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The Most Disappointing Movies of 2020

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Is this not the most “2020” list that there is? Granted, “disappointing” is a polite word for what 2020 was; which helps explain this list, actually. There’s too much negativity in the world already, but there was especially too much negativity in 2020, which was one of those truly astonishing things where literally everyone is in complete agreement that the year sucked ass. Like, usually there’s at least one group of people who comes out of a contentious year happy, either because of an election going their way, or a sports upset. What can I say; lockdown is an equal-opportunity ball-buster.

So instead of an out-and-out “Worst Of” list, here I’m going in a different direction; the most disappointing. Now, this is happening in part because I didn’t see enough bad movies to justify a full list; yeah, even with all that extra lockdown time, I just never got around to 365. But I also think that “disappointing movies” are much more interesting than “bad movies” from a discussion standpoint, because there were a lot of movies that came out last year that were completely without worth (again, 365) and just aren’t worth talking about. Which means that there were some horrible movies from last year that aren’t going to be on this list, because really, they were hopeless from the word go: for example, Dolittle was an embarrassing failure, but it looked like it was going to be an embarrassing failure since well before it came out, so it doesn’t count for this. In order for a movie to be disappointing, there has to have been at least a chance for something worthwhile, which is something at least all of these movies had.

Tenet 

(Image source: Stulovesfilm)

The brilliant thing about Nolan’s best movies – Inception, The Prestige, Memento, his first two Batman flicks – is how they balance these genuinely heady concepts with a populist sensibility. They’re complicated movies, but never so complicated that the average audience member wouldn’t be able to keep up. With Tenet, the scales finally tip over, resulting in a movie where you’d need a doctorate in temporal physics to keep up; and even then, probably not. And while I’d much rather have a movie fail for being too weird and out there rather than too formulaic and dumbed down, it does still lead to a moviegoing experience littered with moments of brilliance, but one that doesn’t add up to something worthwhile like his other films. The fact is, for as cerebral and introspective as Inception and The Prestige could be, I got a legit emotional charge out of both those movies, whereas this film felt hollow and sterile to its core. Strange as it is to say, all the time travel stuff in Bill & Ted 3 made more sense than it does here, and worked better dramatically as well.

The Traitor 

(Image source: The Playlist)

Admittedly, I went into this film with some degree of hype, as the way it was getting described at the time was “2020’s The Irishman.” This pushes all my buttons, what with The Irishman being well regarded as one of the best films from 2019, which in a year that also gave us Parasite and Knives Out, is hella impressive. Unfortunately, The Traitor lacks the central cohesion that made Scorsese’s masterpiece such a comparatively easy watch, even though that movie was a whole hour longer than this one.

Onward

(Image source: Cleveland Scene)

When I wrote that whole disclaimer up above about how this isn’t a “worst of” list, this is the movie I was thinking about. Because I didn’t like this movie very much – I thought it was derivative of Pixar’s previous heights, and it suffered from some truly shoddy worldbuilding – but the baseline competence you can expect from Pixar is enough to save this from any conventional “worst of” lists. But in terms of disappointments…yeah. My feelings about Onward is that it’s essentially a reverse Up; you’ll remember that that movie famously peaked in its first ten minutes, after which point it shifted gears and became just a pretty great animated movie. Onward goes the opposite way, plodding along as a below-average Pixar film for its first two-thirds, until the last act, where it finally gets a sense for legit emotional stakes. And credit where it’s due; this thing has a great ending. But until that comes, what we’re stuck with is a messy script, with subpar visual invention as a result of the aforementioned shoddy worldbuilding, which is at once way too complicated – this thing opens with a voiceover trying to explain the logistics of the world, something no previous Pixar movie had to do – and strangely lazy, with a lot of scenes feeling like they just took the bog-standard real world, and added some orcs. Seriously, you compare this to previous Pixar movies, which excelled at this exact thing – Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. especially – that this can’t help but come off as very poor.

The Old Guard

(Image source: Crime and Relative Dimensions in Space)

I would have thought, what with the rise of superhero flicks over the past decade, and the increasingly dominant force of nerdom in popular culture, that we had finally moved past the phenomenon of movies with inanely fun premises, that tend to shy away from those premises. But here we are, with a dire Netflix Original that seems for all the world like a throwback to the early-2000s X-Men movies, the ones that always seemed vaguely embarrassed of their comic book origins. That’s the vibe of this film, which takes a hell of a setup – immortal globe-trotting mercenaries – and strips it of any potential fun that might’ve been had with that premise, until all we’re left with is a plodding, ponderous bore, a film that acts like it’s deeper than it really is.

Capone 

(Image source: Film School Rejects)

I was rooting for Josh Trank, as I’m a fan of directors who get fucked by the studio system (or fuck themselves; by all accounts, Fant4stic was a messy situation) and then go on to prove themselves as an interesting director on smaller projects. And in fairness, that’s sort of what happens here. I actually was really into Capone for its first half hour or so, and in a sea of vitriolic reviews and career postmortems, I was gearing up to be one of the few people who was like, actually, there’s something here. It’s a biopic of Al Capone, but it completely does away with the usual indulgences that come with gangster biopics, eschewing the traditional “kewl” aesthetic of the lifestyle in favor of portraying this guy like the monster he was; pathetic, and small. That’s all well and good, and as far as movies like this go, kind of brave. The problem is, once the movie sets off in this direction, it kind of has nowhere to go, and the result is a film that starts strong and focused but which ultimately peters out well before the climax.

Sonic the Hedgehog 

(Image source: Polygon)

This might seem weird to say, but I’m actually more disappointed in Sonic the Hedgehog for it not being the insane, Cats-like disaster we were all promised in that initial trailer. Because that would’ve been horrible, don’t get me wrong…but it would’ve at least been memorable. Because while the final product of Sonic the Hedgehog gains points for a surprising baseline competence, especially when you consider how the vast majority of video game movie adaptations turn out, it does kind of become a problem when “baseline competence” is both the best and only really good thing you can say about a movie. Call me crazy, but I almost prefer the live-action Super Mario Bros. style of failure to what this is, because while that film is awful, it’s at least awful in a way that’s fascinating and imaginative. This film inevitably ends up feeling like a checklist, a studio-mandated slog through mediocrity in the name of shamelessly corporate franchise building.

Antebellum 

(Image source: All Horror)

It is significantly easier to make a great horror movie trailer than it is to make a great horror movie (want proof? Just look at The Grudge, another 2020 horror film which could’ve easily ended up on this list for much of the same reasons as this film. This can count as a dishonorable mention, I guess). We had nothing to go on but a trailer, and that trailer was all we needed; this movie had me on its side simply by completely bucking the trend of trailers that go out of their way to spoil the entire movie (looking at you, Marvel/DC) and instead leaving us with just a feeling, an impression. Like a good trailer should. Turns out, it was all in service of a movie with a premise Octavia E. Butler did way better.

The New Mutants 

(Image source: CinemaBlend)

In an age where superhero stagnation has never felt more prevalent, The New Mutants promised to be something different; an X-Men horror movie. Everything was lined up for this to work; it was positioned to come into a moviegoing landscape dominated by crushingly “same-y” Marvel movies, and DC movies who at that time were still struggling to get their act together. The New Mutants promised to be a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s the same incompetent schlock we’ve come to expect from the Fox X-Men division, right down to its legendarially staggered release date. Well, now that it’s finally out, we can definitively say: it wasn’t worth the wait. In fact, the only positive thing you can say about it is that it’s blessedly short.

Enola Holmes

(Image source: Metacritic)

Movie-wise, Sherlock Holmes has been through the fucking ringer these past couple of years. 2018 was a franchise low point, where we got two of the all-time worst Sherlock Holmes movies all in the same year – Holmes & Watson and Sherlock Gnomes – which is especially damning when you consider just how many times this literary character has been adapted. The best thing you can say about Enola Holmes is that it doesn’t quite sink to that level, but even taking that into account, it still sucks. It’s less a tale of a pint-sized deductive genius than it is a bland YA fantasy, and not a good one at that; this is the little sister of the world’s greatest detective, and the smartest thing she does all movie is unscramble a Scrabble board. Deductive genius.

Mulan 

(Image source: The Stanford Daily)

My relationship to this movie is akin to that of Charlie Brown and the damn football. Because there was a time where I did honestly think, you know what, if there was ever a Disney live-action remake that had the chance of actually justifying its own existence, it’s this one. And in my defense, every reported change did sound like a good one; less songs, less annoying talking dragon, more emphasis on wuxia action. Then it came out, and I was crushingly reminded that this was, at the end, a Disney live-action remake, so really, what was I expecting? Something good? Please. The only halfway-decent thing that can be said about the Mulan live-action remake is that it bucks the trend of every one of these remakes being improbably worse than the one that came before, if only because instead of being worse than the “live action” Lion King from last year, it’s only as bad. So, progress? Honestly, I’m still reeling from the fact that this film is a whole half hour longer than its animated counterpart, and yet the plot feels infinitely more rushed. Like, mathematically, that should be impossible, and yet.

Mank 

(Image source: SWITCH.)

What a biopic needs to do in order to work is manage to engage me in a story I otherwise would’ve had no interest in. Case in point: I don’t give a shit about Facebook, or the making of Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg as a person can suck a toad. But somehow, The Social Network is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and a defining movie of the 21st century. There was no reason to assume Mank wouldn’t turn out the same way, given that it was the same director at the helm, David Fincher, making his first proper movie since 2014’s Gone Girl. But Mank is almost overpoweringly boring, due in no small part because it absolutely fails to actually sell you on why this is a story worth telling. It’s a biopic about the making of Citizen Kane, and stupidly, it seems to operate under the assumption that you already know and care about all the circumstances involved in that.

Birds of Prey

(Image source: IndieWire)

It’s rare for a movie to be so completely one-upped by a TV show, but by the time Birds of Prey came out, all I could think was, “Yeah, Harley Quinn did it better.” And isn’t that the most damning thing? There’s a 20-minute animated series that not only beat you to the punch when it came to “R-rated Harley Quinn,” but did it with better writing, better characters, better action…and just being better?

Train to Busan: Peninsula

(Image source: IMDb)

2016’s Train to Busan is often heralded as one of the defining zombie movies of the 2010s, and for good reason; not only is it amazing, but it came out at a time where everyone in the world was sick to death of the walking dead (both the TV show and just the general concept), and it felt like nothing new could be done with the concept. And then this movie came along, and roundly kicked everyone’s asses by showing us what happens when zombies are done right. What’s funny is, the original Train to Busan doesn’t even do anything that unique; plot-wise, it’s a paint-by-numbers zombie tale, with all the tropes and cliches that come with that. But it was done with such competency, it felt brand new. It also felt like it didn’t need a sequel, but you know what, there was still some reason to hope, given that it was the same writer/director at the helm. As it turns out, lightning can’t strike twice, and what we’re left with is worse than a bad zombie movie; it’s a zombie movie I’ve seen a million times before.

Artemis Fowl

(Image source: Filmlnk)

If I’m being honest, this barely counts for this list, since this looked like a disaster from the moment the first trailer dropped (and even before then, the year’s long development cycle certainly didn’t bode well). But even though we had been warned beforehand that this would be taking significant liberties with the source material – by which I mean, they missed the whole point of those books and made Artemis a good guy – the sheer magnitude of how cobbled together this movie feels is genuinely staggering. This movie made headlines for being one of the first major release pictures to be dropped on streaming early in the pandemic, but I don’t know; judging by how minimum effort this whole thing is, I can’t imagine they were ever going to put it in theaters.

Rundown of the Best Films of 2020

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Aaaaaaand, we’re back! New semester, woo woo.

