(*homocinematically inclined)

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 ChloƩ 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.

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