Usually, I find myself hurrying to write this as December 31st draws near but the final days of 2020 seemed to arrive so quickly that I was only too happy to wave goodbye and welcome 2021 with open arms. That also let me think a little bit longer about the year in movies and how different everything has been in the last twelve months.
Who would have thought that back in January when I was seeing a lackluster remake of The Grudge that it would be just one of the 21 films I would see outside of my home during the year? With movie theaters closing in late March/early April and most screenings/releases happening online, 2020 was the year of making the most of the at-home cinema experience and let me tell you, I got pretty good at it. So good, in fact, that I wound up shattering my record for most movies seen in a single year. Now, I don’t count that as a huge win, but with little else to do in terms of travel or social interactions with friends which were prohibited…I think I did my best. I should point out this was also in the midst of buying a new home, painting the entire place, moving, and keeping up with my other hobbies/interests.
While a number felt the loss of in person screenings was a setback, I found it strangely liberating and empowering at the end of the day. Though a number of mainstream studio features were way-laid several months or bumped off the schedule completely, independent films were still arriving on a regular basis. Previously, I might not have said ‘yes’ to review these due to time constraints but I had nothing but time so I was afforded the good fortune to see a number of well-crafted, intelligent, exciting films that I likely would have missed before. True, some were stinkers, but that’s the case for larger films as well.
That ties in nicely to the challenge I laid out for my fellow critics last year “If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.” I’m going to double down on this again in 2021 because it’s looking like we’ll be in this cycle for the foreseeable future. Keep seeking out these smaller films and give indie filmmakers some exposure. At the same time, acknowledge your fellow critics as well who do good work, tip you off to certain films, and support you throughout the year. Off the top of my head, I’m always looking to Brian Orndorf, Tim Lammers, and Jared Huzinga to see what they’ve been watching and The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance is worth a peek as well for another roster of critics doing their thing. Give credit where credit is due!
As we enter the 10th year of this blog (wow!), it goes without saying that I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence over time. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot. The number of readers and subscribers grow, the followers increase, the likes go up — it’s great to see!
If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.
Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!
~Joe (The MN Movie Man)
5. Let Him Go/News of the World – OK, I’m cheating right off the bat but I feel like these two films are very much in the same vein and when it came right down to it, couldn’t decide between them. The rare entries that made me actually long to see them in theaters on the biggest screen possible, I liked the mood both provided with their grand scale and was totally sucked into the stories even though they are as old-fashioned as they can be. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some honest to goodness true movie stars leading the cast. Let Him Go was a real surprise, not knowing anything about it going in, not even that it was a period piece or how it would morph into a sinister thriller that dialed up the tension as it neared its suspenseful end. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were glorious; perfectly (and believably) cast as a husband and wife tracking their young grandson and his mother to the home of her new husband’s violently smarmy family. On the other side of the coin, News of the World finds the most Movie Star of them all, Tom Hanks, proving again why he’s so dependable to audiences yet undervalued by his industry turning in a rich performance as a man transporting an orphaned child to her surviving relatives through dangerous Old West country. There’s nothing wholly original about where these films start or end but a special magic is created in that space between that made them essential watches for 2020.
4. His House – More and more, the best kinds of scares are derived not from the beastly monsters that spring from radioactive tests but from the horrors we create for ourselves. That’s just one of the points being made in this excellent film released through Netflix this year, finding a refugee couple from South Sudan dealing with an evil presence in their temporary housing they must live in while they wait for their immigration papers. Director Remi Weekes knows how to apply just the right amount of pressure throughout, keeping audiences engaged with the kind of visuals that don’t just send chills up your spine but put a joy buzzer to your tailbone. The frights here are well timed and, thus, well earned…thinking about some of them now still gives me the willies. That it all comes to be more about something as simple as the paranormal speaks to the intelligence of the script from Weeks — it truly is a haunting experience and one that I thought about for a number of days after. Highly recommended for those looking for something more than simple scares.
3. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – Everything about this movie made me want to pass on it when it came up on my list. The title, the poster, the concept, it all just looked too saccharine for words and not worth my time. What a total fool I was! Absolutely the best Christmas film to debut this year (sorry, Hallmark/Lifetime and yes, sorry Happiest Season), David E. Talbert’s ambitious musical is the kind of family entertainment that instant holiday classics are made from. Beautifully designed from the steampunk-y Victorian sets to the elaborate costumes and choregraphed within an inch of its life, it thankfully is filmed in a way to let you enjoy it from all angles so you don’t miss a thing. The music is spot-on and allows several actors not yet known for their voices to show off their talent and a few that are to really let ‘er rip (I’m looking at you, Anika Noni Rose!) and it has a strong message for young children from underrepresented groups. I don’t think I suggested this to one person who didn’t fall out of their seat with love for it so I find it strange Netflix isn’t putting more effort into promoting it for end of year awards, especially in production design and song — it definitely could be a contender. Also, this is a film that exposes your true “Scrooge” critics — those that gave this one a thumbs down absolutely got coal in their stocking on December 25.
2. Sound of Metal – As we came down to the final two movies of the year, it was hard to figure out the order because both films have lingered in my brain ever since I saw them. In fact, the two are still bouncing around in there now and just came to rest in these positions so Sound of Metal just misses #1 by the slimmest of margins. That should say something about this mesmerizing look into the journey of a young punk band drummer who loses his hearing but gains a new perspective on his own path at the same time. So many similar stories have been told over the years and they’ve had the same trajectory but Sound of Metal doesn’t head in the directions you think it will and that’s what keeps it alive and fresh, never letting you get ahead of its rhythm. What makes the movie truly unforgettable is the lead performance of Riz Ahmed as Ruben and most especially relative newcomer Paul Raci as Ruben’s leader in the deaf community he joins as he learns to live with his new normal. The work that Ahmed does is remarkable and the layers Raci displays, often without saying anything, is staggering. If I could have one “sure thing” this awards season it’s that Raci will be recognized for his work at every ceremony.
1. Promising Young Woman – Oh, this movie is going to be fun to watch people dissect because it’s pushing the kind of buttons that make many uncomfortable. Writer/director Emerald Fennell makes a helluva battle cry debut with Promising Young Woman and doesn’t pull punches in the telling, something that I truly appreciated. Delivering the single most amazing performance of the year, Carey Mulligan is sensational as Cassandra, a mild-mannered coffee shop employee by day and an avenging angel of sorts at night. To say much more would reveal a number of the secrets I’ve been asked to keep (though my full spoiler-free review will be up 1/14/20) but Fennell has assembled a dynamite supporting cast that surrounds Mulligan for a sinewy mystery we have to unravel as the film progresses. Though Fennell may give us some strings to pull at to reveal the solution, it’s far more complex than it appears on the surface. With so many wonderful touches in design and music selection (this is a film Quentin Tarantino would salivate over), it’s full-bodied entertainment from the first frame to the last. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
Honorable Mentions: 1BR, All In: The Fight for Democracy, Archenemy, Class Action Park, Color Out of Space, Happiest Season, Host (2020), Hunter Hunter, Possessor Uncut, Relic, Soul, Sputnik, The Personal History of David Copperfield, The Witches (2020), To the Stars, The Devil to Pay, Villain, You Cannot Kill David Arquette
5. Becky (2020) – One of two movies on my Worst of 2020 list that will, I’m sure, be featured on a number of “Best of Lists” for other critics, I found Becky to be one of the most unpleasant films I’ve seen in any number of years. Pitched as a brutal, bare-knuckle gender-swapped version of Home Alone, there is precious little in the movie that is redeeming. All of the characters are obnoxiously awful, from the title teen to the nasty criminals that take her family hostage and exact some gruesome acts of bloody gore. The film almost seems to be daring you to get behind violence toward children and animals. Now that we’re so conditioned to violence against adults and attacks on women in film, the attention has turned to children and there are just too many gross moments here from pets getting killed to youngsters being brutalized that completely skeeved me out. If you want a far better film released in 2020 about a female that takes revenge on criminals that have it coming to them, check out the excellent The Devil to Pay…it just so happens to be written by Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye who wrote Becky. I hated Becky as much as I loved The Devil to Pay so…I guess we go into 2021 even stevens.