My original plan was to get this over and done way back in January. My thinking was, nobody wants to recall 2020 any more than we absolutely have to, so why not get the requisite “Best Of” list out of the way as soon as possible? It was a good plan, or so I thought, until I remembered just how many films I had yet to see, films which by all accounts I needed to see in order to make any self-respecting Best Of list complete (even if it was just to say, “Yeah I saw it, wasn’t a fan).

This proved a problem, since – like everybody else – I spent most of 2020 at the mercy of staggered VOD releases and a lack of safe cinema viewings. There are movies that show up on this list – Saint Frances, Nomadland – that I literally wasn’t able to see until earlier this year (my first viewing of Saint Frances was literally just a few days ago). Does this mean they should technically count as 2021 films rather than 2020? Honestly, at that point we’re getting into semantics that I couldn’t give less of a damn about. It’s the same sort of thing that happened with Portrait of a Lady on Fire last year; it’s a 2019 movie, and I counted it as a 2019 movie, but because of some staggered release fuckery I wasn’t able to see it in a cinema until February 2020 (I even joked in last year’s rundown that it’s movie so good, I might have to count it again this time).

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter if these are all 2019 movies, or 2020 movies, or 2021 movies; these are all movies that I loved, which either spoke to me on a deep level or just entertained me really well for about ninety minutes. Semantics be damned; this is the list. And because 2020 seemed like such an onslaught of negativity, I thought it might be nice to go way past the usual 10 and instead settle for 25 of the best offerings of the year. So, woo!

The Assistant 

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

This is kind of a tough one to recommend, as it’s low-key and naturalistic in a way that could be considered a fault. I’ll admit that the first time I saw it, I almost didn’t know what to make of it, and it really had to percolate in my brain before I could get a handle on it. But since this was one of the first movies I saw all year (it was definitely the first one I saw in a theater, back when that was a thing), it’s had a while to percolate in my heat. And I gotta say, the longer it’s been, the more I’ve grown to love it, and at this point I’m holding it up as proof that aspects to a film that usually are considered automatic negatives – a drab color palette, dull lighting, flat camera angles and basic movements – can be used and repurposed into positives. Because this is the type of movie where, if it were made more conventionally, it would not work.

This got some notice at the beginning of the year as Hollywood’s first stab at tackling the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal, a prospect that immediately sets off some pretty strong alarm bells. But The Assistant manages to deftly avoid every potential pitfall of bad taste or faux moralizing, successfully shining a direct spotlight on the broken system that allowed this monstrous predator to flourish unchallenged for so long. And that’s where the focus stays; the system. At no point in this film is the name “Harvey Weinstein” uttered, nor does he ever make a physical appearance, either played by an actor or shown via archive footage of some sort, which I think is an important call. It keeps the focus squarely on what still needs fixing, rather than building up a monster so we can pretend we already solved the problem by bringing him down. 

The Kid Detective

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

My love of the whodunnit genre was probably pretty self-evident from anyone who read my “Knives Out/Irishman” article from a couple of months ago, as are my feelings about whenever film tries to take on the genre; namely, that is is very, very hard to do, and almost never works. A perfect whodunnit should manage to strike a balance between an engaging, thoughtful mystery – one that plays fair with its audience in terms of clues and internal logic – and an interesting main detective who has a character arc of his own. This is, obviously, one hell of a tall order, and it’s all too common for movie mysteries to prioritize one over the other; either you’ll get a film with strong character work but weak mystery plotting (Gosford Park, Lantana) or a film with too much focus on the mystery and not enough focus on characters worth giving a shit about (The Last of Sheila). Part of what made 2019’s Knives Out such a miracle was how deftly it managed to merge these two halves; it had a plot straight out of Agatha Christie at her peak, and characters with honest-to-god arcs.  

I was actually reminded a lot of Rian Johnson while watching The Kid Detective, since the closest analogue I can think of to this is Johnson’s first film, the high-school neo-noir Brick. Like that film, The Kid Detective gets a lot of comedic milage out of characters not acting their age; with Brick, the joke was that it was a bunch of high schoolers behaving like they were characters in a smoky pulp thriller, and here, the joke is that it’s an adult man who still acts like he’s a precocious kid detective, a la Encyclopedia Brown. It’s a sad situation for any guy to be in, and the film hits a great tightrope; it takes his grief seriously, and it mines his arrested development for legitimate pathos, but it also recognizes that the idea of a grown-ass man acting like he’s Nancy Drew is really, really funny.

Ordinary Love

(Image source: SlashFilm.com)

I have a theory that movies like this exist solely to blindside cynics. On the surface, there is little to distinguish Ordinary Love from any number of weepy, cloying, serious-faced dramas about old people and cancer, all that fun jazz that awards season falls over themselves to shower with praise. But Ordinary Love is so far removed from the saccharine, Oscarbait-y nonsense it sounds like from its description that it almost isn’t fair. This is an honest-feeling, realistically emotional movie; no room for the Oscars’ faux platitudes here. It’s also one of the increasingly rare instances where Liam Neeson takes a break from punching generic bad guys and goes back to punching our feelings. 

Clemency 

(Image source: The New York Times)

The first thing you should know about Clemency is that that is a fucking ironic title. There is precious little mercy in the whole film; not for the inmates, not for the wardens, and certainly not for any of their families. It’s a drama about the death row process, and the first thing we see is a botched execution. Everything, from the unnatural color of the fluid, to the blood that pools around the needle’s entry point, to the twitching convulsions of the man strapped to the table, burns itself into our brain. Importantly, it’s a scene that’s hard to watch without ever coming off as exploitative, which is vital to the success of a movie like this. Because it’s not about the executions, not really; Clemency’s main focus is on the people caught in this process, and the psychological damage it has on them. And it’s so effective at this that is bypasses any reservations you might have about its subject matter, instead engaging you in one of the most empathically human stories of the whole year.

Bait

(Image source: Cineuropa.org)

There’s a lot about Bait that might paint it as a spiritual cousin of sorts to the previous year’s The Lighthouse; monochrome cinematography, reduced aspect ratio, unusual audio, and a general tone of ambiguity. That tone of ambiguity actually almost put me off the whole thing, as it took me a good 10 minutes of general confusion before I really started to get a handle on what Bait was going for. Once I did, though, I was hooked like a fish; fitting, considering the film’s seaside setting. This is the best kind of strange movie; it pulls you in with its unconventional presentation, and by the time you get to the end, you realize all those quirks actually served a purpose.

Emma. 

(Image source: The New York Times)

The thing about Jane Austen is, there’s the cliched “idea” of what her works amount to – fancy clothes, upper crust British accents, and way too much dancing – verses the rich life that actually exists within her text. I’ve not yet read Emma (though for whatever it’s worth, I did see Clueless way back when), but the quality and depth of the world which this movie creates tells me that they brought the source to life about as well as can be done. This was one of the few films from early 2020 that I did manage to see in theaters, which is great, because this is a big-screen movie through and through. It’s not just the details on all the sets and costumes, but the way the colors just pop off of the screen was something to behold. Bright and sunny movies like this really do put all those dour, smoggy CGI-fests to shame.

Days of the Bagnold Summer

(Image source: Variety)

There are few things harder to pull off in storytelling than sincerity that isn’t mawkish or saccharine. In that respect, Days of the Bagnold Summer is a triumph. Like with the best movies of it’s kind, it’s the sort of thing that you can imagine going completely wrong, if the script was a little less on the ball or the director didn’t give a shit, this exact same setup and plot could’ve resulted in something unwatchable. Instead, it all was calibrated to just the right degree. Instead of sickly sweet nonsense, this film is low-key one of the best of the year.

The Vast of Night

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

A childhood spent watching The Twilight Zone prepared me for this movie, and even so, I wound up more delighted in it than I expected. It’s not just that this film perfectly apes the surface-level aesthetics that defined shows like that; no, what makes The Vast of Night such a fantastic film is it’s deeper understanding of why these kinds of stories fascinate us in the first place. While The Kid Detective might be the better “mystery movie” at least in terms of having a complete mystery at its center, it’s this movie that really manages to capture the addictive nature of these kinds of narratives. Who wouldn’t want to be the one to prove that there really is something out there?

Mogul Mowgli

(Image source: Berlinale)

What we’ve got here is Riz Ahmed (who also co-wrote the film) playing a rapper who’s about to break through with his first big U.S. tour, when he’s suddenly struck down with this degenerative illness, the type that makes it increasingly impossible to lift his limbs without assistance, among other things. With his whole career seemingly on the line, Zed begins to spiral inwardly as well as outwardly, and his mind becomes tormented with violent hallucinations. In a lot of ways, this whole movie comes off as a violent hallucination. It’s filmed excellently, so vibrant and eclectic, and what it comes off as is like the whole movie is one massive freestyle inside this dude’s brain. Like, the movie begins with Riz Ahmed rapping (and holy shit, this dude can rap, to the point where I’m not really a fan of rap, but after this movie, I think I’m a fan of rap), and it’s one of the most propulsively energetic scenes of the whole damn year. But then the movie keeps going with that level of kinetic energy, and it really does feel like the movie itself is keeping the beat going.

System Crasher

(Image source: Loud and Clear Reviews)

What’s with Netflix, dumping all their most interesting movies in a clump where no one will notice them, all while promoting trash like Project Power for weeks on end? I don’t know, and I don’t like it, because this was one of my favorite movies of the year, but despite being readily available on one of the premier streaming services, there’s a good chance that 99% of people with subscriptions don’t know it exists. And they should, because it’s awesome; tackling a subject that could easily descend into clichéd platitudes, what System Crasher does instead is use immersive direction and really raw performances to craft a story for which it understands there are no correct answers. Unlike other, lesser movies about “problem children,” this movie never looks for the easy way out.

Sound of Metal

(Image source: The Indian Express)

Riz Ahmed has been on a tear lately; he’s already shown up on this list once already, with Mogul Mowgli. Funnily enough, this actually serves as an interesting spiritual cousin to that film in a lot of ways; in both, Ahmed plays a musician who’s convinced he’s about to make it big, until he’s suddenly struck down with a medical affliction (in Mogul Mowgli it was a variety of ailments; here, it’s just deafness), and the rest of the movie has to do with him coming to terms with his new reality. It’s real, it’s raw, and it’s great because it refuses to either pull any punches, or descend into misery porn, instead balancing out perfectly as a pointed, but empathically human character study.

A White, White Day

(Image source: Athens International Film Festival)

This here is a “wavelength movie” if ever there was one; you really need to be able to get on this thing’s register if any of it’s going to work for you. There’s long stretches in this movie where nothing is happening, and we’re just left to absorb the silence and the atmosphere. Early on, there’s a series of static shots of this one, unfinished house, and we see the landscape switch from night to day, night to day, night to day, night to day, and this happens for at least a full minute. Later, the main character, Ingimundur, is driving his truck, when he hits a boulder in the middle of the street. He successfully rolls it to the side of the road, and pushes it over the edge (he’s driving on a mountain). We follow the boulder’s long, tumbling journey down to the bottom, again in a series of completely static shots. To some, this will be elusive, and annoying. To others, it will just be boring. For myself, I saw it in just the right headspace to appreciate something like this, and as such, the overall effect of the film was honestly hypnotic. Something about the combination of long takes, of silent scenery that’s just a little too overexposed, of the general lack of context or the film’s initial refusal to give you a definitive foothold in the story, it all worked for me.

It helps that the story is already inherently interesting to me; it’s another mystery movie, this time having to do with an off-duty police officer who begins to suspect his recently deceased wife of having an affair. But what’s important to understand – and what the film makes clear very early on – is that this is waaaay more a character study than it is a mystery movie, with the film spending much more time on the character’s internal mechanics than his outward actions. Like I said, this is a mystery movie, but the mystery is actually the main character; as played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in what might be the performance of the year, Ingimundur is one of the most captivating screen characters of the past decade, a fascinating mess of compulsion and turmoil that was more than enough to carry me through this potentially off-putting presentation. It’s not always a lot that separates art from pretentious shit, and without that character, and that performance, I’m not sure A White, White Day would’ve found itself on the right side of that divide. But he’s there, and it’s enough.

