It’s been a hell of a decade last year. To say it was a tough year is an understatement, equivalent to saying that the creepy house where a bunch of teens kept partying but never coming out of was “kind of a problem that should be taken up with the HOA” in every horror movie. The tough thing for me, personally, was that one of my main favorite pastimes that helped me deny the existence of existential dread was going to the movies, and that seemed to be counterintuitive to the whole “don’t sit inside for long periods of time breathing the same air as everyone.” So this year changed everything, including how I absorbed my favorite past time: Watching fancy people put on fancy clothes and pretend to be someone else for a few hours.
Rather than going to the movies themselves, I was able to enjoy myself at home, enjoying things with my own reasonably priced popcorn and without the constant threat of people who just wanted to send one more text before the movie started. It wasn’t quite the “big screen” but it accomplished what I needed: the ability to escape from existence for just a few hours and enjoy some art that got me to think, got me to laugh, and in one more interesting case, take me back in time. Not literally. If that was the case and I didn’t at least warn someone about all of this, that would be horribly irresponsible.
Regardless, in no real order other than the one that I felt like typing them up, are my top movies of the year. Also included, I suppose, are the reasons I did enjoy them, because it just seems irresponsible to not tell you why. That would just be silly.
This movie is going to be on a lot of my lists for many years to come, not just because of the movie itself but the circumstances around it. Onward was the last movie I saw in movie theaters proper, so it will hold a special place in my heart as the last time I was surrounded by other people, breathing in stale popcorn fumes and taking in a movie as an experience.
There are other reasons that this movie sits on my favorite movies of the year, not just because the story about two brothers had me thinking about my own relationship with my brother. This movie, about a world where magic was very real and just kind of went away because no one cared anymore is about just that: finding the magic that still very much exists around us. Barley, the older brother and main character, is tasked with not just raising his little brother but also with finding that magic that still exists.
The end of the movie (spoilers I guess) that the very thing they were looking for wasn’t on a big quest but literally across the street from the school, serves as a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to go places to find the wonder around us. And in a year where were all forced to sit around and stay in one place, maybe that’s not the worst message in the world. I know that this movie was overshadowed by a lot, but I think it’s worth several other looks.
Bill and Ted Face the Music.
One of my pet peeves is when a trailer for a movie comes out and you can already tell what critics are going to write about it from day one. It’s tough to think that the critic tweeting about how terrible a movie is based on all of the circumstances around it is going to give it a fair review. So I’ll say up front that unless this movie ended with the realization that Bill and Ted were actually figments of each other’s imaginations, I was probably going to end up loving it. I grew up with Bill and Ted. I’ve seen the original so many times I probably could recite it from memory.
What makes this movie stand out is that it’s about expectations, and the “chosen one” stories that are everywhere. There’s no difference between Bill and Ted and say, Frodo or Katniss or even Harry Potter. All are tasked with something doing something spectacular such as destroying jewelry by throwing it into a mountain. What’s interesting about Bill and Ted is that this movie sees them failing. They haven’t saved the world by the time we catch up with them, and they’re feeling the effects of that.
There’s also fantastic scene where they are confronted with their failure and eventually find that their old catchphrases and doing the same thing isn’t working, which again, I think tis a powerful message. Eventually it comes down to Bill and Ted, being the older generation, has to do what they can to help the younger generation stand up and do what it is that they need to do. It’s about imparting wisdom and hope, and then standing back. Again, this was a fantastic movie for this year.
Da Five Bloods.
There was a rumor that I’m not 100% is true, that Spike Lee couldn’t get enough funding to digitally de-age the actors who are playing aging war veterans going back to find gold bars the left in Vietnam. The end result is a bunch of older gentlemen running through the jungle while headed up by a very young Stormin, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, in an oddly satisfying disconnect of what we would normally expect. Normally the younger solider would be mentored and counseled by an older grizzled war vet, but instead we have an odd reverse.
I don’t know if that rumor is true. But what I did find is that the effect was remarkably powerful, and it told of a group of people who were forged by their experiences and losses in this war, and as a result never really “left.” This film was so much more than a powerful war film, it’s a film about regret, about youth, and about how we are the result of what makes us who we are. And it’s all done with some top notch acting and action sequences that are not only tense, but maintain an air of suspense, even as we are watching these flashbacks.