4. The War with Grandpa – In 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory, Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman played lovers. In 2020’s The War with Grandpa, they play father and daughter. How times have changed, how the mighty have fallen. The great De Niro follows up his towering work in 2019’s The Irishman playing a old-timer that has to go live with his daughter and her family, displacing his grandson to the attic in the process. Adapted from a children’s book, this is one bizarre film that’s more of a study of a young psychotic in the making (Oakes Fegley) than about the bond between a grandfather and his grandson. Instead of a light-hearted comedy, Fegley’s character is so selfish, demanding, terrorizing, and scheming that by the ominous ending you at least suspect there won’t be a sequel because none of the characters will be alive to continue the story.
3. Endings, Beginnings – On one hand, this was a sad one for me because I’ve liked what director Drake Doremus has done in the past. Like Crazy and Equals both had their recommendable aspects and this film has appealing stars in Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan. The problem is that the characters that are featured in this one are so toxic and blithering that you want to skip to the ending from the moment you begin. Over the course of a year (and, wow, does it feel like it!), a love triangle forms and creates odd angles for audiences to view this strange world from. And the smoke. Oh my lord, the smoke. I swear I thought my television was emitting haze after a while because if someone wasn’t smoking they were lighting up another cigarette — it was exhausting…just like the movie, its characters, its script, and its direction. Doremus has excelled at personal relationship drama in the past and putting it into an interesting light, with this one it was a total miss thanks to characters you wanted to toss into the ocean along with their carton of Marlboro Red’s.
2. Bad Hair – Is there anything worse than a scary movie with a good concept terribly executed? For a horror fan like me, the answer is no. That’s what lands Bad Hair at the #2 spot of 2020. That and some awful special effects, bad acting, and poor casting in general that needed the benefit of a more skilled casting director that thought outside of the box. There’s a brilliant film waiting to be made using Justin Simien’s idea but his script needs an overhaul, tightening up the pace and giving it far more edge than it has currently. Keep star Elle Lorraine, though, because she’s arguably the best and most exciting thing about the movie. The “killer weave” plot device is a scream on paper but ham-handed in its execution thanks to astoundingly heinous digital effects that suck any fear out of the proceedings. It also doesn’t help the majority of the cast haven’t locked in the satire Simien is going for, certainly not Vanessa Williams who is not just phoning in her schmaltzy villainess performance, she’s talking through a paper cup attached to a string. Sometimes, you just have to cut off all the damaged, split ends, and start again. I’d love to see Bad Hair get a re-do quickly.
1. She Dies Tomorrow – The best poster of the year? Maybe. The worst movie of the year? Absolutely. Essentially a post-mumblecore version of a Debbie Downer sketch filtered through the modern lens of LA living, She Dies Tomorrow was well liked by a number of people but was just the most excruciating turd of a film to sit through this year. Maybe it was because it came smack in the middle of the year when quarantine life was at its peak annoyance and a film about a woman feeling like her death was imminent just hit too close to home. With her fear spreading like a sickness to her family and friends who each reacted in their own freakish way, I kept waiting for the movie to find one interesting thing to say about life, death…logic…but it’s just a black hole of void that you fall into for 90 minutes and then exit with only regret in your heart. It’s exactly the type of terrible naval-gazing, up for interpretation film, that would serve as comic punchlines in an Albert Brooks or Mike Nichols film back in the day. The central figure is so afraid of death that everyone around her starts to feel the same way…if only she had also thought about being in a really good movie at the same time.