Fourteen

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

Who’d have thought, in a year where a new Christopher Nolan movie came out, that this is the most interesting film to use time as a weapon. Fourteen is a movie with a simple premise; it’s basically a portrait of this friendship as it evolves throughout the years. And in execution, that’s exactly what it is, except that it entirely forgoes any sort of signifier for what era of their lives it is, or how much time has passed since the last time we saw them. It will cut from one scene to the next, and anywhere from weeks to months to even years will have passed, and we’re basically left to try and keep up without any hand-holding. And it works, because this is the kind of story that warrants a stream-of-consciousness presentation.

Zombi Child

(Image source: IndieWire)


It’s films like this that reveal the shallow simple-mindedness of both the viewing public for insisting that there’s nothing interesting left to be done with the zombie genre, and the gutless studio system for validating that belief with an endless stream of completely interchangeable zombie movies. I remember when Train to Busan came out, and was heralded as a revolutionary zombie flick. This, at least, one-ups it in that respect, and a couple of others too. In so many ways, this feels like a throwback, like it comes from that strange era of zombie lore that existed before Night of the Living Dead came along and reinvented the whole thing in its image. The primary driving force behind the narrative is voodoo; the film opens in 1962, where a Haitian man collapses in the street and is pronounced dead. We see his corpse lying in the casket, we see them having a funeral for him and everything, so it’s a bit of a surprise when he’s next seen shambling around, wandering the streets of his old haunts apparently as a member of the living dead. From there, the film unfolds with a multi-generational narrative that has to do with the family, heritage, and the echoes of trauma. This isn’t a movie that’s interested in hordes of the undead closing in and eating flesh. Rather, it’s main setpiece sees a lone zombie seeking out his own gravesite.

Rocks

(Image source: Hollywood Reporter)

Rocks is a heartwarming movie; better, it’s an actually heartwarming movie, not one of those Hallmark flicks that always seems two seconds away from suffocating you with diabetes for how sugary it is. This movie’s emotional core is honest. And the way it delivers on that emotional core oozes with lived-in naturalism; the whole film is populated by child actors who do that rare thing in movies where they feel like real kids. In fact, the world feels so lived-in, and the characters so complete, that I honestly could’ve spent the whole 90 minutes just watching them go through their lives, and not have any sources of conflict or “plot” ever show up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, and it doesn’t interrupt anything else or come out of nowhere, or anything like that. But this film was already doing such a good job of immersing me in its world, that I’m convinced it could’ve sustained itself on just that low-key register right to the end.

Nomadland 

(Image source: ABC)

If there’s a running theme in this rundown, it’s me trying to sell these movies which, on the outside, just seem like the most maudlin, pretentious shit. That’s probably never been more true than with Nomadland, which I’m gonna have serious trouble even describing, let alone making it sound like viable entertainment. Basically, the whole movie is about Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman living in the margins of society. And, that’s basically it. But that’s all this movie needs. This is a genuine masterclass in low-key grandeur, that combination of tactical groundedness and sweeping splendor. God, I have no idea how this director is gonna make a Marvel movie.

The Way Back

(Image source: IMDb)

I am infinitely more fascinated by artists and creators whose output is hit-or-miss than I am by consistency, no matter how good that consistency tends to be. In so many ways, Ben Affleck is the poster boy for fascinating inconsistency; after being considered little more than a joke for basically the whole of the early 2000s, he managed to achieve a legitimately inspiring comeback by writing and directing (and occasionally starring in) some pretty fantastic films, like Gone Baby Gone, still my favorite of his cinematic output. This new lease on his career was seemingly solidified by him winning the Oscar for Argo…and then he went and played Batman, where probably the nicest thing you could say about it was that he was the best part of a pretty poor bunch of films. Billed as a comeback movie – both for the character Ben Affleck plays, and Affleck himself – The Way Back gains serious depth from just how deep into his own demons the star is willing to mine. There’s an emotional honesty to this movie that just can’t be faked, and the details of Affleck’s character’s alcoholism feel lived-in and genuine. The most impressive thing about the film is that it recognizes that redemption isn’t easy, and the path back to an okay place – not even a good place, just a manageable one – oftentimes feels impossible.

The Climb

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

The Climb is another interesting, elusive movie. Like Fourteen, it’s a portrait of a friendship’s evolution over the years, and like Fourteen, it presents itself in a very stream-of-consciousness manner. There are time jumps within the scene transitions, and half of the movie is spent with the audience trying to get back up to speed with what’s been going on in the meantime. But it works, though, because the characters are interesting, and watching them both progress and regress as time goes by is legit interesting.

Martin Eden

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

I’m not a Jack London guy; never read any of the books, not really sure what his place in the wider popular culture is (the closest I got was that one episode of Next Generation where Data goes back in time, and there’s a Jack London cameo. It was a pretty crap episode). But I still liked this a lot, with my lack of Jack London know-how not serving as a detriment to the movie at all (I had to resort to Wikipedia for trivia, and I was informed that this is apparently only “loosely based on the 1909 novel of the same name”). It’s immersive as hell, with some vibrant cinematography, really smart editing choices, and a central performance that a) was great, and b) kept reminding me of Christian Bale, what with his chin and his intense stare. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes choices made here that I think benefited the overall film greatly, like how they never really specify exactly when this movie is taking place (I saw one online outlet liken this tactic to what Transit did with its nebulous setting, and I think that’s appropriate). I also like how basically the whole movie we’re left on our own to decide how we feel about anything that’s going on. Specifically, I’m thinking of Martin’s politics (it can occasionally be annoying when a film doesn’t take an overtly hardline stance on these kind of issues, but here I think it was appropriate), and his romance.

The love between Martin and Elena is one of the film’s smarter flourishes, because at every turn, we’re invited to wonder whether or not they actually work as a couple. He’s clearly not welcome in her world (at one point, he goes to a classy party, and there’s a clever, Silence of the Lambs-style shot where he’s the only one not wearing a beige suit), and he doesn’t want to be, anyway. He writes passionately about harsh poverty and destitution, subjects that Elena wishes to simply avoid. But he’s also a forceful dick, someone who hinted early on that he was eventually gonna grow into an absolute self-righteous shitheel. That said, this isn’t like…I don’t know, Valerian or something, where you’re genuinely left scratching your head as to why either of these people can even stand to be in the same room as each other. Martin and Elena have legit chemistry, and the film does good work at visually suggesting their connection. Remember up top when I said this movie had smart editing? When I wrote that, I was specifically thinking of this sequence early on where we cut between Martin on a boardwalk, strolling beside the raging blue ocean, and Elena playing the piano, the camera really capturing the vibrant blues of her eyes. Blue is a constant color throughout this movie; come to think of it, I haven’t seen overt color-coding like this since Manhunter. Good shit

Shirley 

(Image source: CineVue)

In case my entry for Ordinary Love didn’t make clear, I have absolutely no time for traditional Oscarbait biopics, the “based on a true story” nonsense that seems tailor made to give Academy voters a hard on. If it were up to me, all biopics would take the track that Shirley does; instead of trying to present an “accurate” view of what she was “really” like (which is an impossible task, destined to fail), the film instead cleverly repositions itself as more of a “spiritual” representation. It’s the life of Shirley Jackson, as seen through the lens of a Shirley Jackson story. That’s right, instead of another weepy, serious bit of Oscarbait nonsense, we’ve got a legit gothic horror movie on our hands, and what’s more, it’s a real good one. Not since Capote has a biopic of a famous author delved so effectively into what their work was actually like. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

(Image source: The New York Times)

Much like The Assistant, this is another movie that could’ve felt low-key to a fault, but somehow it stays on just the right side of its minimalist style so that it never feels boring. What’s funny is, I keep having to remind myself that this is technically a “hot button movie,” since it deals directly and frankly with abortion, but the movie’s lived-in naturalism keeps the focus where it belongs; on the characters in the story, and their journey. What could’ve felt almost punishingly down-to-earth is given a real minimalist power

Saint Maud

(Image source: IMDb)

I had a feeling when I first watched the trailer for this…god, it must’ve been over a year ago at this point? Anyway, I got a strong impression from watching that that this would be a movie I’d vibe with. The trailer was giving off the right kind of energy, and while that is by no means a guarantee of success (as anyone who remembers 2020’s The Grudge can attest, it’s much easier to make a good horror trailer than it is to make a good horror movie), I did notice that this was a movie coming from A24, who have a pretty good track record in this area (their previous religious horror movies: The VVitch and First Reformed. That’s fucking pedigree right there).

Anyway, I am sooooo glad I waited before making this list so that I could see this, because my instinct was right; the list wouldn’t have been complete without it. This is a fantastic thriller, one of those brilliant “how much of this is real, and how much of what we’re seeing is just the main character going insane?” horror movies that thrives on uncertainty.

The Invisible Man

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

If Saint Maud was the properly scary horror movie of 2020, this here is the fun horror movie of 2020. Which works, since the main boon for classic universal monsters was never that they were scary; oh, they were atmospheric, sure, but none of them were particularly frightening. Rather, they were fun, and iconic, and a bit camp, and that’s I think what Leigh Whannell was smart enough to lock in on for his remake, easily the best horror remake in quite some time. Not since Jordan Voight-Roberts has a filmmaker managed to make a studio film that felt this personal and scrappy. The Invisible Man’s success must be something of an embarrassment to Hollywood; they were all set up with their big extended universe to match Marvel, only for that whole thing to crash and burn one movie in. And then, to add insult to injury, The Invisible Man came along, kicking its big-budget predecessor’s asses so hard, and with such superior filmmaking, that now the Tom Cruise Mummy is somehow even more of an irrelevancy than it already was. I didn’t even think that was possible!

Saint Frances 

(Image source: Screen Daily)

Here we have a movie, like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which is technically a “hot button movie” – in that its plot includes topics such as abortion – but when you actually sit down and watch the thing, all that stuff flies out of your head and you’re left with this empathic, soulful character study. This is a rough one to describe, because no matter what way I attack the story, it’s going to end up feeling rough and disjointed, tackling too many things without any coherence or clarity. The strength of Kelly O’Sullivan’s script and Alex Thompson’s direction (their first forays into both departments, amazingly) is how well they manage to encompass all these disparate themes and events as if they were all connected by one narrative thread. It’s a movie that contains multitudes; it’s wrong to call it a comedy, despite it being occasionally very funny, and it’s wrong to call it somber, despite it being frequently melancholic. It’s a lot of things, and they all compliment each other. 

The Gentlemen

(Image source: The New York Times)

The Gentlemen isn’t the “deepest” movie of 2020, and it wasn’t the most “meaningful” or “impactful” or whatever other words you want to use. But in a very real way, this might’ve been the most valuable. There’s a reason that, for all the movies I saw in the cinema early in the year, this is the one I kept coming back to months into lockdown. It’s just fun; better, it has enough sense about itself to know when to push the joke, and when to lay off. There’s a sense of tonal control here that speaks to real skill behind the camera, and I say that as someone who hasn’t always been impressed with Guy Ritchie’s output.

Speaking of, this is the movie Ritchie made right after his horrible Aladdin live-action “movie,” and I gotta say, there is such a tangible difference between this movie – which he was clearly passionate about – and that movie, which just screams “paycheck job.” Which, honestly, more power to him; this is probably the best case scenario for directors working on those big, stupid Disney properties. Make the hack job, rake in the dough, and then use that money to make something that’s actually worthwhile.