This is the type of film I may have overlooked if I was going to the theater. But then I would have missed out on a film that used all of its resources to tell one of the best stories of the year. Honestly, awards are becoming more and more silly, but if this film is not nominated for some kind of Best Picture it will be a travesty. This one stayed with me for quite some time.
Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga
One of the more interesting genres that’s popped up over the past few years has been the “Will Ferrell but as a wacky…” What makes them interesting is the way that Will Ferrell manages to take everything over the top, but is often tempered with a character who helps to bring down his wackiness, or feed into it in a way that doesn’t make it cloying or so over the top that we can’t really relate. Rachel McAdams is tasked with this in this movie, and does so in a way that not only feeds the wackiness, but does so in such a way that that reminded me that she’s one of the funniest actresses working today.
There’s also an earnestness to this movie that I feel can’t be stated enough. There’s no real “villain” to speak of except for a corrupt city manager who’s more concerned with what success will do. He’s not really out to get our heroes so much stop anyone from being successful for vague reasons that are kind of tacked on. Will Ferrell has gone on record as saying how much he loves the contest, and it shows in the way that the over the topness is celebrated, and singers are given their chance to shine.
And of course, along the way people learn lessons. But they at least make it funny.
Plus, it features the song of 2020. Ja Ja Ding Dong.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
2020 did not see a lot of superhero films released. Most Marvel properties were pushed back with the exception of, ironically enough New Mutants, but DC hit the ground running by sneaking this one out just before theaters were shut down. Birds of Prey, and while I like the title I will not be typing out the entire thing, stood out in a way that made me remember why I like comic book movies. Not a just a linear retelling of the Clown Prince of Crime’s former girlfriend striking out on her own, this is a story told as only Harley Quinn can: with flashbacks, flashforwards, corrections, on screen prompts, and a dance number halfway through that let us know just what she was laughing about.
This was a standout film for me this year because it’s the first time in a long time I felt like I was watching a superhero movie based from a comic book. There are loud colors. It’s wacky and it’s not afraid to delve into a character who is herself, incredibly intelligent and uses that intelligence for mayhem. It’s got some great action sequences, especially the one in the prison that starts, rewinds for context, then continues almost unbroken.
This is also a great example of something that I think a lot of movies are struggling with as they try to put them in different cinematic universes, even Marvel. This is a movie that very much stands on its own: If I never heard of Harley Quinn or the Birds of Prey, then I wouldn’t be lost. But it’s also a universe in which things happened before, such as Harley’s relationship with the Joker and her time with the Suicide Squad. Why they keep using Captain Boomerang as a character, I’ll never know. Even the Batman references are kept to a minimum, but also lurking just right in the background.
But overall… it’s just fun, and unapologetically so.
This is another movie I saw in theaters in the before-fore, back when you still probably should have been washing your hands and staying home when you were sick. That being said, this was another movie that I wish I had spent more time being able to just sit and watch on the big screen, because a lot happened in a very short amount of time.. I don’t know that I have much to say about this one. It’s a Guy Ritchie crime movie. There are a lot of colorful bad guys, not a whole lot of what we might consider good guys, and for a lot of really interesting narrative bending to get Matthew McConaughey not only too London, but part of a London crime family.
I’m not sure a lot of it makes a whole lot of sense, but ultimately, should it? But ultimately it’s a nice return to form for Ritchie, who spent a lot of time trying to tamp down those instincts that make him a unique filmmaker. Which is a shame overall, because this movie shows that when he’s allowed to do what it is he wants, which is to make a film that plays with time, expectations, and trusts the audience, he can come up with something enjoyable.
And let’s be honest, incredibly violent.
Andy Samberg is a national treasure. So is Cristin Milioti, who makes up the other half of a premise that we’ve seen so many times that it’s become a genre in and of itself. Yep. As one character tells another, this is one of those time repeating scenario movies.
