Movie companies really didn’t have a backup plan for people not seeing films in theaters. The wider movie industry got put in the incredibly weird position of what to do with new releases scheduled for 2020. It seemed like they might slowly roll out movies onto VOD, then the country collectively practiced avoidance and started opening theaters (thanks Nolan), then Warner dropped a grenade and announced that all of their 2021 releases will go straight to streaming (actually thanks Nolan for talking about how this would affect unions). On the one hand I’m extremely excited that I can be safe and watch these movies all for the low cost of my shared HBO Max subscription. On the other hand, I really want places like Alamo Drafthouse to stay in business. The theater model has been slowly teetering since the advent of streaming but it’s tough watching giant corporations take them out at the knees.
As movies slowed down, so did my watching. I found summoning the energy to watch things on my ever growing list harder and harder to do. I had such grand plans to catch up on so many things, but David Lynch’s Dune will have to wait. I was able to do some catch up though and this list mostly reflects that. That said, there were a few 2020 movies that absolutely killed it. Here’s hoping that monopolistic corporate consolidation doesn’t completely kill smaller companies next year:
Everybody has been talking about Anya Taylor-Joy’s other period piece (for good reason, Queen’s Gambit is great) 2020 started with a different stand out performance. Anya Taylor-Joy gets to play the sheltered spoil heroine of Jane Austen’s novel and knocks it out of the park. Her nonverbal ticks are used instead for Emma’s matchmaking machinations and she absolutely sells the mixture of curiosity and pity in how she treats Harriet. She also encompasses Emma’s deep insecurity and is great when everything falls apart at the seams. This adaptation is extremely funny accompanied by beautiful and eye popping set decoration that’s akin to Wes Anderson. It’s emotional without being too sappy and witty without being too sardonic.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
It’s refreshing to see a “superhero” movie that’s made by and starring women and on a more technical level it’s refreshing to have it mainly have physical stunts. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad was such an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that it’s great she has such a fun movie behind her. The movie is full of sarcastic and tongue in cheek jokes that never tip over into cheesy or too much. It’s over the top sure but that matches the wild main protagonist or her journey of self discovery (through hyenas and crime mainly). The rest of the Bird of Prey make for a great mismatched crew; special shout out to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress for being cool and impossibly socially awkward (you don’t get out much at secret assassin monasteries). The only couple of drawbacks is that they don’t get together sooner and that Ewan McGregor doesn’t get more to do. When everything starts flying though, it’s a good violent time.
The Last of Sheila
After watching Knives Out last year, I needed another whodunit to jump into. Luckily Ryan Johnson put together a handy list which led me to The Last of Sheila. This fantastic murder myster from 1973 also stars some verifiable stars: Joan Hackett, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, and James Coburn as the smug movie producer who brings them all together. The plot centers around a group of movie industry members out on a Mediterranean cruise at the behest of James Coburn. Turns out he has dirt on all of them and is using that to inform a game that he’s put together for them all to play. When someone eventually ends up dead, the guests have to figure out what happened. It definitely scratched a similar itch to Knives Out; namely that all of these people are easy to root against. Everyone is leaning into their characters too as uneasy alliances and sneaky meetings start occurring. The secrets and reveals are satisfying and like the best murder mysteries leaves the clues hidden just enough to keep you guessing.
This one surprised me. It’s not that it didn’t get good reviews, I was just expecting to be more middling and pleasant. I was also skeptical of the premise, I mean Groundhog Day is the reference for a reason. The movie twists it just enough and runs with it to tell a completely different story. The smartest move is having two people stuck in a time warp and starting it en media res. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are a great odd couple. Andy Samberg as Nyles is a burnout who wants to lean into the situation while Cristin Milioti as Sarah desperately wants him to snap out of it and get the hell out of this. There’s plenty of hijinks and time paradox bits around all the shit you can get away with when time restarts. Palm Springs like Groundhog Day is interested in redemption and what it takes to change yourself for the better. Palm Springs though looks beyond love as salvation and instead what does it actually mean to forgive yourself. It has a lot of unexpected heart amidst it’s dark humor (although the best part may be the synchronized dance to Patrick Cowley).
Speaking of chemistry this movie was made so we could go and awe at the two stars’ chemistry. It’s also a fun and mostly breezy thriller, a plot full of changing allegiances and murders that’s coupled with Audrey Hepburn wanting to hook up with Cary Grant as soon as humanly possible. The movie twists through beautiful European scenery as our protagonist tries to figure out just what the hell all these men want and where the hell all her money went. The plot moves along at a quick pace meaning your never getting bored and trickles out just enough info to keep you guessing. But really you’re here to watch two amazing actors at the top of their game hit it off.