Unpregnant and Ammonite; living in the shadow of better movies

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It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for two movies to come out the same year, with very similar premises. The Prestige and The Illusionist both came out in 2006, Deep Impact and Armageddon were both 1998, and 2013 was the year we got those two “Die Hard in the White House” movies. More often than not, these aren’t instances of direct plagiarism (though that has been known to happen; see the Antz vs Bug’s Life debacle). Rather, what’s going on here is a combination of market research and trend-following which has resulted in parallel thought.

2020 had two such films. January saw the theatrical release – one of the few theatrical releases of the year – of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and September has the film Unpregnant drop straight into HBOMax. Meanwhile, Portrait of a Lady on Fire counts both as a 2019 and a 2020 film – it got a limited release in December of last year, but a wide release in February of this year (again, one of the few before lockdown was enacted) – and Ammonite came out on VOD just this month. 

On the spectrum of weird shit 2020 has given us, this probably ranks way lower on the scale, but it still bears discussing. Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant can both be accurately described as “abortion road trip movies”, where two teenage girls are forced to travel across state lines in order to safely undergo the procedure. Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite, meanwhile, are both period lesbian romances in which one half the central romantic duo basically gets paid by a family member of the other half, basically to hang out with them. In Portrait, it’s because famed French painter Marianne has been commissioned to do a wedding photo of a reluctant bride without her knowledge, and in Ammonite, paleontologist Mary Anning is hired directly to care for a socialite’s depressed wife.

In spite of how much I went into the discrepancies in their plot setups, stylistically, the differences between Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant are significantly more pronounced than they are between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Never is an indie movie through and through; completely lacking in a conventional soundtrack, or VO, the film mostly trades in silence, crafting an environment that feels almost punishingly down-to-earth. Unpregnant, meanwhile, aims squarely for the masses, with pop music, sub-Booksmart dialogue, and several outsized comedy scenes, including an honest-to-god car chase.

With a lot of these “double films”, there usually end up being clear winners. I like both The Prestige and The Illusionist a lot, but if I had to pick one, it’s The Prestige any day of the week (in the wake of Tenet’s release, I’ve been kinda missing early Nolan, the one who didn’t have a budget the size of god, and still needed to reign it in a little bit). Both Antz and A Bug’s Life are technically well made, but Antz can’t help but feel more soulless by comparison (even without knowing about the behind-the-scenes mayhem that went into making that movie, you watch Antz and you can just about feel the studio mandates seeping through the frame). 

Such is the case here. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a movie being labeled “mainstream” – frankly, I’d take a thousand marvel movies over the most up-its-own-ass pretentious art movie any day – but when it comes right down to it, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells its story in a subtle, layered way, playing scene after scene full of quiet ambiguity; never using silence as a crutch in order to make itself feel more important, but filling those silences with honest feeling. Unpregnant, on the other hand, highlights and underscores every single point it wants to make with bold capital letters and a sharpie. The central friendship in Never feels inherently lived-in; we accept the bond these two have on a deep level. Unpregnant doesn’t have that, so a lot of the time the two friends in that movie are  forced to give speeches to each other that were very clearly written by a Hollywood screenwriter. 

There are a lot of speeches in Unpregnant; characters are constantly spelling out exactly what they’re thinking and feeling moment to moment. This doesn’t entirely negate the film’s emotional core – there are still a number of lovely little moments scattered throughout, and the ending is pretty great – but it does negate the overall whole significantly. There’s fun to be had – the car chase I mentioned above works entirely because they fully commit to its sheer absurdity – but the fact is, after seeing what Never Rarely Sometimes Always could accomplish by saying nothing, it was a little disheartening to see a movie tackle similar subject matter with such a blunt instrument. Never is a movie made with real emotional honesty, whereas Unpregnant has a “heartfelt climax” that feels lifted right out of a Disney Channel original movie.

But that’s nothing compared to the difference between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Unpregnant, at the very least, could come down to a matter of taste. Ammonite is just bad. Like I said, Portrait was one of the few cinema releases of the year, and of all the movies I managed to see in the cinema before shutdown, it was far and away the best. Portrait is a movie so good, I’m absolutely counting it for both my 2019 and 2020 Best Of lists. It’s a sumptuous movie, full of genuine passion, and a filmmaking style that seemed to evoke the colors of life.

Ammonite, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, an airless, passionless slog. Whereas Portrait’s vibrant visuals seemed almost to jump off the big screen, Ammonite snoozed along with its dull muted greys, naturalistic camerawork, and a general lack of spark that’s more or less a death warrant for these kinds of romance movies. And that’s just it; there’s genuine romance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a real sense of human connection. Ammonite is just cold.

Would either of these movies have worked better if not for their superior (and more widely known) counterparts? There’s an argument to be made for Unpregnant, which I think did suffer from existing entirely within Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ shadow (the common response around the interwebz at around the time of Unpregnant’s release was, “Wait, another one?”) I don’t think Ammonite could’ve benefitted from Portrait never existing, however.

Rundown of every HBO/Cinema release planned for 2021

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A few days ago, Warner Bros made the unprecedented announcement that every single theatrical release of 2021 would simultaneously be released to their streaming service, HBOMax. The fallout of that decision is still unfolding: already, one of the most major directors on this list spoke out against the decision, because apparently no one at Warner Bros. warned any the directors of these movies what they were planning? That’s pretty shitty play. Still, assuming all this isn’t undone, one way or another, we’re getting a lot of new content both in cinemas (wherever they may be open) and streaming, and I thought I’d run down the list.

Mortal Kombat

(Image source: Dread Central)

What with Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, we’re fast entering an era of video game movies that don’t totally suck ass. Which, considering where the bar used to be, is a hell of an accomplishment. Time will tell if the same holds true of this new Mortal Kombat adaptation; I’m a little wary of the fact that the movie’s set to come out in January, and we haven’t even gotten a teaser…

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

…probably not? Look, I was never a huge Mortal Kombat guy, and though video game movies have been getting better, those two examples I gave – Detective Pikachu and Sonic – are more “baseline competent” than they are actually “good” (if you want an example of an actually good video game movie, I’d check out the live action Phoenix Wright movie, or the animated Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, both of which I still consider to be the height of video game adaptations).

The Little Things 

(Image source: DroidJournal)

A Kern County deputy (Denzel Washington) and a Los Angeles detective (Rami Malek) join forces to track down a serial killer (Jared Leto). These types of thrillers are my catnip, and that is one hell of a cast, but the film’s January release date does not spark confidence in its quality. Neither does the director, frankly; John Lee Hancock makes movies that excel in basic functionality, without ever really having a soul, or a point (The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks, etc.) All of which is to say…

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

With this one, I’d have to wait for early reviews. Because like I said, serial killer thrillers rank among my all-time favorite genres, but that director, paired with that release date, have me concerned (also, Washington and Malek are pretty reliably great, but Jared Leto has been on a significant losing streak for the past couple of years, which also does not bode well for this movie).

Tom & Jerry 

…yeah, this one has “straight to streaming junk” written all over it. Still, I’d be lying if I said the sight of 2D animation mixed with live action didn’t bring me some nostalgic joy. It’s been a while since we’ve had a movie like this, and all I can say is, thank god they didn’t use photorealistic CGI to bring Tom and Jerry to “life.” One imagines someone on this project was looking at the original Sonic design, or the dog from The Call of the Wild, or just all of Cats, and was taking notes.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

See above: even while I was watching the trailer, all I could think was, “This feels like the kind of thing Netflix or Prime would just kind of quietly drop on their platform with zero fanfare.”

The Many Saints of Newark

(Image source: NJ.com)

20 years on, and The Sopranos still stands tall as one of the greatest television programs ever made, with a compelling argument that it is still the best. So any add-on to the story is a tricky proposition, much less a prequel movie. But the existence of El Camino – a sequel to Breaking Bad (the best challenger to The Sporano’s throne) that didn’t diminish the legacy of that show – has me cautiously optimistic. And I’ll just say this; whoever’s idea it was to cast Vera Farmiga as Livia deserves a fucking medal.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

See, now, that’s tricky, because it could be argued that – like with El Camino – a Sopranos spin-off actually makes perfect sense for streaming, given its origins as a prestige TV show. Still, given that The Sopranos essentially jump-started this whole trend of “Peak TV,” and is the whole reason we’re having these debates as to whether or not TV is replacing cinema, or whatever, it might count as a full-circle thing to see it on the big screen.

Reminiscence

(Image source: Variety)

I love me some sci-fi, and I especially love me some vague sci-fi. Some of my favorite films of the past couple of years – Annihilation, Arrival, High Life – I deliberately went into not knowing what they were about. There isn’t an abundance of information out about this film (it’s something to do with dreams, apparently), and frankly, that’s just the way I like it.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Again, early reviews mean a lot here, especially because there’s not that much info out there about it (its director, Lisa Joy, is a co-creator of Westworld who has helmed multiple episodes, for whatever that’s worth). Still, sci-fi spectacle is one of those things that does benefit from the big screen, though obviously that only means so much if the story isn’t up to snuff.

Godzilla Vs Kong

(Image source: Hypebeast)

Godzilla was good, Kong: Skill Island was outstanding, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a disaster, though that still means this strange little “extended universe” (ugh) has more hits than misses.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Depends on the kind of spectacle we’re going for here. Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island had the kind of spectacle that you just needed to see on the big screen; their sense of scope and scale is unparalleled in our modern moviegoing landscape, and if I may be so bold, there’s things in both of those movies that put a lot of big budget superhero movies to shame. That being said, Godzilla: King of the Monsters was as sub-superhero movie as they come, a barrage of bad special effects and empty action that just got numbing after a while. Its director, Adam Wingard, could go either way with this; his filmography ranges from great (The Guest) to absolutely dire (Blair Witch, Death Note)

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

(Image source: The TeCake)

Speaking of “cinematic universes” that have fuck all to do with superheroes…The Conjuring has quietly been eeking out a strange little corner in our moviegoing landscape, and might actually be the best challenger to the MCU, mainly because, like the MCU, it all happened kind of by accident. The whole thing started with a basic (but very well done) haunted house movie, which slowly got expanded with spinoffs and lore additions, all of which naturally led us to where we are today. It worked, mainly because it didn’t feel forced.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

If it were James Wan, count me in. But this comes from Michael Chaves, whose last film was the worst Conjuring-verse movie, The Curse of La Llorona. No fucking thank you.

In the Heights

(Image source: Variety

Before Hamilton, before Moana, before his guest appearance on B99, there was…In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first ever musical, as well as his first big success on the stage. Which, in light of Hamilton’s god-tier eclipsing of basically all of the theatrical world, it makes sense that they’d go back to his other projects for the big screen treatment.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Fuck yes I would. During the pandemic, the 4th of July Hamilton release was one of the few “cinematic” events, so seeing this in the cinema feels like a natural continuation to that. But even beyond that, or the Lin Maneul angle, I feel like we’re due another great musical movie; Rocketman was one of my favorite movies of last year, and amongst 2020’s other deficiencies, we didn’t get even one good musical this year (I mean, The Prom comes out tomorrow…yeah, we didn’t even get one good musical this year).

Space Jam: A New Legacy

(Image source: Insider)

Of all the movies coming out next year (or at least of all the ones coming to HBOMax), this is the one where if you look at it, you’re most likely to go, “Wait, what? Really? They’re really doing this?” I don’t know how the original Space Jam was received upon its initial release, but it’s found new life in the internet age as prime meme fodder. The question is, will that be enough to justify a sequel?

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

I was never big on the original, even as a meme. It’s one of those things that’s such a bizarre idea, but when you actually sit down and watch it, it’s pretty boring. The last thing we need is a more self-aware version of that, because whenever anyone tries to cash in on the meme potential of their franchise, it almost never goes well.

