Boseman, plus talented up and comer Jonathan Majors.

5) My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) and Gunda (Neon). I've long been a sucker for animal-centric movies, and these two documentaries satisfied my humane disposition and then some. The first details an unlikely, year-long friendship that develops between a disenchanted diver, Craig Foster, and a wild South African cephalopod. It is gorgeously photographed and unexpectedly moving. Gunda, produced by newly-minted Oscar winner and animal rights advocate Joaquin Phoenix, is another black-and-white beauty that without humans or dialogue says everything about the daily plights faced by a mother pig and her offspring, two cows, a herd of horses and a one-legged chicken living on a farm together. Both docs serve as visual definitions of the word compassionate.

6) Hamilton (Disney), The Prom (Netflix) and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix). Three spectacular big-screen transfers (or perhaps small-screen, depending on the size of one's device) from the Broadway stage. One can argue that Hamilton is merely a recording of the theatrical blockbuster but the results were uniquely cinematic in many ways. Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy's star-studded adaptation of the LGBTQ-themed musical The Prom is nothing short of spectacular, while veteran director George C. Wolfe's film of August Wilson's classic play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom incorporates stunning performances by Oscar winner Viola Davis, out actor Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) and the gone-way-too-soon Chadwick Boseman.

7) Onward and Soul (both Disney/Pixar). Onward has a special place in my heart as the last movie I saw in a theater before the COVID-mandated shutdown, but it is primarily a warm and funny exploration of the relationship between disparate brothers as well as between fathers and sons set in a fairy tale world. Soul, meanwhile, is a jazz-inspired and deeply spiritual look at what gives our lives meaning. It also makes history as the first Disney animated film to feature a predominantly black cast of characters and actors.

8) Shadow in the Cloud (Vertical Entertainment). This provided the most fun I had watching a movie all year and it would be even more enjoyable if viewed in a full theater, sigh. This New Zealand production co-written and directed by Roseanne Liang stars Chloe Grace Moretz as the fiercest movie heroine since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the Alien series! She plays the lone female on a World War II fighter plane who does battle not only with enemy pilots but a human-sized, bat-like gremlin determined to tear the plane apart. This feminist adventure becomes excitingly, deliriously over-the-top. You can see for yourself since it became available to stream on January 1st.

9) I Carry You With Me (Sony Pictures Classics), Supernova (Bleecker Street) and Monsoon (Strand Releasing). The three best gay-themed films of the year deal with male couples unquestionably in love but facing the challenges imposed by physical, cultural and/or geographical barriers. All have won or been nominated for multiple awards, with Stanley Tucci a particular favorite and potential Oscar nominee for his performance as a gay man succumbing to dementia in the heartbreaking Supernova, which will be released at the end of January.

10) Dear Santa (IFC Films) and Howard (Disney). These precious, life-affirming documentaries will make a believer out of you. Dear Santa proves that the Christmas Spirit is alive and well through the generosity of the US Postal Service and various charitable individuals across the country, while the long-awaited Howard shows how lyricist Howard Ashman (who died of AIDS complications in 1991) behind such classic musicals film and stage musicals as Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin remains an inspiration and cultural icon to this day.

Honorable mentions:
Troop Zero (Amazon Studios) and Palm Springs (Neon/Hulu). The two funniest comedies I saw all year. Both provide clever, relevant observations on race, class, history and/or romance. Viola Davis and Allison Janney serve as great foils to one another as rival Girl Scout troop leaders in the former, whereas SNL vet Andy Samberg is a dramatic revelation in the lead role of the Groundhog Day-esque Palm Springs.

The Vast of Night (Amazon Studios) is a haunting, intelligent take on alien invasion movies set in rural, small-town 1950's America. Talented first-time director Andrew Patterson is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

The worst movies of 2020, in no particular order of dishonor:
Artemis Fowl (Disney). Despite some impressive visual effects and a fun turn by Judi Dench as an owl-like law enforcer, this proved to be a dull and confusing franchise non-starter. And it was directed to no good effect by the oft-acclaimed Kenneth Branagh!

Kill the Monsters (Against the Barrel Productions). Actor-director Ryan Lonergan's irritating depiction of an older gay couple going to various conflicted lengths as they try to save their younger "throuple" paramour, who is suffering from a vaguely-defined but life-threatening illness. The film is only 80 minutes long but it took all the energy I could muster to get through it.

Underwater (20th Century Studios). Yet another Alien knockoff, this time set at the bottom of the sea. Despite a strong lead performance by Kristen Stewart and some cool monster effects, it is a dull and predictable exercise in creature-feature futility.

Color Out of Space (RLJE Films). This latest attempt to adapt H.P. Lovecraft's classic sci-fi/horror tale confirms that filmmakers should probably stop trying. A truly impressive cast headed by Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson is unable to make logical or dramatic sense of the writer's sometimes-grotesque machinations.

Dolittle (Universal). My favorite literary character of all time is once again given a less-than-ideal movie treatment, with Robert Downey Jr. giving probably his worst performance to date as the veterinarian who can famously talk to the animals. An expensive, over-produced debacle that takes too many liberties with its charming source material.

By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

MD on IG Review: Tangled

Justin Simien (of Dear White People fame) must have the goods on Vanessa Williams (in low-gear Wilhelmina Slater mode) and the rest of his oddly star-studded cast in his horror-comedy Bad Hair... how else to explain their participation in this limp 80s slasher homage. With a cheap "dirty VHS tape" look that may or may not be intentional, I'll give it props for it's "Little Salon of Horrors" vibe, but you'll end up laughing more at it than with it.

Movie Dearest Rating: 4/10

Bad Hair is now streaming on Hulu.

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