Best of 2020 #1: Onward

Wait just a second!  When I was talking about Soul a few days ago, didn’t I say that I was tired of Pixar's “you should accept death” message?  And here I am celebrating even more so a Pixar movie about accepting death that came out before that one!  What can I say?  This movie ends on a really sad moment, but until that moment, it’s much cheerier than Inside Out and Coco, which to me made its bittersweet ending much more powerful.  

I have a long and rich history of populating these lists with popular releases that fared poorly on other top ten lists. I think I can safely say that this movie, which every critic saw, did not end up on a single year end list, and certainly not in the number one position. But ultimately this movie is here for the same reason that Nomadland isn’t: I’ve callused up a lot of thick skin over the years and I want a movie that can cut through it. Nomadland made me smile a few times and tugged my heart strings a few times, but there were no audible chuckles or actual tears. Now, if you want a movie that actually did make me laugh out loud, and then left me bawling like a baby (all three times I’ve seen it) you need look no farther than Onward. I’m starting to tear up just typing these words: When our hero realizes his brother has been a good surrogate dad to him, it hits me like a brick.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Anthropomorphize Their Favorite Object, then Force Them to Kill It

When I was writing about “Little Women”, I noted that Alcott mentions in the first ten pages how proud Jo was of her beautiful hair and realized that was said just to make it more painful later when she decides to cut her hair off later to sell it for a needed trip. Now I of course notice this everywhere, and Onward is certainly a big example. This is even more true is you anthropomorphize the object. If they give the character’s van a name, that means it’s going to get sacrificed.

Best of 2020 #2: The Invisible Man

As with Soul, I know I’m not supposed to like this. There were lots of feminist movies made by women this year, but I preferred the feminist movie made by the dude who made Saw. (At least he got star Elisabeth Moss to give her input). I fear I am too much of a dude. I want my patriarchal abuse to take the form of a sci-fi super-suit, and for the woman being victimized to eventually chop up that suit with a pointy fountain pen.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Marry the Public Domain to Real Life National Pain

Universal has been trying desperately to revive their monster movies for a long time (I say “their”, but of course, these aren’t theirs at all, as the source material of each is in the public domain. Anybody could have made their movie.) Finally, someone saw Get Out and had the good idea, “Uh, let’s partner with Blumhouse on this.” Suddenly, it worked. Blumhouse, of course, excels at tapping into National Pain, and making movies out of our very modern fears. This movie has surpassed Gaslight as the ultimate gaslighting movie.

Best of 2020 #3: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Spoilers! Definitely see this movie first.

Just in cast you weren’t sad enough about Chadwick Boseman’s death, here he is giving the sort of next-level performance that would have positioned him as one of our very best actors. Only now, after he’s gone, do we realize just how much we lost. I certainly hope he gets a posthumous Oscar, though it won’t do him any good.

Rulebook Casefile: Have a Cascade of Unintended Consequences

I haven’t talked about this for a long time.  I don’t think it’s in either book, but a great way to tell a story is to have a cascade of unintended consequences.  This movie is all about finding the meaning in a meaningless murder. As with another play-turned-movie, we see what happens to Levee’s dream deferred, sagging like a heavy load until it finally explodes. No one can directly blame the white people for what happens, but you can only limit a man’s opportunities for so long before he snaps, often lashing out in the wrong direction.

Best of 2020 #4: Soul

The similarities to The 40 Year Old Version were really startling. Both were about 40-something failed NYC artists, teaching frustratingly talentless public school students while still trying to get their belated big break. In both cases, they do get that big break against all odds, and find it disappointing, then wonder what it’s all about. I’m know I’m not supposed to prefer the version co-written and co-directed by a white person, but alas I do. This movie was both thoughtful and a delight.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Upset the Expectations that Carry Over from Other Movies

This movie’s complex cosmology is similar to both Inside Out and Coco, neither of which I liked very much. One reason I disliked those movies is that I thought they were too bleak, so I didn’t trust this one. In fact, at the end, when he’s given the chance to go be alive again or not, I thought, “Wait, crap, this is Pixar, is he going to just choose to stay dead, because that’s how morbid these things have gotten?” I was delighted when he didn’t! After the “kids should accept depression” movie, and the “kids should accept death” movie, we finally got a “adults should refuse to accept depression or death” movie, and it was very gratifying.

Best of 2020 #5: First Cow

Before I begin, I should say that the one thing I couldn’t stand about this movie was the 4:3 aspect ratio. I never stopped noticing those big black bars on either side of my screen. I guess the point was that the performances were more important than the scenery, and I can appreciate that, but the time for 4:3 has passed. It just takes me out of the movie too much.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Marry a Familiar Genre to an Unfamiliar Tone

What happens when Kelly Reichardt makes a heist movie? You get First Cow, a whisper-quiet, super-gentle, move about a very mild crime in 1820s Oregon. A rich man has brought the first cow to the frontier town, and a sweet-natured cook, urged on by his friend, starts stealing the cow’s milk every night to help with his baking. What’s fascinating is that the rules of crime still follow. This movie shows why every crime movie is about “one last job”: because every job is one last job. They just can’t stop adding just one more theft before they’re ready to get out of town. We can see that they’re addicted to their ill-gotten gains, and won’t stop anytime soon, but they can’t see that. We know that they were always fated to keep going until they got caught, but they say, “Oh, man, what are the odds that we’d get caught on our last night?”

Best of 2020: Runners-Up

If you couldn’t tell from the last two days, I was pretty grouchy this year. I have more complaints than praise for most of my top ten. Pardon my complaininess.