The Suicide Squad 

(Image source: CBR)

In the recent history of superhero cinema, few failures have stank with quite the ferocity of 2016’s Suicide Squad. You’d think, given the sheer magnitude of that trashfire, that there’d be no way to get hyped about this…but then James Gunn got involved.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Yeah, probably. We’ve been hit hard with superhero fatigue (the one accidental benefit of the COVID shutdown was it finally put a stop to the endless deluge of Marvel movies), and the last time we were feeling this way, Guardians of the Galaxy came along like a shot in the arm. Maybe he can do the same with this. The fact that every promotional exercise has gone out of their way to emphasize that this is a soft-reboot, completely standalone from the last one, certainly doesn’t hurt.

Dune (maybe)

(Image source: IndieWire)

So, as I was getting ready to write this up and upload it this afternoon, Denis Villeneuve became the first(?) director on this list to openly blast the HBOMax deal, penning an op-ed in Variety where he directly calls the plan a “desperate attempt to grab the audience’s attention.” Needless to say, he’s not happy, and while this story is still unfolding, it’s entirely possible that Dune will be pulled from the HBOMax/Cinema lineup.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

The fact is, I’m willing to wait as long as it takes to see this in the theaters. Denis Villeneuve is a masterpiece maker, and his last few forays into the realm of science fiction – Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 – rank as his all time best movies.

Elvis

(Image source: IMDb)

The vibrant and wild auteur behind Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet returns with his first film since the energetic Great Gatsby adaptation, way back in 2013. Biopics of famous musicians are incredibly hit or miss, but with that kind of visionary at the helm…look, it’s already better than Stardust, at least.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

In case I didn’t make it clear above…for that director? Yes. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t always hit the mark, but his credit is very good.

King Richard

(Image source: Popsugar)

Every one in a while, Will Smith will very overtly go for that Oscar. The last time I think it was Concussion (unless we assume Collateral Beauty was an Oscar hopeful flick…which, shit, it might’ve been). In this one, he plays the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, who was also their coach. Not the approach I’d have assumed they’d take when portraying that story, but then again, biopics usually do their best work when thinking outside the box.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Again, hard to say. I’m usually the guy who rails hardest against blatant Oscarbait, but I’d be lying if I said people’s blind thirst for that sweet, sweet gold statue has never produced works of quality before. And like I said above, this is a potentially interesting angle to take when tackling the sage of the Williams sisters.

The Matrix 4

(Image source: Page Six)

The Matrix continues to hold up even to this day, and its two sequels are really, really interesting failures, which immediately ranks them above most franchise sequels. The ending of part three was pretty definitive, but somehow, the idea of a followup doesn’t seem like an inherently awful idea. Maybe because we all finally want the potential set up in that first movie to be followed through on, or maybe because it’s been a hot minute since the last John Wick film, and we all just want to see Keanu Reeves kicking ass again.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

If nothing else, The Matrix was a spectacle, and there are individual moments in each of the sequels that rank amongst anything in the first movie (it gets a lot of shit, most of it deserved, but the highway chase in Reloaded is one of the finest action scenes ever constructed). The Wachowskis have had some pretty high-profile misses in recent years, but if nothing else, you have to admire their sincerity; Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending may not be great, but they’re not cynical, which in my book puts them heads and shoulders above most other movies. And if nothing else, I’m interested to see what happens with it’s only Lana at the helm, rather than the two of them.

Judas and the Black Messiah

(Image source: Variety)

Here’s a film I hadn’t heard of until researching this list, but it looks great. It’s a dramatization of an FBI sting operation against the leader of the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s, a plot which draws instant parallels to BlackKklansman. But by all accounts, this is very much it’s own thing.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Honestly, yeah. There’s some fucking pedigree at work with this one, with Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield in front of the camera, and Shaka King, Ryan Coogler and Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt at work behind the scenes.

Malignant

(Image source: Movieweb)

So this is what James Wan did instead of The Conjuring 3. I’m reminded of when Bryan Singer hopped off the X-Men trilogy to go do Superman Returns…and hoo boy do I hope it’s better than that (like I hope that Wan doesn’t turn out to be a monster like Singer did). 

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)

Wan is one of our finest modern horror directors, with his grungy thriller Death Sentence being a personal favorite of mine. Even in his weaker movies (Insidious, Aquaman), there’s more than enough vitality and lively propulsion to his filmmaking style to make it always worth watching him in the cinema. 

Those Who Wish Me Dead

(Image source: World of Reel)

Taylor Sheridan is one of the best screenwriters out there (Sicario, Hell or High Water) and an alright director (Wind River). For his followup feature as a director, he’s adapting Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name, in which a teenager finds herself on the run from a pair of assassins after witnessing a murder.

Would I see it in theaters (assuming it’s safe to do so?)
There were two main problems with Wind River: one, it was a movie about the systematic oppression of Native American culture, where both the leads were white (seriously, I like Renner and Olsen a lot, but I’ve yet to hear one good argument as to why Gil Birmingham wasn’t the star of that thing). And two, it just wasn’t very cinematic. The landscape didn’t feel as harsh and desolate as it did in the movies where he was just a writer, and the pacing wasn’t as taut. In his followup feature, he seems to have avoided the first issue entirely, and as for the second…we’ll have to wait and see. If he’s got a better sense of landscape this time around, then yeah, this is a cinema watch for sure.

Knives Out and The Irishman; One Year Later

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Today was just about the best day you can have for cinema back in 2019. It’s not often that two of the absolute best films of one year come out on the exact same day, but that’s exactly what happened on November 27th of 2019; Knives Out was dropped in cinemas, and The Irishman got a wide release on Netflix after a limited theatrical run.

Now, one year later, and both films continue to stand as towering achievements in their respective fields. Knives Out remains a consistent pleasure, especially in these pandemic times; a warm and comforting piece of cinema, one which manages that always tricky feat of being genuinely, authentically fun. The Irishman’s accomplishments are even more pertinent in the wake of Corona; with cinemas shut down, it’s been down to streaming services to provide us with our necessary film fixes. And there have been some gems here and there – System Crasher, the excellent German drama film, could be found on Netflix, and The Vast of Night, the impressive Twilight Zone-esque throwback, was an Amazon original – but nothing that can really compare to Martin Scorsese’s towering achievement.

On the surface, these two films couldn’t be further apart. The Irishman is a sprawling and somber gangster epic, a biopic of the man who reportedly killed Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a three-and-a-half hour film that both harkens back to, and pointedly examines the nature of, the iconography that its director, Martin Scorsese, built his career on. On the other hand, Knives Out almost overflows with bubbly positivity and sumptuous charm. It’s a movie where you can almost tangibly feel the joy with which Rian Johnson crafted the interlocking narrative.

And yet, I almost can’t help but take the two movies as a pair, and not just because of the shared release date, and the fact that they’re both fantastic movies. That’s a big part of it, to be sure, but what’s hitting me all this time later is how both movie’s strengths come from very similar places. They’re both films that play with expectations; this is most obvious with Knives Out (this is a Rian Johnson film, after all), which plays fast and loose with the established “rules” of whodunnit murder mysteries, especially when it comes to when it chooses to reveal key pieces of information. But The Irishman doesn’t go the usual route either, as evidenced by the audience members who seemed to come away disappointed; they’d gone in expecting a flashy and vibrant crime flick in the style of Goodfellas or Casino, and instead they’d gotten a reflective, downright low-key look at the long-term effects a life of crime can have on a person’s psyche.

I certainly went into The Irishman expecting something other than what I got. Which is to say, I went into The Irishman somewhat nervous. The marketing hadn’t been particularly impressive, with a vague, kind of lackluster trailer having dropped sometime in September, which did nothing to allay my fears about a) the record-setting use of de-aging technology, or b) the fact that this was a Netflix Original.

In retrospect, I needn’t have worried, at least as far as the digital de-aging technology was concerned. At this point, Scorsese has made something of a career out of adopting much-maligned film technologies, and using them in the way they were intended. One need only remember Hugo, so far one of only three films to use 3-D properly. As for the Netflix issue, I still think that one was a very legitimate fear for me to have, given the company’s well-documented history of taking proven directors, and getting just the worst work out of them (Duncan Jones with Mute, David Ayer with Bright, Steven Soderbergh with The Laundromat). It says something, I think, that in the year since its release, The Irishman still stands as the reigning champion of Netflix Original films, yet to be topped.

A similar sentiment could be made for Knives Out, but for mystery films rather than Netflix Originals. One of the many things that makes Knives Out such a masterpiece, not only of technical filmmaking but also of narrative construction, is how expertly it weaves its interesting characters within its puzzle-box plot. Too often with mystery films, one gets prioritized over the other; either a film will have fully-realized characters but a weak mystery, or a clever mystery populated by characters who are barely there. Think Lantana, or Gosford Park (both released in 2001, incidentally), two films where the quirkiness of the characters essentially overrode the actual mystery part to the murder mystery that was supposed to be going on. On the other end of the spectrum, we have 1971’s The Last of Sheila, a movie with a terrifically inventive Clue-like plot, but also a film where the characters just kind of faded in and out of the background. To be clear, I like all three of these films to varying degrees, but on a fundamental level they all do fall victim to that problem of prioritization. Prior to Knives Out, the only mystery films I can think of which got the balance between plot and characters just right were 12 Angry Men and Sleuth (the original, not the remake by Kenneth Branagh). Those two films are genuine masterpieces, both of filmmaking and scripting. They’re among my favorite films ever made, so I think it means something when I say that Knives Out leaves them all in the dust.

It’s not just that the characters in Knives Out are all richly textured, with believable motivations and convincing psychological makeups, or that the mechanics of the plot they’re in still holds up after a whole year of scrutiny. That’s all true, but the miracle of Knives Out is how these two things inform each other. Each one of these characters have arcs, and the way those arcs tie into the overall story is nothing short of genius. It’s one of those remarkable films that manages to affect a breezy and easy tone on the surface, but any which way you look at it reveals a masterwork on narrative construction.

The same could be said of The Irishman; the thing seems slightly effortless when you first look at it, only for its deeper story mechanics to become clear over time. What’s interesting is, it actually took me a while to clock to what The Irishman was doing; for the first two hours or so, I was engaged well enough, but the whole thing was coming off like Goodfellas-lite (compare with Knives Out, which from the very first shot struck me as a completely original film, despite its obvious reverence for the whodunnit genre). Then the final act began, at which point the film recontextualized itself as not only as a unique film in its own right, but also possibly the best thing Martin Scorsese has ever directed, or at least the most thoughtful.

That’s another thing that connects these two films; the ways in which they both engage with their respective genres. Knives Out does so lovingly, mostly through lavish production direction and murder mystery “in-jokes,” mostly coming from the set direction (Jolly Jack Tar, the pirate animatronic featured prominently in Sleuth, makes a cameo as one of Harlan’s possessions, for instance). The biggest change the film makes to the established whodunnit framework is its decision to reveal the “killer” (sort of) at the half-hour mark, thus turning the rest of the movie into something like an episode of Columbo rather than Agatha Christie. It works, though, if just on the level of clever filmmaking; the halfway plot switch gives the film a strong dramatic center, turning it into a downright Hitchcockian “wronged man”-type story, with the actual legwork portion of the murder mystery (the stuff that film adaptations usually trip up on) happening through the context of that.

The Irishman’s relationship to its past is more pointed, where the whole thing ends up coming off as a reflexive examination of Martin Scorsese’s whole career. It’s a film that oftentimes plays the same hits as Goodfellas, or Casino – the whacks, the meetings in restaurants, the tumultuous home lives these people have – but on a fundamental level, it feels different. Gone is the allure, the glitzy glamor. Gone is the vibrating energy that once threatened to shake the whole screen. There are long tracking shots, but instead of introducing you to an underground world, they familiarize you with the layout of a nursing home. There are mob hits, but they’re not shown off as these exciting setpieces; this film makes clear, it’s hard work killing a man. Not just for your soul, but also in a practical sense.

