Theatrical movie-going may currently be canceled, but we have still been able to travel to Brazil, Vietnam, and even an intergalactic trip out of space. Yes, things have been exceedingly different in 2020, but there’s still time to take a look back at the films that have stood out so far this year. Specifically, I have some thoughts on the movies I’ve most enjoyed, found meaning in, or have continued thinking about, even if they’re films mostly first watched via streaming services. Sure, there are a few well-regarded films I haven’t had a chance to catch up with, and there are even some I have that have not been released yet to qualify for this list. Regardless, the options are there, as I had little difficulty putting together a list of films covering many different areas of cinema.
Favorite Films So Far:
(Reviews Linked When Applicable)
This trippy, Brazilian sci-fi western hit virtual theaters, after touring festivals for a year, and seems lined up to enter cult status pretty quickly. Working as a bizarre sociopolitical commentary fit for the 70s, writers/directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles made a movie that has plenty on its mind, establishing a mood I haven’t forgotten. Thanks to some genre shuffling, what starts as a look at a poor, water-starved village, turns into a deadly fight for survival, as villagers fight a unit lead by a terrific Udo Keir to maintain their ecosystem, let alone their position on the map. Guaranteed to go in unexpected directions, Bacurau is a trip.
While circumstances ended my chance to see this stage show recapping the career of the Beastie Boys on an IMAX screen, I still got the goods from director Spike Jonze. Taking a live theater approach to their origins and ascension, it was a lot of fun watching Ad-Rock and Mike D go over the history of the band. Amusing anecdotes, video clips, and running gags make for a fun watch that lasted two hours but could have gone on and on (’til the break of dawn). While I would have liked to hear more about the later Beastie Boy albums, there’s a level of emotion tied to the relationship with MCA, aka Adam Yauch, who passed away in 2012. Relying on that arc, hearing the level of introspection the guys have, and still pulling off a show totally in the spirit of the Beastie Boys does plenty to make for a fun, body movin’ experience.
With the ripped-from-the-headlines approach, there’s a way to make Bad Education a fairly down-the-line dramatization of a series of events that revealed the largest public school embezzlement scandal in America. Not that we don’t get a good amount of reporting on this, but director Cory Finley has an excellent approach to this recounting of the story. Relying on simple tricks such as evolving color palettes and framing to suggest the walls are closing in around the characters who matter most, there’s some good stylization to track the complexity of what is being revealed. There’s also this lead performance from an ever-so-committed Hugh Jackman, which may actually be his best work as an actor. Having Allison Janney deliver great supporting work doesn’t hurt either.
I’m a major fan of The Trip series, so even with most franchise films being delayed this year (sorry to Dom and his family), I was still thrilled to see the latest and final entry in the one of the most enjoyable series to revolve around two men bickering and eating, while on vacation. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon haven’t lost a step here, as they continue to hammer out their relationship and the joys and pitfalls of aging, whilst making each other (and the audience) laugh with their witticisms and impressions. Michael Winterbottom’s direction only adds to the flavor of this final course, as he puts in the work to show off the Greek locations the two visit. Not without a sense of melancholy, the added drama comes around to add a form of closure as well, and thankfully the men are up to the task of playing it out successfully.
H.P. Lovecraft is a tricky author to adapt, but the combined weirdness of Nicolas Cage and director Richard Stanley was enough to play around appropriately with the story of a family invaded by the psychedelic oddity of an infectious meteorite. This is the kind of film where Tommy Chong can stop by to show that he’s one of the saner elements featured, compared to Cage’s devolution from alpaca-milking farmer to a shotgun-wielding family protector. Yes, there’s a lot of craziness that comes with this story, but there’s an effective atmosphere and level of tension that helps the film gradually build towards an inevitable conclusion. This is Lovecraft done right, which means balancing the campy fun and nightmarish anxiety.
The wild thing is that Deerskin, a film about a man who becomes so obsessed with his newly-purchased deerskin jacket that he begins committing crimes to appease it, is actually director Quentin Dupieux’s most accessible film. Dupieux is the man who brought us Rubber, the movie about a killer tire, but he’s dialed down the eccentricity just a bit for the sake of a dark comedy with a pitch-perfect Jean Dujardin playing right into the weirdness. At just 77 minutes, the premise is straightforward, but the level of absurdity plays well into exploring a man’s midlife crisis. Not unlike a film from Yorgos Lanthimos, there’s a matter-of-fact nature to the dialogue that allows the film to play into its own style. Fortunately, the level of entertainment is held to a high, even as the violence comes on stronger and stronger.