10: The 40 Year Old Version

I’ve seen thousands of movies, and I can say without a doubt that this has the worst title of any of them. I thought about citing this movie in my book (always on the lookout for more movies by women of color) but then I’d have to say “No, I don’t mean The 40 Year Old Virgin, there was another movie with a very similar title that you’ve never heard of, and no, this one wasn’t in any way a parody of or response to The 40 Year Old Virgin, it just has a very similar title.” Nevertheless, this is a very winning movie that deserved a wider audience. It’s too long, and could have lost 20 minutes without cutting a single scene just by having tighter editing, but writer / director / star Radha Blank is very appealing in the lead role.

9: Emma

Well, this was certainly Anya Taylor-Joy’s year. I hadn’t heard of her when I saw this a year ago, but now she’s America’s sweetheart. Ultimately, I think I still prefer the Paltrow version, but this was very enjoyable. Alas, this was the last movie I saw in a theater, right as it all started to fall apart. The theater (the only one in town) has now announced it will never re-open.

8: Palm Springs

I don’t like that “Groundhog Day” has ceased being a movie and instead become a genre. Every time they make another one, I think, “Do any of these movies justify their existence?” Thus it was that I was able to really enjoy this movie, which still thinking, “This still has no right to exist. It’s too indebted to Groundhog Day.” But this movie is so watchable because Cristin Milioti is a national treasure.

7: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

How can a movie be so tedious but also somehow riveting at the same time? Writer / director Charlie Kaufman has never been more openly antagonistic to his viewers than he is here, staging defiantly interminable scenes, but the performances are so good and the situation so menacing that I was still compelled to keep watching. In the end, I had to google what the ending meant (Luckily, the novel laid it out much more clearly) but once I had, I was able to appreciate that the movie handled it the way it did.

6: Nomadland

I guess this movie is the frontrunner for the Oscar, and that wouldn’t be a shame or anything if it won, but it wasn’t my favorite movie of the year. I found the experience of watching it to be very mild. It didn’t hit me hard. The cinematography was certainly gorgeous, but shooting so many scenes at sunset is kind of cheating in that department. McDormand is always great, of course.

Okay, tomorrow we’ll start on the Top Five, but I should warn you that I’ll still have a big complaint!


Not on the Best of 2020 List: The Trial of the Chicago Seven

This movie was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. I’ve never been a fan of Sorkin’s, and I could imagine how this material could bring out his worst, but I tried it anyway and found it surprisingly watchable. Basically, it’s just great material. It’s such a fascinating trial that it’s easy to get sucked in.

But it’s certainly not a great movie. Sorkin is trying to be Spielberg, but he’s aping Spielberg’s worst instincts. The scene where Dave Dellinger hits a guard and the camera cuts to his son in the courtroom with a big-eyed “Daddy, why?” expression on his face is pure cheese.

And Sorkin, always a fan of power structures, can’t resist making the prosecutor a much better person than he was. In real life, Bobby Seale was shackled and gagged (nearly to death) for three days, whereas in this movie the prosecutor objects and stops it immediately.

Of course, the big problem with this movie was how miscast everybody was. Sacha Baron Cohen gives a great performance, but he doesn’t exactly look like a member of the Youth International Party. This article does a good job summing up the problem.

As the article makes clear, this was even more of a problem in the other movie where Fred Hampton gets killed.  Judas and the Black Messiah is a good movie and you should watch it, but if you watch the documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, you’ll see Hampton was just a kid, and I don’t think Kaluuya was ever going to be able to capture that.

Not on the Best of 2020 List: Mank

Hello everyone! Welcome to a very belated Best of 2020 series. I usually run these in the two weeks leading up to the Oscars, but the Oscars are greatly delayed this year, so I figured I should go ahead and get around to it. As always, I’ll begin with a list of the some of the movies I didn’t see, in this case: All of the Small Axe films, Promising Young Woman, and Da Five Bloods.

Now, as always, let’s look at some movies that didn’t make the list, starting with Mank.

My first problem was that I watched the movie and had a very hard time making out the dialogue. Afterwards, I was sitting around feeling bad for being so old, then I thought, “Wait, did Fincher fuck with the sound? I’ll bet Fincher fucked with the sound.” So I googled “Mank Sound”. Sure enough, I was right. The primary role of a sound engineer is to make something clear to us poor bastards with fading senses, not to create the impression that we’re in Martin Scorsese’s basement! Don’t fuck with the sound! What an asshole.

Of course, the big problem with this movie is that it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how screenwriting works. In reality, Welles and Mankiewicz broke down Citizen Kane together (which the movie just skips over), then each went off to write their own drafts, then Welles combined the two drafts, favoring his own. The movie acts like it’s never heard of the idea of a shared screenplay credit where the writers didn’t work together in the same room.

I can certainly understand why Mankiewicz would want to take solo credit in later years, and could justify it to himself by saying “Well, I wrote my draft by myself,” but that’s not the way credit works.

Of course the ultimate test is what Welles went on to do and what Mankiewicz went on to do. Mankiewicz is remembered these days solely for Citizen Kane, whereas Welles turned out masterpiece after masterpiece. (Mankiewicz’s Dinner at Eight is great, but it’s very faithfully adapted from the play.)

Of course, there’s another problem. In real life, Mankiewicz and Marion Davies were basically the same age, but one is played by Gary Old-man and the other is played by Amanda Seyfried. Tomorrow’s movie will have big age problems too…