I mentioned up top how people might’ve been put off from this movie by how they were expecting another Goodfellas/Casino type movie, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that that’s the only reason people might not like it (three-and-a-half hours is a lot of movie, and while I can honestly say that the film’s strong dramatic center meant I never felt the runtime…that obviously isn’t true of everyone else). But I do think there is something to the idea that the main contention a lot of people had with The Irishman was how overt it was about not being an indulgent power fantasy, in the way a lot of Scorsese’s other films were. Now, to be clear, every one of the films of his that I’ve brought up so far is a masterpiece, and the way they play with indulgence, and undercutting that indulgence, is pretty genius. The way stuff like Goodfellas or Casino usually plays out is, you get half the movie as this kinetic “good times” sequence, in which you are seduced by the allure of a life of crime, just like the main characters, and then the whole of the second half spends its time just hitting you hard with the actual consequences of that lifestyle. It’s the reason no one will ever leave a Martin Scorsese movie wanting to be a gangster, or a Wall Street stockbroker, or what have you. Everyone might talk about the beginning sections, and all the cool hits and flashy camera moves, but what everyone actually remembers is the end, with our main characters lying in a ditch, figuratively (and in one memorable instance, literally).

The Irishman has that same ingrained understanding of indulgence and allure, but unlike its predecessors in the Scorsese oeuvre, it doesn’t waste any time with misdirection. At no point does Frank Sheeran’s life look like a happy one, or an inspirational one. The Irishman plays out less like a fun and zippy gangster movie, and instead as this mournful tragedy. The fact that it’s still endlessly engrossing and fascinating to watch speaks to Martin Scorsese’s mastery of the craft, and his ever-present thematic care.

That’s the final, overall connection these two movies have; they’re more thematically worthwhile than you might expect going in. The Irishman I’ve already discussed at length (and really, given that it’s Scorsese at the helm, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the thing works thematically), but it’s Knives Out that really pulls of a feat here. There are themes for days – class divide, immigration, the tricky mechanics of legacy, and the actual work involved in being a consistently good person – but like I talked about up top, the real genius of the movie is how all this is interwoven seamlessly into the wider narrative and how none of it ever overpowers or interrupts the film’s wider goals of just being a really fun time.

There’s a feeling out there about important, “worthy” movies being somehow above the idea of simple enjoyment, and I think what I love most about both The Irishman and Knives Out is that they ultimately prove that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s possible for a film to be a metatextual, self-reflexive examination of itself, while still delivering on the promises of its central premise. Basically, a movie is allowed to be good for the brain and fun to watch at the same time. Both these films are.

On the Rocks, and the pain of waiting for uncertain news

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Screenshot from On the Rocks, courtesy of Empire.com

By Sam Stashower ’22

I first saw Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s first collaboration with Bill Murray, about five or so years ago, and at first I didn’t get it. I thought it was slow, and ponderous, and that it didn’t really have the depth to back its languid pace up. Then it kept going, and something inside me just *clicked*. Maybe it was the fact that I spent a fair amount of my childhood suffering from jet lag before visiting relatives in Scotland, and I finally clocked to that being the vibe the movie was going for. Maybe it was something else, something to do with the film’s central theme about loneliness, and wanting to connect in a world you don’t recognize. I don’t know. Either way, Lost in Translation ended up being a movie I wasn’t super hot on at the start, but by the time the final scene rolled around, I had gotten something real out of it.

Now they’re back together, Murray and Coppola, in their first proper film collaboration since Lost in Translation (they’d previously done a 2015 Netflix Christmas special, but that’s it). The plot this time around has to do with Rashida Jones, playing Murray’s daughter, who begins to suspect infidelity on the part of her husband (Marlon Wayans, 50 Shades of Black). She’s been estranged from her father ever since he and her mother divorced following an affair, but he’s the one she turns to. He jumps at the chance to engrain himself in her life, offering her words of wisdom and advice on the true nature of man, and animal instincts, and the psychology of romance.

I have to say, I don’t think it was quite as good as Lost in Translation. The direction is flat, with the film affecting a very gray color palette that only really picks up in the nighttime sequences. It’s a deliberate choice, meant to underline the rut that Jones finds herself in, but it doesn’t work. It creates a boring movie to look at, which, for as lethargic as some of Lost in Translation could be, that movie never was. And the conversations Jones and Murray have are charming, but very basic. Murray’s “theories” about male psychology vs the female one, and gender relationships, are nothing you won’t have heard a million times before, and while the underlying character motivations behind them are resonant – the one woman this famous womanizer can’t win over is his own daughter, and she’s ultimately the only person whose opinion of him he values – it does lend to a certain repetitiveness in most of their scenes together, which is especially deadly for a movie that’s only 90 minutes long.

But I still got something out of On the Rocks, and it has to do with the same kind of universality that was present in Lost in Translation. See, I saw this movie as a form of distraction from the current events, which at this point are out of my hands. I woke up early yesterday morning, realized it was going to be a long day of indecision, and then spent a while planning out a method by which I could reasonably avoid checking the news or Twitter every couple of seconds. Because that’s what yesterday was, and that’s what today is currently shaping up to be; a whole bunch of sitting, waiting, and hoping. You know that at this point, you’ve done your part, but in some ways that only makes you feel worse, more helpless.

So I weirdly connected a lot to this movie, which mostly sees Rashida Jones waiting for the other shoe to drop. She grows suspicious early, starts testing the waters subtly, asking one or two pointed (but not too pointed) questions, and then once her dad forces himself into the picture, she starts following her husband to his work, to restaurants, and in one rather extreme instance, to Mexico, all the while waiting for the worst to be confirmed. And typing that out, I’ve made her actions sound more active than they really were, when in fact she spends a lot of this time sitting back and waiting, preparing for the worst.

Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst is something we’re all familiar with, so this isn’t exactly a moment-specific movie Coppola has made. But it still feels especially relevant, today of all days. Waiting for uncertain news is one of the worst things in the world, because all it does is leave you with time, endless time, with nothing to do but imagine how bad the eventual bad news might be. Right now, the whole country seems to exist in this weird liminal space, a limbo where everything seems to hang in the balance, and yet it’s all so maddeningly still.

On the Rocks, to no one’s surprise, ends on a hopeful note. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s clear from its opening minutes that this isn’t the type of movie to go any other way. I bring this up because, at time of writing, we still don’t know how this whole situation is going to pan out. It’s looking like things might turn out for the best, but at this point, it’s hard for me to even allow myself that degree of hope. But in situations like this, where you’ve done what you can and all that’s left is the waiting, sometimes hope is all you have.

Horror Documentaries, Perfect for Halloween Viewing

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By Sam Stashower ’22

Cropsey

Missing children, hidden underground tunnels, Devil-worshiping cults, killers with hooks for hands, an abandoned sanatorium…it’s almost hard to believe that this is real life. The realm between fact and folklore is a tenuous one. This may be a documentary, but by the time the two main documentarians are prowling the sewers armed with nothing but flashlights and cameras, we’ve well entered the realm of horror.

The Cheshire Murders

How do we treat those who have treated others so inhumanely? That’s the question at the heart of this documentary, which is primarily an examination of the foibles and justifications of the death penalty, but one which uses a truly horrific home invasion as a jumping-off point on the issue. On the surface, this is a true crime documentary, but make no mistake, there’s enough horror in this to last for a lifetime, with the most chilling sequence being a taped account by one of the killers describing what they did, as pictures of the long-vacant crime scene flash across the screen. 

The Nightmare 

I don’t want to make this entirely about my own personal experiences with the subject of the documentary, because I don’t want to imply that the only way this documentary works is if you’ve experienced what it’s talking about. But I did suffer from sleep paralysis as a child, though never to the extent that these people did, and as such, this was an oddly cathartic experience for me. It’s gratifying, in a way, having suffered this incredibly isolating experience, and finally knowing that you’re not the only one.

Grizzly Man

It wouldn’t be much of a list of scary documentaries without at least one entry from the man himself, Werner Herzog. And perhaps the greatest indicator of this documentary’s material is that, for a brief moment, we can see Werner Herzog losing his composure. Let me repeat that – there is something in this documentary that freaks out Werner Herzog. 

Libera Nos (Liberami)

This does a great job of demonstrating the real reason that exorcisms are terrifying: there are plenty of people who believe they work. Libera Nos (translates to Deliver Us) is a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as it entirely forgoes the usual trappings of the genre. There’s no voiceover narration, no talking heads to speak of. The camera simply follows Sicilian Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo, watching as he performs his exorcisms without comment. We’re left to our own conclusions as to what he’s really doing, whether he’s accidentally triggering people with mental illnesses into disturbing behavior…or he’s deliberately taking advantage to further his reputation.

Jesus Camp

I was very young in 2006, and I was far from politically active, or religiously aware. But I was alive, and apparently I was aware enough to really be able to recognize the world Jesus Camp portrayed. This doc really captures the tone of the time, taking an unflinching look at the rise of the angry, authoritarian side of Christianity in the wake of 9/11, and the damage it did to the children at this camp. The film follows the children enrolled at “Christ Triumphant Camp,” and the impact this place had on their psyche.

Beware the Slenderman

I actually have no respect for this documentary, as I think it fails at both its stated goals; as an examination of online urban legend culture, and as a worthwhile study of a true crime case. A documentary made by the internet-illiterate for the internet-illiterate, it all essentially amounts to a bunch of faffing about while the documentarians desperately try to distract you from the fact that there’s no real center to this story.

The Hellstrom Chronicle

‘70s psychedelic imagery used to create the origins of life on Earth is something else to behold, let me tell you. Even more so than Cropsey, this documentary belongs on this list for deliberately appropriating the language and imagery of a horror movie for greater dramatic effect. Often feeling like David Attenborough mixed with David Cronenberg, this movie would serve as a great double-bill with Phase IV.

When I Last Saw Jessie 

In November of 2006, Jesse Ross traveled from Kansas City to Chicago for an academic conference. At some point along the way, he disappeared, never to be seen again. This documentary is certainly more sad than scary, and there’s a certain melancholy underscoring the proceedings. But by virtue of being a totally unsolved missing person case, the film almost can’t help but contain a certain creeping dread.

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane 

The most fascinating thing about There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is how adamantly everyone insists how well they knew Diane Schuler, while simultaneously declaring her to be a “private person,” who never complained about much of anything and tended to slip into the background.

The Killing of America

The Killing of America isn’t a perfect doc – it’s very lacking in the cause and effect of the violence it portrays, for one – but it’s worthwhile at least for how utterly it nukes the insidious “greener grass” lie that some people still have about the past. We all want to return to a simpler time…except that time never existed.

Wisconsin Death Trip

Speaking of horrors from the past…how does one content with a town that seemingly went mad by increments? Narrated by Bilbo Baggins, Wisconsin Death Trip is a dramatic recreation of a series of macabre incidents that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the late 1800s. These incidents were made even worse for how apparently inexplicable they were. The film is an exercise in serial escalation, both in its oppressive mood, and in the sheer amount of shit that gets thrown the way of the settlers, from pestilence to accusations of witchcraft. By the end of the film, the amount of child coffins seem to rival the actual living population, just so you know what you’re in for.

The Donner Party

Most of us probably have memories of watching at least one Ken Burns documentary in middle school. I’m guessing none of us had to watch this film, made by his brother, when we were in school. Recounting the fates of the infamous Donner Party, pioneers on the wagon train in the mid-1800s who were trapped by snow, and eventually turned to cannibalism, it’s genuinely shocking how oppressive and terrifying the tone of this film is, despite still fulfilling the requirements of a PBS “educational” documentary.