Dis(Honorable) Mentions: A Call to Spy, Disturbing the Peace, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Fisherman’s Friends, Hard Kill, Hillbilly Elegy, Life Overtakes Me, The Beach House, The Pale Door, Vivarium, You Should Have Left
Most Misunderstood: Wonder Woman 1984 – The movie that sits in this position is often several months old so it’s odd that Wonder Woman 1984 is here because it’s the last review I wrote in 2020 (and the last post if you scroll down just a tiny bit). It’s only taken that amount of time for the movie to get a royally rotten reputation in the public eye and, honestly, I’m shocked it was sunk the way it was. Did it not measure up in terms of overall quality to the first film? Yes. Did it have major logic problems and unexplained loopholes that rendered it erratic? Sure. Could it have trimmed one villain off in favor of focusing just on one? Yes (and Pedro Pascal should have been axed…I don’t care what you say). Still, WW84 is so much better than other entries in the DCEU that for people to call it ‘garbage’, ‘the worst movie ever’, and ‘awful’ instead of just merely ‘disappointing’ speaks to something more than just being bummed the movie isn’t good. I can’t help but notice the amount of reviews that trash the female director, the female star, the female villain, but praise the male villain…it’s not just one review, either. These critics need to examine why they really didn’t like the film because it’s not just plot problems.
Honorable Mention: The Craft: Legacy – A staple of sleepovers ever since it was released on home video, 1996’s The Craft has held up rather nicely over the ensuing years so it was a curious film for horror production company Blumhouse to give a not-quite-remake to. Going the route of “continuation-kinda-sorta”, The Craft: Legacy got dismissed fairly quickly but I found it to be a nicely done affair that has a modern voice to it. The scares are barely there but the cast is strong and it even pays decent fan service, showing the filmmakers took the right approach from the start. I wish everything wasn’t dependent on how fanboys liked what is essentially a horror film for a few different groups that often don’t get horror films that speak to them…but, it appears from the rise and fall of this Legacy that the loudest voices will out.
Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2020 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Valley Girl (2020) – The trajectory of the release of this film gave me major whiplash. Though this musical remake of the classic 1983 film was completed over a year ago, it sat on the shelf unreleased until earlier this summer. When the trailer first hit mere weeks before it premiered on demand, I was flummoxed and totally against it, horrified that another ’80s staple was getting trampled on. Then it arrived and holy moly, it was so much fun. Acquitting itself entirely (yes, entirely), this candy-coated re-do may sanitize things a tad but having the stars burst into song using top hits from the era was a brilliant move and it creates a flick that’s easy to love and hard to resist. The soundtrack has received major airplay at my home ever since.
Honorable Mention: The Rental – I was definitely thrown for a loop when I finished Dave Franco’s nifty thriller starring his wife Alison Brie and Dan Stevens. Based on what I’d seen the actor do previously and considering his older brother’s tendency for the weird extreme, I assumed Dave would make an obnoxious movie as a first-time director and fall into any number of traps. Yet, it started off on the right foot and kept waltzing along at a good rhythm all the way through to its final flourish. An unsettling watch…mission accomplished.
Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Throughout movie history rival films have come out that touch on the same topic. There was the great Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano showdown of 1997 and the Armageddon and Deep Impact grudge match the following year. In 2020, it was the small theatrical release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always and the later release of Unpregnant on HBOMax that was the subject of another showdown, albeit on a topic not quite as bombastic. Both stories revolve around high school girls from small towns that get pregnant and make a long journey with a memorable travel companion in search of an abortion. While the stories have overlap and take their central themes seriously, they diverge on overall tone with Unpregnant teetering toward more of the raucous road trip comedy that dovetails into serious drama near the end and Never Rarely Sometimes Always starting in drama and keeping audiences holding their breath throughout. Both excel in coaxing out the humanity in their characters, allowing viewers to see souls behind the tough decisions being made and the pain that’s tied to each step that has brought both young women to this place. The two films are highly recommended, not just for their mature handling of the situation but for their spirited lead performances and dynamite supporting performances from the sidekicks. If you have to choose just one, go with Never Rarely Sometimes Always. You may desire the more lighthearted Unpregnant but the other film will stay with you longer.
Others to Consider: Some of these are titles released in 2020, some are films I saw for the first time in 2020, some are titles I revisited in 2020 — all are worth a look but didn’t quite fit into any other category above!
Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2020
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 21
Total Movies Seen at Home: 580
Grand Total for 2020 (not counting films seen multiple times): 601
Where I Saw the Most Movies – At home!