For film fans, it’s not so much that Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man worked out, but that it delivered in spades on what was already gearing up to be a solid reimagining of the premise. Shifting the perspective from the madness one forms from being invisible to the madness one develops from suffering an abusive partner allows the film to take on other levels that help the film work as a psychological drama, even without the invisible element. Of course, Whannell knows how to play with genre, and is only becoming more adept at it. As a result, in addition to a terrific all-in performance from Moss, this film knows how to amp up the level of dread by simply letting the camera angles explore the negative space in a room. Sound design becomes the worst enemy of the audience, as they both prepare for bad things to occur, as well as get taken aback by real surprises. The Invisible Man has a lot of tricks up its sleeves, and it lays them all out, in plain sight, with true expertise.
Ranking at the top of the “where did this come from” list, The Vast of Night is not only a film I enjoyed immensely, but one hopefully signaling the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Defying the odds and creating a film that understands how to rely on a sense of nostalgia, yet doesn’t overplay its hand, director Andrew Patterson showed up to deliver a vision that I was happy to connect with. Thanks to the assistance of actors, a crew, and the participation of a small town, here’s a film functioning as a throwback to the Twilight Zone/Outer Limits age, with an expanded look at 1950s New Mexico serving as a means to build up a level of mystery and expanding on it through crafty camera movements, as well as sequences relying on nothing but the voices we hear. Even with the stylization present in the framing device and the dialogue, there’s a level of confidence on display that kept me hooked throughout this feature presentation.
2. First Cow
In addition to being the film that should win the Oscar for Best Cow, First Cow does all it needs to work as a special sort of film. As a frontier western, Kelly Reichardt has applied her low-key approach to a movie that deals with themes such as isolation, greed, and companionship for the sake of a fairly simple story that always feels informed by the expressions on these character’s faces. Thanks to a non-hurried pace, there’s a chance to absorb really build who the two leads are. That sense of authenticity takes over when we see the process involved in baking oily cakes using the milk stolen from a cow or even in the work to get the milk to begin with. The result is a quirky little film with plenty of comfortable moments, as well as a roundabout way of telling a story that manages to end in a profound sort of way that snuck up on me.
1. Da 5 Bloods
I was a big fan of Chi-Raq. BlacKkKlansman was my favorite film of 2018 and one of my favorites of the last decade. Spike Lee is on a roll, and it continues with Da 5 Bloods. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have taken a Vietnam story and crafted around the black experience, which has gone largely overlooked when it comes to the various cinematic depictions. The results are terrific. Even with acknowledging that the film gets perhaps too ambitious for its own good, this doesn’t take away from the level of scope Lee goes for, delivering a movie that is equal parts a war movie, a heist picture, and a commentary on the war experience for black soldiers. All of that and Lee didn’t forget to include the reaction of the Vietnamese when so many other films have. At its core, however, are the titular Bloods, and while Chadwick Boseman is a great, deliberate casting choice in regards to the battle-heavy flashbacks, Delroy Lindo emerges as a shining force for this film, hacking his way through the jungle on the way to an Oscar nomination. Bringing a sense of wisdom to go along with his wild card energy makes his a standout performance of the year. And even with that in mind, Lee still manages to tie a very entertaining journey together with his continued efforts to properly dig into societal issues of today, allowing for a rather emotional ending, topping off a visually wonderful film.
Acclaimed Films I Have yet To See (Alphabetical): Beanpole, Driveways, Sorry We Missed You, Vitalina Varela
Bonus – Favorite Non-2020 Films Seen For The First Time This Year (Alphabetical): Back to School, Branded to Kill, A Bucket of Blood, Cooley High, Danger: Diabolik, Eve’s Bayou, Get On The Bus, The Grey Fox, Lorenzo’s Oil, One Cut of the Dead, Runaway Train, Soul Power, The Straight Story, Talk Radio, Tokyo Drifter
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