The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence 

These pair of documentaries each take a look at the Indonesian genocide that took place between 1965 and 1966, each from a new perspective; The Look of Silence is about the family members of the people who were killed, while The Act of Killing focuses on the killers themselves, many of whom are still in power. Both films function as stand-alone pieces, though taken together they paint a more complete picture of an atrocity that’s astonishing not just for how awful it was, but for how justifiable it seems to some of the people still in power.

Cosplay Culture

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By Trinity King ’24

Ever since I was a child, I have always been obsessed with TV shows, movies, and books. I loved fantasy in particular, because it allowed me to escape into realities unlike mine, and unicorns and dragons are just really cool. Growing up in a city with several conventions certainly didn’t help me leave all those stories and nerdy stuff behind. I don’t remember the exact first time I saw cosplay, but there are several conventions in my city, and one of them has a huge 2 ½ hour long parade with floats and cosplayers from all genres. It is completely free to the public, but in order to get good spots you have to get up super early. I remember going a couple times as a kid, and it was really cool to see everyone’s creativity and expertise on their costume pieces.

DragonCon 2018 PC: AtlantaMagazine.com

The first year I went into the events for this convention, I borrowed a friend’s badge and my family, friends, and I walked around the hotels for hours looking at all the people, vendor’s halls, and events. I loved every minute of it, from meeting cool artists, freaking out meeting one of the My Little Pony comic artists, and getting a lot of fan art to plaster my walls with. Ever since, I have attended every annual running of this convention, called DragonCon.

Slowly, I dragged all of my friends along and it became a yearly weekend party with lots of chaos, makeup, and last-minute costume shopping. It was the highlight of my year; being able to goof off with my friends and strangers while fangirling and compulsively purchasing art. This year would have marked my fifth or sixth year attending, and part of what made it special was cosplay. Cosplay is personifying a character through embodying their personality and clothing.

My friends and I would meticulously plan for each day, scheduling who wanted to go to which panels, when to nerd out and meet celebrities, and what cosplays to wear that day. We would plan to wake up at dawn, inevitably wake up around 8:45 AM, and hurriedly eat food and throw makeup on in a blur to take a half-assed photoshoot before piling in the car like clowns and arriving at the convention spaces. Our group cosplays were always fun, especially the more people we persuaded into coming. We all got so many compliments, ran into other fans, and took photos with other people in cosplays from the same fandoms.

I love conventions because they give me an excuse to wear a Rapunzel costume with a matching set of ears and tail as a grown ass adult without getting too many strange looks. It is so liberating to be able to escape into the role of a character one admires. I get to stand out to others while still being a stranger, connect with unfamiliar faces just from a shared interest/hobby, and nerd out over other people’s creations. Some of my favorite creative cosplay moments I’ve seen was Beaker from the Muppets dressed in full war gear, the snow queen from Narnia taking badass photos, and a huge conga line of Deadpools jamming out to someone’s loudspeaker. Where else would you see that?

Interactions while in cosplay are just the coolest thing. I’ve seen many battles against sworn enemies, huge photoshoots between total strangers in the same genre costumes, and children’s faces lighting up as their idols walk up and greet them. Seeing how excited people get (including me) is a big part of why I enjoy it so much. I remember last year was my first-time dressing as Wonder Woman, and I was a little nervous because it was different from what I would normally wear. But as me and my friends rushed out of a hotel to head to the next panel, a man spotted me and asked if I could take a photo with two young children. They seemed excited to see me, and I wish I had the photo because it made them and myself so happy. I loved every minute of taking that photo because I knew it was special for the kids to see me dressed as such a strong, bold character.

Many people might have (and did) say that my cosplay was a little too revealing. And honestly, it got to me. But then I remembered why people cosplay. It is not for attention as some outsiders believe, but because I feel confident in being such a badass character. I dress the way I do because I feel confident in my body in that outfit; it empowers me to be someone who I respect. Cosplay is about having fun, being with other nerds, personifying characters I admire, and seeing other people enjoy what I’m doing.

Many people believe that cosplay is super weird, and it has no benefit. They’re not wrong that it is weird, but to me, weird is not always a bad characteristic to possess. I’m weird as hell, but in the words of Luna Lovegood, “I am just as sane as the rest of you, for the most part.” The cosplay community and conventions may be perceived as weird, unprofessional, and unnecessary, but they have a huge positive benefit for the participants, businesses, the local economy, and charities. Conventions generate thousands of dollars for charity every year and support the cities they are hosted in by boosting their economy. By paying for hotels, restaurants, travel, and merchandise, the guests spend loads of money on businesses big and small. In 2015, DragonCon added around $65 million dollars to the Atlanta economy. While smaller conventions don’t generate nearly as much revenue, they still make a direct impact by helping cities and charities. In 2019, FWA’s attendees raised $50,000 dollars to donate to the Animal Park at the Conservator’s center, a park that educates about and cares for endangered species. These cities, charities, and businesses rely on conventions in order to stay well-funded and open, especially the smaller ones.

Going to conventions and cosplaying also shouldn’t be perceived as unprofessional or strictly for older audiences. Both are hobbies that allow people like me to take a break from the stressors in my life while hanging out with friends and meeting new people. Everyone has hobbies, and both are just hobbies that allow me to be creative through making art and designing and wearing cosplays, all while enjoying the positive chaos of conventions.

Many conventions are child friendly, and heavily encourage younger audiences to attend. Going to conventions as a child is like going to Disney World on steroids. I got to meet several of my character idols in person, meet other people who nerded out over the same things, and see all sorts of amazing art. I am so grateful to have gone to conventions as a child, they were so magical and really boosted my confidence in myself. They assured me that there was nothing wrong with my hobbies, and to pursue what made me happy. Cosplay and conventions are such a huge part of my life because they inspire me to keep on pursuing what makes me passionate, while making strangers happy along the way.  

Joker; One Year Later

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Joaquin Phoenix as Joker in Joker. Image provided by Uproxx

By Sam Stashower ’22

Alright, so, Joker. Bit of a throwback, right? It only came out a year ago, but what even is a year ago in these quarantine times? Feels like at least a decade’s come and gone since Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning comic book film graced our cinema screens (it also feels like at least a decade since any movie graced our cinema screens, but that’s neither here nor there). Remember when Joker was a thing? Remember when it was the thing? There are few benefits to the 2020 pandemic okay, there are no “real” benefits, but bear with me but one thing you can say is that all the shit we’re going through right now really puts the nonsense of last year in perspective. Or maybe not; I’m really grasping for good things here.

It seems almost quaint, given our present circumstances, to look back at 2019 and remember how, for what seemed like a significant amount of time, just about everyone on the interwebz were super up in arms about this comic book movie where a clown went around, laughing and killing people (occasionally at the same time). But it’s actually true; ridiculous as it may seem with the benefit of distance, there was a legit energy surrounding this film when it came out. This film, against all odds, seemed to premiere at just the right time to completely encapsulate the tenor of the nation. 

Whether you came down on the side of it being “good, actually” or “bad, actually” The legacy of Joker isn’t so much about how it was as a movie than about how it was received. Which, I mean, there was precedent for that. Even before the movie came out, it was more interesting and exciting as a conceptual thing than as an actual movie we’d maybe get to watch. Tracking this movie from inception to completion was a fucking trip, let me tell you. Cast your mind back to 2017, in the blissfully innocent days where the DCEU —- DC Comics’ answer to the recent MCU success —- hadn’t been totally consumed by the release of a new cut of a movie that had already come out. It was actually quite the contrary; the recent success of Wonder Woman had apparently convinced the higher-ups at DC to de-emphasize the “extended universe” side of their film output, and start focusing on smaller, more interesting projects. That’s how we got Shazam! and Aquaman, two very solid DCEU movies with nary a mention of the “extended universe” stuff between them. 

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. I’m specifically remembering when, in August of that year, we got this announcement: that Warner Bros. and DC Films were developing a standalone Joker film —- completely separate from the Jared Leto incarnation, who at that time was also getting a solo film, I think? —- with Hangover mastermind Todd Phillips directing the thing, and co-writing it with Scott Silver. Oh, and Martin Scorsese was attached as co-producer.

Just…re-read that for a second. Bask in the fittingly Joker-like insanity of it all. The director of The Hangover trilogy was going to helm an apparently super-serious take on the most famous villain in comic book history. He was going to write it with a man whose only previous foray into the superhero genre was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie best remembered for having Deadpool in it, except not really. And Martin Scorcesse —- THAT Martin Scorsese, who at the time had just released his religious epic Silence, and had never had anything to do with superheroes one way or another (boy howdy, would that change) —- was going to produce the thing with him.

I gotta be honest: for a while there, I kind of doubted that this thing would ever even come out. I remembered all those weird Spider-Man spinoffs Sony was desperately trying to get off the ground a while back —- remember the insane “Aunt May as a young, sexy spy” idea they were actually considering at one point? —- and just assumed the “Martin Scorsese-produced standalone Joker movie from the Hangover guy” (seriously, just look at that sentence) would go the way of those. Everything about this movie’s pre-production fed into that idea; I seem to remember it looked like this would actually get made in tandem with that aforementioned solo Jared Leto Joker movie…which, Jesus, what an idea, huh? Whatever you may feel about this film, be thankful we dodged that fucking bullet.

Instead, as you know, the crazy bastards actually made it, and then at some point between them wrapping the shoot and the thing actually coming out, everyone on the internet I guess unanimously decided to get really invested in the film. And I gotta be honest; even now, one year later, I still don’t get it. My response coming out of that opening weekend theater could be summed up as such: “Huh, so I guess it’s Ghostbusters 2016 all over again.”

Mind you, I don’t mean in terms of quality. I didn’t love Joker, and my opinion of it has only gone down in the months (and now year) following its release, but if nothing else, it’s better than Ghostbusters 2016 (which somehow became “Answer The Call” when no one was looking). What I’m talking about is more the way the cultural conversation warped around them, turning them into these kind of barometer tests for where you stood, or what you stood for. Choosing to see – or not to see – these movies was suddenly a political act. And then the movies actually came out, and everything kind of fizzled out. My guess is that everyone who got real riled up online, who bought a ticket determined to have a “take” on these two culturally important movies, saw them in their opening weekend, and left the theaters with a general sense of embarrassment that they’d gotten so worked up over something so fundamentally milquetoast.

It’s very well known by now, but it bears repeating: Todd Phillips is a huge Martin Scorsese fanboy, and Joker is packed to the brim with overt references to his films Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this; directors “borrow” from their predecessors all the damn time (Star Wars is a high-profile example of this paying off, and it could be argued that Quentin Tarantino has based his whole filmography on this very practice), and the fact of the matter is, if you’re trying to get inspiration for your gritty, grimy psychological character study, as Phillips clearly was, you can’t really do better than Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. 

But there’s a fine line between “homage” and “ripoff,” and what I think happened here was that Phillips went for the former, and then stumbled headfirst into the latter. References to other movies are meant to enhance your experience of watching a new film; think of it as a fun little easter egg, a reward for paying attention. Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided you can find a proper balance between referencing other things and finding your own voice. And for the life of me, I never got the sense that Joker ever found its own voice.