The self-awareness helps to freshen up this premise without making it seem too much like it’s winking at the camera, letting you know each step of the way that not only are you in on the joke, but the whole premise is a joke. The way we watch movies has become a bit cynical lately, with entire plots being dissected before they even manage to make it to the first day of filming, and in some cases movies being reviewed by way of what people wanted to see instead of what was produced. Palm Springs could have fallen into that trap, with its main character already well aware of the fact that he’s living the same day over and over again when he accidentally traps someone else in that day. But it sidesteps that by taking an earnest approach to what it means to be in a point of living the same day over and over again, and how we can grow even if circumstances aren’t in our favor.
The real world issue is that this movie came out right as the pandemic was in full swing, and everyone felt like they were living the same day over and over again, and I think this movie offered a nice reminder that even in the worst of times, we can still do things to help ourselves. That even small steps, like taking a left instead of a right, is the opportunity to make things better in a small way. And also: like it’s main characters, don’t be too hard on yourself. We all make mistakes.
Jane Austen adaptations are always fun. Mostly because as a writer she got part of what made humans tick, so despite the fact that she was writing in 1815 she had a knack for picking up enduring themes. This latest adaptation of Emma, starring Anna Taylor-Joy (and showing that she has a range that can never be defeated, so start casting her in everything people) picks up on that beautifully, showing us how this one young woman manages to interfere with the lives of others while trying to avoid her own responsibilities.
This adaptation captures a lot more of the soul of the source material, managing to capture the playfulness of the main character and softening some of her darker moments. This is largely due to the way that the main character is played, realizing quickly when she does something that crosses the line (I’m talking mostly about that scene, which I dreaded going in but plays really well.)
There’s not much to really report about this movie other than I liked it. I wish I had some grand unifying theory like I have with some of the others, but it was just a fun movie, and bright spot in a dark year. It was comforting, combining my love of literature with an enjoyment of a good film.
At the time of writing this, Sherlock Holmes has been adapted roughly a billion times into a billion different scenarios, ranging from time displaced detective set in the future, a sexy detective in modern day London, a thinly hidden doctor version who investigates diseases, a mouse, and in some cases, even a Victorian version that’s slightly accurate. So naturally when I heard that Sherlock’s kid sister was going to get her own movie where the man himself was going to be played by Superman, I figured, hey, bring it on.
And on it was brung.
Enola Holmes, starring Millie Brown, was a delightful movie from start to finish but still manages to add to ever expanding Sherlock Holmes story. It makes great use of the brother/sister dynamic, and the fact that she is quite literally one step ahead of Sherlock for a good portion of the story. It manages to incorporate plenty of teenage antics without being overbearing.
This is another movie I wanted to include simple because it was fun. I really did try to balance movies that were interesting along with movies that just brough me some joy over the year. This is one that really did just bring a lot of joy.
This brings us to a movie I saw late in 2020 – it was released on Christmas Day – and the second Pixar movie to make this list. On the surface Soul is the story of a Joe Gardner, played by Jamie Foxx, who wants nothing more than to play piano in a great jazz band. Of course, as with all movies meant for kids, he dies, is sent to the Great Beyond, accidentally ends up in the Great Before as a mentor to a rogue soul that doesn’t want to live, and then hijinks ensue.
You know, for the kids.
I saved this one for last not just because it eeked in under the wire of whatever deadline I was setting in my one man movie analyzing operation, but because it hit both of those things that I set as a major standard for whatever made this movie “best” for me. On the one hand, this movie is visually fun, filled with some stellar performances (throw all of the awards at Jamie Foxx) and tells a great story.
On the other, it tells an existential, life changing story not just about passion and purpose, but what those things mean. It’s a movie that could have very easily fallen into cliché, where Joe realizes that his true life’s work is actually one thing instead of another. But it never veers into that territory. There are some genuine great lessons to be had here, and the movie doesn’t really answer them. The movie is more interested in having you answer them for yourself, and I think that’s a superpower of the movie itself. It’s not interested in answering these questions for you, it wants you to ask them for yourself.
So, that’s been my wacky year in movies. I’m looking forward to what’s coming up, and here’s hoping that I can spend a little more time in the theaters in 2021.