A paranoid thriller that happened to coincidentally release alongside the Watergate scandal, I had never seen what HBO Max had listed as “Film 101.” It’s a classic for a reason. The movie is all about civilian spy work, what it means to remove people’s privacy and the complicity that comes with being involved in this line of work. Gene Hackman plays our protagonist who finds that his recent job may lead to a couple getting killed. He plays Harry Caul as a paranoid loner, a renowned industry expert who may have earned that lifestyle precisely because he knows how easy it is to breach someone’s privacy. The movie plays out his fears through dreams and daydreams making it hard to tell if his worries are actually founded in reality. The film sticks purely with his point of view so even when it presents a pretty good case on what happened, it’s conclusion leaves a lot questions open. The Conversation has a big interest in the technology that enables Harry’s work so much that even the middle of the movie is dedicated to an industry convention. It’s almost quaint by today’s standards how the tools that they use require so much technical skill and knowledge to operate and a large scale operation to record a whole conversation. Now ads for crock pots are served to me if I do much as mention a slow cooker near my phone.
Stop Making Sense/American Utopia
I’m a relatively recent Talking Heads fan. I never really started listening to them until college. Before I had only really heard Psycho Killer and Once in a Lifetime; great songs but didn’t exactly jump out to me. I heard their cover of Take Me To The River and I was immediately hooked. After almost ten years of listening I had never watched their seminal Stop Making Sense. It meets the lofty expectations and then enthusiastically leaps over it. It’s an hour and a half of finely crafted live versions of their discography, updated to inject more energy through double the amount of band members. It builds perfectly as each subsequent song introduces an additional band member. Once everyone’s on stage the energy never dips. It’s 100% danceable and definitely the greatest concert film I’ve ever seen. I was surprised David Byrne’s giant suit wasn’t even the best part of it.
American Utopia is a slightly different beast. It’s definitely still energetic and exciting, but with 30 years experience and a lot less cocaine. David Byrne trades sporadic dancing for intricate choreography and it’s amazing watching all of the band dance while playing all of their wireless instruments. It’s something I’ve never seen before and watching every be untethered allows for a more dynamic show. American Utopia is a more affecting show emotionally than Stop Making Sense. David Byrne brings in more of his solo work around interrogating his surroundings. He also takes time in the show to comment on racial justice issues (both with kneeling in front of a picture of Kapernick and covering Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout) and wider political issues (reminding the audience the importance of voting globally). I teared up a few times watching it and was so excited to hear Road to Nowhere, a song that was unfortunately predated by Stop Making Sense.
I had a great Wachowski revival this year. I watched the first two Matrix’s again (both incredible) and revisited Speed Racer with incredible results. I decided to finish off 2020 with Jupiter Ascending, a movie I heard was better than it’s reputation.
This is my favorite movie I watched this year. It’s simultaneously amazing and an absolute mess. You know you’re in for something when the Space Opera has the opening line “I’m an alien” and the character is actually referring to their status as an illegal immigrant in the US. The Wachowski’s put together an incredibly dense universe and fiction filled with stunning ship designs, gothic space castles and greedy intergalactic capitalists. There’s so much detail that every other line is explaining some necessary information for understanding the world. The wider galaxy shown has such amazing structure like Eddie Redmayne’s character Balem’s castle inside of Jupiter and his sister Kalique’s Greek inspired palatial estate on one of Jupiter’s moons. They also put in a clunker of a romance and the plot centers around our protagonist wanting to find true love. They try and cast Jupiter’s (yes that Mila Munis’ characters name) joinery as a rags to riches; she’s literally cleaning houses before she finds out that she’s somehow space royalty. All she wants is romance though and that comes in the form of Channing Tatum as a half wolf man hybrid with jetpack boots named Caine Wise. It’s honestly so hard to pay attention to Jupiter’s earthbound problems when there’s entire plots around harvesting planets for life extending products. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum have zero chemistry but the movie moves so fast it’s hard for it to get bogged down.
I can’t believe the things that happen in this movie. Mila Kunis controls bees! Our crew gets stuck in space bureaucracy! Channing Tatum literally skates in the sky the whole movie! I want more in this universe because it’s so damn captivating. The ship designs are incredible, especially the capital ships that are inspired by sailing vessels and space mechs with wings. I’m flabbergasted that it reviewed so poorly because it’s so much fun. It’s messy and cheesy but there are too many amazing details to count. This movie was unfairly slept on (by myself included) but it has jumped up my favorites list. The Wachowskis have been received poorly since The Matrix; 2021 is the year we cement Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending in the all time great canon.