Chris’s 2020 in Film (…Kind Of)

It’s only now, with the year wrapping up and the vague promise of, well…if not better times then at least slightly less poisonous and soul crushing times, that I’m starting to take more of an interest in the films of 2020. Reading through lists and reviews and recaps – even on this site – have started to awaken in me the desire to search out a lot of the films I previously would have made more of an effort to pursue in less anxiety riddled times.

That’s pretty much been the holding pattern my brain’s been in since the 14th of March, which is when I got the news that this thing was serious enough to keep me at home for the next few weeks, which turned into the next few months, which turned into…well, see the preceding paragraph. I’ve been luckier than most: both my wife and I still have our jobs, our son is doing well in the weird hybrid school system, and so far we’ve been healthy, due in no small part to doing our part in staying socially distant, wearing masks, and basically understanding that a small amount of personal inconvenience is nothing in the grand scheme of keeping as many people safe as possible.

But new things took a backseat in all aspects of media as I tried to not lose my mind to crippling depression and the aforementioned anxiety. Films in particular took a huge hit; it was all I could do to get my brain to focus for more than 20 minutes on any topic, let alone the kind of attention I like to give to movies. So it’s been a lot of older films, rewatches, and basic “all plot no subtext to worry about” as I let my brain unwind and cope.

But that doesn’t mean I eschewed 2020 films altogether; the header image shows I was able to get through some films, and even have the capacity to cobble together a few thoughts on them.

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John David Washington as The Protagonist in Tenet

Shocker: Tenet didn’t in fact save cinema; it also wasn’t nearly as terrible as folks caught up in the uproar over Warner’s decision to position it as the savior of cinema made it out to be (those same people are now screaming about Warner’s equally disastrous decision to streaming everything in 2021 without actually letting the filmmakers know. Like a lot of Christopher Nolan’s movies, it mistakes convolution for complexity, rarely serves its females characters well, and loses the humanity of its characters to the machine of the Big Idea. But, also like a lot of Christopher Nolan’s movies the Big Idea is still really cool (if needlessly complicated), and the set pieces are spectacular in a way we rarely get to see anymore without a lot of overdone CGI (hello, Wonder Woman 1984!). John David Washington makes for a good spy archetype, and his chemistry with Robert Pattinson is great. The whole concept of Time Inversion is neat, and makes for some cool action scenes that start to go up in smoke if you try to think about it too hard, but I’ll take a big swing and a miss over the play it safe, in the box mentality of other big budget films any day of the year. Even this one.

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palm springs
Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs

On the other side of the (don’t call it) Time Travel scene, there is nothing that doesn’t work in the absolutely wonderful Palm Springs. In a way it’s the antithesis of Tenet; here the Big Idea is super clear, allowing the characters to subvert and explore it not in the name plot but in service to their development. The set pieces are small but brilliant – the opening wedding where Andy Samberg as Nyles uses his knowledge of the day to perfectly sync around the guests in an effort to flirt with and seduce Sarah is beguiling simple and more effective than anything in Tenet. As the movie moves on and Sarah, Nyles, and Roy (an always wonderful JK Simmons) navigation their own failures and issues through repetition the movie moves from broad comedy to subtle meditation on how we deal with our issues issues by retreating into routine (hmmm, that sounds familiar…) and yet, it never fails to remember to be funny, to serve its characters, and to have a heart. Blackly comic and smart as a whip, this was one of my favorites of the year.

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From left: Possessor, Peninsula, Antebellum

2020 was also the year of one-word horror films, and over the course my annual participation of the Hooptober marathon I saw four films of varying quality, three of which I’ll briefly summarize below (the fourth, May The Devil Take You, Too was a fun if trifling homage to Evil Dead, so make of that what you will). Of the trio I’d say make every effort to check out Possessor, the sophomore follow-up from Brandon Cronenberg, who has definitely learned from his father the art of cold, clinical body horror that masks deeper questions. The Big Idea is assassination via mind control, with Andrea Riseborough’s Tasya using a weird apparatus to control the actions of a young man in an effort to assassinate a wealthy CEO. Things go awry when the young man being controlled starts to rebel, and Tasya fights to maintain control lest she slip away forever. Super tense and violent and ultimately picking apart questions of identity, trust, our failures and throws in some cool corporate espionage to boot. Peninsula is the loose sequel to Train to Busan from Yeon Sang-ho, and moves away from overt horror to Mad Max-style action as the film follows a team breaking into Korea six years after the zombie outbreak to retrieve a bag of stolen millions. So it’s a bit of a heist film crossed with a sprawling zombie outbreak with John Wick fight scenes. It’s a flimsy hoot, but one I recommend if your in the mood to tune out and watch some crazy action. I wish I could recommend anything about Antebellum, which promises in its premise a kind of socio-political horror in the vein of Jordan Peele, but instead it treads exploitation and gives almost nothing for Janelle Monáe to do. It feels arty for its own sake, with striking visuals that do nothing to make us think or question what is happening. Go listen to Monáe’s albums, or check out Hidden Figures to see her shine.