Let me try to give an example of the difference. Y’all remember Event Horizon? If not, this is the month for it; it’s a really fun little cult horror movie about astronauts in space. It’s super camp, super gory, and very Halloween. It’s also a movie that, within the first couple of minutes, seems to go out of its way to remind you of another, much more famous, and generally regarded as “better” movie. Right away while watching the film, you almost can’t help but notice parallels between Event Horizon and the Ridley Scott masterpiece Alien. The spaceships they’re on have almost identical aesthetics to the Nostromo and the planet LV-428, the way the working-class crewmembers banter with each other is very similar; hell, there are a handful of shot setups in Event Horizon that are just straight-up lifted from Alien

And yet, I would never call Event Horizon an Alien ripoff, for one fairly significant reason; it’s a completely different movie experience. Event Horizon is a gonzo, campy bloodbath, a movie more akin to a haunted house ride than something that’s actually trying to scare you, whereas Alien is almost painfully protracted and suspenseful. Event Horizon borrows the aesthetics (and a lot of the setup) from Alien, but it uses those aesthetics as a springboard to tell its own story. 

Joker, as mentioned, also borrows a lot from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. The plot of Joker is basically just those two movies put in a blender, with a clown slapped on; it’s a movie about a mentally ill loner, slowly being driven mad by isolation and social degradation (Taxi Driver), who also aspires to be a stand-up comic, but keeps getting rebuffed, which doesn’t help much with his deteriorating mental state (King of Comedy). And I want to repeat: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Honestly, if you’d put me in charge of the “Joker origin story project,” I’d probably come up with something similar. Telling the Joker’s origin by way of a Scorsese riff is a legit inspired idea.

The problem is, Joker doesn’t use the aesthetics of those other, classic movies, as a way to spin off into its own thing; it re-appropriates them basically in service of the same kind of experience. Both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy tackled pressing social issues (albeit different ones, and in different ways) in a way that was aggressively un-sensationalized and down-to-earth. They featured characters that were mentally ill, and presented a world as seen through their eyes. That’s…I mean, that’s basically Joker, to a T. 

And if that were the end of it? Alright. But when watching Joker, I couldn’t ever really shake the feeling that Todd Phillips, in spite of his obvious love of those Scorsese classics, and especially in spite of his obvious (and, given where his career had gone with those Hangover sequels, surprising) technical skills, didn’t really get the point of what he was doing.

I want to emphasize something, before we really get into this; Joker is an exceptionally well-made movie. It won the Oscar for Best Original Score and was nominated for cinematography, and the fact of the matter is, it deserved both (not to denigrate the other nominees in each category; I’m just saying that both nominations were very deserving). It has a terrifically expressive visual palette, managing to evoke a nonspecific era of the past without ever lathering it on too thick. And the music to the film is simply magnificent; the same year that Joker came out, Hildur Guðnadóttir also lent her talents to the HBO show Chernobyl. Now, the score for Joker only has a tenth of the power that the Chernobyl score had, but in all honesty, that’s all it needed.

So it looks great, sounds great, and the acting, as I’m sure you all know, is excellent across the board. The problem, then, is intention and depth. What makes Taxi Driver and King of Comedy such enduring masterpieces, to the point where they’re still widely seen and discussed to this day, isn’t their technical skills, or the acting, or any of that. That helps, no question, but what really gives those movies their power is their themes and the power of the story they’re really telling.

Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are movies where the main characters are mentally ill, and prone to extreme violence. The films are told from their point of view, and at several points, we’re invited to feel pity for them. But —- crucially —- we’re never on their side. At all times, Scorsese is careful to keep us at enough of an arm’s length away from them so that, whenever they do something reprehensible, we have distance to recognize it as such.

Joker has no such distance, and for a lot of the movie, accidentally seems to revel in his acts of wanton murder and cruelty. It takes moments that should be chilling, or sobering, and accidentally repurposes them as badass or kewl. At the same time that Rupert Pupkin was sweatily kidnapping talk-show host Jerry Langford, Arthur Fleck was dancing down the stone steps like the awesome rebel the movie seems to think he is. The song’s change – from “Rock and and Roll Part 2” to a more quietly bombastic, ominous track from Guðnadóttir – doesn’t actually do much to alter the impression that we’re watching someone formidable, and not pathetic, which is the understanding Scorsese had when making those movies.

That understanding is totally lacking from this movie, as evidenced by Todd Phillips’ whole post-movie demeanor, which was frankly baffling. I’m not just talking about his now infamous answer as to why he was making a movie like this now: that “woke culture has killed comedy” quote, the kind of statement that’ll give you a hemorrhage from eye-rolling too hard. No, I’m actually talking about his even more idiotic comparison to John Wick, where he openly questioned why audiences “hooted and hollered” to that character killing 300 people while his movie was held to scrutiny. 

I’m just…wow, right? It’s been a straight-up year, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how someone could think those two things are equatable. An escapist fantasy about a guy who goes on a killing spree against the mob to avenge the death of his dog, vs. a movie that, in every single scene, goes out of its way to insist on its own importance, to the point of actively stealing its best bits from two of the most highly-regarded movies ever made. 

He made that movie, and yet his whole demeanor after-the-fact screamed, “Why are you even asking these questions?” Dude, you made the film that way. The same goes for Phoenix, who made some waves when he just up and left an interview when asked if the Joker might incite violence. He came back later, claiming that he just needed to “compose himself” and “think about the answer,” and I’ve got to ask: did any of these people ever stop to think about the kind of movie they were actually making?

I really don’t think so. In the cold light of day, with a year removed since its release, Joker reads more and more like a movie made by a guy who wanted more than anything else to have that “serious movie” cred, so instead of actually sitting down and developing the point he wanted to make, he took two of his favorite movies, grabbed around for some hot-button social issues of the day, then threw everything at the wall, in order to see what stuck. Is Joker about mental illness? Yes! Is it about society? You bet! Is it about the media? Totally! Is it about class struggle? You’d better believe it! Does it have the focus or the narrative clarity to actually develop any of these ideas beyond the most basic surface-level texture?

…’cause the Scorsese movies did.

Rundown of the Best Films of 2019

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The Farewell

Image from The Farewell courtesy of IndieWire

The beauty of cinema is its ability to connect us empathetically with people in situations we might not otherwise be familiar with, or even aware of. For myself, I was unaware of the Eastern practice of not telling an elderly when they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness, thus lifting the burden of dying off of them (“In China, we have a saying: when someone gets cancer, they die. But it’s the fear that really kills them.”) This touching, tender portrait of a life caught between two societies never asks us to choose which is better; it only asks us to relate. Before watching the film, I secretly wanted Awkwafina to turn out to be brilliant because I imagined some drunk Hollywood idiot mispronouncing her name at the Oscars. Now I’m annoyed that she was snubbed, because I wanted her to win all the awards in the world, because holy shit, she is an incredible actress.

Parasite

Image from Parasite courtesy of Los Angeles Times

I don’t like how the phrase “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around willy-nilly. Yet I’m also at a loss for how better to describe Bong Joon Hoo’s brilliant social thriller, which largely contains people committing crimes, trying not to get caught in the act. As a work of socio-political commentary and a piece of entertainment, Hoo excels at both, with the message of the film never interfering with how gut-churningly suspenseful or gut-bustingly hilarious it is, or vice versa. This was the well-deserved Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars, and while I have no doubt that they only got it right by accident – they are the Oscars, after all, and they are stupid – this one time, they did absolutely get it right. Director Bong knows the score: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Preach.

High Life

Image from High Life courtesy of wbur

It feels like each year these past couple of years have had at least one sci-fi masterpiece to them. 2015 had The Martian, 2016 had Arrival, 2017 had Blade Runner 2049, and 2018 had Annihilation. And now…2019. High Life is the first film from French writer/director Claire Denis to be shot in english. With that in mind, it’s fascinating how nonverbal the film is; made with all the subtlety and depth Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra could only dream of, High Life relies on feeling and emotion rather than empty spectacle. Fascinatingly, the film’s director, Claire Denis, is French, and this is her first ever English-language film. Yet more proof as to the universal language of cinema; that one-inch barrier is looking pretty flimsy, huh?

Monos

Image from Monos courtesy of RogerEbert.com

Painted faces and long hair. A stick sharpened at both ends. These are just a few of the images Monos dances before our eyes in service of its tale about teenage soldiers, making its chief literary allusion pretty clear long before a literal decapitated pig’s head pops up in the movie. Following a group of Colombian child soldiers engaged in an unspecified conflict, Monos isn’t shy about invoking Lord of the Flies, which might be a tricky prospect if the film itself weren’t so well-judged.

Her Smell

Image from Her Smell courtesy of The New York Times

Her Smell is an intensely psychological experience, a cococophany of sight and sound that culminates in a brutal depiction of mental disparity. Elizabeth Moss gives the performance of a lifetime as “Becky Something” and Cara Develenge finally gets to show her stuff in a movie that doesn’t suck. Much like Uncut Gems, the way the film depicts downward spiraling and addiction is cinematically gripping and nerve-wracking, but unlike Uncut Gems, there’s a glimmer of real and honest hope to the proceedings. A masterpiece.

Rocketman

Image from Rocketman courtesy of Colorado Boulevard

It’s incredible the turnaround I had on this movie. I went in with nothing but dread, having detested the laughable Queen biopic attempt from just last year. Now the same director was going to do one for Elton John? Well, as it turns out, Rocketman is a redemption story; one for director Dexter Fletcher, a man who does deserve our respect for taking the mangled corpse of Bryan Singer’s failed movie, wrangling it together in something like a coherent narrative, and dragging it over the finish line. That’s no small feat, and Rocketman could be seen as a well-deserved victory lap. Fletcher’s in control from the beginning, and his superior skill is apparent from the word go. Rocketman is a fun, lively musical, one which gleefully transcends the usual boring old biopic conventions in favor of making a “true fantasy.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Image from Portrait of a Lady on Fire courtesy of Empire

It’s fitting, considering the subject matter, that the best way to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire is “cinematic artwork.” This French film (yet more proof that Bong Joon Ho knows the score; the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles mean nothing here) is just getting its wide release now in 2020, which in some respects makes it a 2020 film. Which means it might end up on two Best Of lists! Honestly, it’s so perfect, I’d accept that.

Uncut Gems

Image from Uncut Gems courtesy of movieplayer

What’s ultimately most surprising about Uncut Gems, the pressure-cooker thriller from the directors of Good Time, is how it isn’t actually all that far removed from what we might consider to be a “normal” Adam Sandler movie. Once again, he’s playing a loud, abrasive asshole, an idiot manchild who gets in over his head in a bad situation, and keeps digging himself deeper through no fault but his own. The difference here is context; namely, that the Safdie brothers have constructed a movie that knows that the main character doesn’t deserve to win. This simple understanding would be enough to push this into the upper echelon of Sandler flicks, even without its impeccable script, its spine-tingling score, and the best performance Sandler has ever given. Yes, better than Punch Drunk Love. 

Knives Out 

Image from Knives Out courtesy of Lionsgate

As a young lad who grew up with the works of Agatha Christie, Knives Out was my movie. A delicious balancing act between genre throwback and 21st century update, Rian Johnson’s best film yet (yes, better than Brick, and even Looper) is a sly and intelligent mystery film, one that trusts its audience to keep up and understand what’s going on. Every clue is fairly laid out before us, thus allowing us the privilege to play along with Daniel Craig’s brilliant detective, without fear that the film will cheat us on the solution.

The Irishman 

Image from The Irishman courtesy of The New York Times

For a hot internet minute there, Martin Scorcese made headlines for comments where he appeared to go on the attack against Marvel. “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he was quoted as saying, and while his comments were clearly more about his own personal taste in films than anything else, the nerd rage that followed was very real. And while the “controversy” was no doubt capitalized on/exaggerated by hit-desperate clickbait sites, I have to imagine there were quite a number of Marvel fans out there positively tearing their hair out at the release of The Irishman, “real cinema” if ever such a thing could be identified. Less a sprawling gangster epic than a mournful elegy of time gone by, Scorcese crafted the epilogue to end all motherfucking epilogues with this movie, a capper on a career that no one can match.

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