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Rewatching the Bill and Ted films in preparation for the very fun and sweet Bill and Ted Face the Music I realized that with all the focus Keanu Reeves gets, Alex Winter is fantastic, and I’d argue the stronger performer in all three films. But his real grace appears to be behind the camera as a documentarian; after years of archiving and preserving and interviewing (I joined his Kickstarter in 2016) this year we finally saw Zappa, his look at the life of the musician/composer/freak for for all time Frank Zappa. Although the emphasis was firmly on his musical trajectory it doesn’t gloss over some of the more unseemly stories of his life; and I came away not really learning anything new (I’ve been a Zappa obsessive since I was 17), but really appreciating how Winter was able to paint a portrait that felt closer the to walking genius contradiction I’ve been listening to for almost 40 years. The interviews are great, and if you’re a Zappa fan but on the fence about this I’ll tell you Ruth Underwood steals the entire movie – she’s always been one of the brightest stars to work with Zappa and her interviews and performances here are one of the highlights of the year for me.

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Elizabeth Moss discovers something in The Invisible Man

I’m going to cheat and crib from my review of The Invisible Man I did for the Hooptober marathon:

The wonderful trick about Leigh Whannell’s update is that if you take away the whole “invisibility” thing this movie is STILL terrifying as all hell. Featuring a killer performance from Elizabeth Moss, Whannell focuses the film on the terror of being in a toxic, abusive relationship, making to so identify with Moss’s plight that this is easily the most anxiety, dread-inducing film I’ve seen this year…If you really want to update the Universal Monster classics, forget the abomination that was The Mummy. This is the way you go about it, and news that Whannell is up to also do The Wolf Man is great news, provided we can all go outside again.

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Finally, Christmas Day brought out the big guns from Warners and Disney, with Wonder Woman 1984 and Pixar’s latest Soul being released for streaming on the HBO Max and Disney+, respectively. Warner Brothers and CD continue to confound me: even when they hit on a winning formula with the first Wonder Woman, they learn none of the lessons, crafting an overlong, bloated sequel that spends far too much time on uninteresting villains (shocker: they put Kristen Wiig in glasses to note she’s “awkward” so they can check off the tired She’s All That box of cliches) and a final fight mired in darkness and bad CGI. Trim 30 minutes, put the emphasis back on Gal Gadot’s Amazon Princess, find a way to bring Chris Pine back that’s a little less problematic (but bring him back, because their chemistry is great) and you got yourself something I would have really enjoyed seeing instead of being merely “meh.”

Soul, on the other hand, works almost too well – Pete Docter has become a master of using animation to craft intelligent, emotional films that work on real questions and concerns, and coupled here with Kemp Powers provides a beautifully moving film about passion, music, and what we’re put on this Earth for. There’s a mid-film twist that comes out of nowhere that – while being hilarious – moves away from where I thin the heart of this film is, but it gets back on track pretty quickly and earns every laugh and tear it wrung from me. I almost forgot this was the second Pixar film to come out in 2020 – Onward tried something similar mixing Dungeons & Dragons and the loss of the parent to good if not outstanding results, but Soul is a real gem, one I look forward to going back to.

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Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, with the performance of the year courtesy of Delroy Lindo

All this and I almost forgot Spike Lee’s mesmerizing Da 5 Bloods, which we spoke about at length on our Spike Lee episode of Cinema Dual. So rather that talk more about it here, why don’t you just go and listen to our episode?

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So yeah: it’s a small list of films, but in there I found things to love, things to despise, and all manner of quality in between. I even forgot to mention my favorite 2020 film was actually one that came out in 2019, but wasn’t made publicly available until May, so consider this my please to check out The Vast of Night, which is a quiet, driving mystery of alien radio signals in the 1950s. I’m going to build out a list of other 2020 films I need to see, like Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Midnight Sky, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Boys State, Dick Johnson is Dead

Looks like there’s a list right there. But if you think of any more let me know in the comments. In the meantime, here’s hoping 2021 finds a year more to our liking, and that regardless of what happens, we have movies to keep us sane, and keep us safe.

-Chris

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