I think we can all agree that 2020 was the worst year in cinema that any of us can remember. The film industry, with its heavy emphasis on redundant and blockbustery comic book movies, was already headed into the toilet when the year began and the pandemic only drove the nail into the coffin. I deeply missed going to the theater for the big screen, in-person experience, but even the movies I saw at home tended to be disappointing. When, at the end of the year, I looked at the “top ten” lists from the major critics to see what I was missing, I saw that they had selected small, independent, depressing movies I’d never heard of. Watching someone else’ trauma didn’t really appeal to me this year, but what was the alternative? The usual mainstream movies with movie stars and well-known directors were absent, apparently being withheld by the studios until the pandemic is over and it’s safe to go to the movies again.
In any event, the last time I watched this few movies (and when I say “movies” I am including films that could have been released in a movie theatre but which I streamed at home) was more than 20 years ago when my son was too small to sit still for a full-length picture. Here’s hoping for a cinematic bonanza in 2021.
All year long I resisted subscribing to Disney+ out of principle but I finally plunked down seven dollars for a month’s subscription so I could watch “Soul.” If I hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t have written a movie list at all because until then I didn’t have a legitimate Number One. “Soul” turned out to be a piece of art that literally changed the way I look at the world like nothing else has since I sat through “Our Town” for the first time — a work that expresses similar themes. I knew “Soul” was a Pixar movie about a guy who loved jazz but I didn’t understand until halfway through that the title referred to a person’s literal soul. Wrapped within a a very charming, funny, gorgeously presented, easy-to-digest animated movie is the answer to the profoundest question — how should you live your life? Here’s a hint — you should live you life by living it to the fullest.
I need to make it very plain that this movie is definitely NOT “Tiger King,” that uber-trashy Netflix series about big cats. “Tigertail” is a deeply affecting story about the personal choices made by a working class Taiwanese immigrant with conflicting dreams. This quickly becomes an allegory about the emotional price paid by generations of ambitious new Americans who sacrificed love, family and their own mental health to pursue an economically better life in the U.S. Beautiful filmed with understated acting.
We probably didn’t need another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but what a treat it was to have this one to entertain us in the early days of the pandemic. The title character is played by Any-Taylor Joy, who gained far more notoriety this year as the alcoholic chess whiz on “The Queen’s Gambit.” She was great, as was the entire cast except for Johnny Flynn, who lacked Mr. Knightly’s gravitas. Each generation gets the “Emma” it deserves and this one rightly focused more than others on the class distinctions among the characters. Very fun.
4. 63 Up
The “Up” series, which has followed the lives of a dozen British subjects as they aged from 7- to 63-years-old is the greatest documentary project of all time. This will probably be the last in the series (which has updated every seven years) because the director Michael Apted is in frail health. Given that several of these people, who we’ve been watching grow older over decades, have now died, are dying, or are grieving other personal losses, this particular episode is unusually elegiac. I’d encourage anyone who cares about film to go back and watch the original “7Up” and then follow the updates one by one. It’s amazing to experience how a life really rolls out and how some people turn out exactly like you think they will and others surprise.
5. My Teacher the Octopus
Certainly the dreamiest documentary of the year, about a man who makes friends with an octopus. I learned a lot about cephalopodas. The underwater filming, in an ecosystem I never even knew existed, is remarkable, as is the anthropomorphizing that occurs within this movie. I mean, can you really be “friends” with a mollusk? Still, the fact that this was made at all is astounding.
This is the movie I was most looking forward to this year: David Fincher’s account of how Herman Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of “Citizen Kane.” It’s told in lush black and white with a curlicue narrative, and since you can’t always tell what flashback you’re in as the movie unspools, it’s not that easy to follow. I loved the first half of “Mank,” with its scene-setting and depiction of old Hollywood, but the historical story goes way off the rails as Fincher tries to establish that Mankiewicz’ motivation for attacking William Randolph Hearst via the fictional Charles Foster Kane is somehow connected to California’s 1936 gubernatorial campaign. Huh??!! And then there’s the movie’s unpersuasive assumption that the “Citizen Kane” story and the Kane character were both conceived solely by Mankiewicz and not in collaboration with Orson Welles. It’s ironic that a movie about a near-perfect screenplay has, itself, such a messed up screenplay.
7. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is a great director but he goes intermittently goes off the rails, Rambo-style, in this story about four Black Viet vets of varying disposition who return to ‘Nam to reminisce and resolve some unfinished business. It’s exciting and emotional, especially when you admire the performance of Chadwick Boseman, who has since died, but some of the plot twists are asking too much of us.
8. Ma Rainney’s Black Bottom
Heartbreaking and intense, with great high-octane acting by the dying Chadwick Boseman and the very-much-alive Viola Davis. Unfortunately, this is essentially a filmed play, complete with stilted theatrical dialogue and long monologues. Watching this I finally admitted to my self that I’m a philistine who just doesn’t like dramatic plays, even by someone as talented as August Wilson.
9. Let Them All Talk
This movie is a hot mess. Meryl Streep is a novelist who wants to reconnect with her two former best friends from college (now estranged, played by Diane Weist and Candace Bergen) by taking them on a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary. Oh and her nephew’s on board too. Also her book agent, who’s is secretly spying on her. And then there’s a fabulously prolific John Clancy-type author who admires her greatly. Some conflicts get solved; some don’t; nothing really makes sense but it’s fun to watch everybody experience luxury cruising.
10. The Bee Gees: How Deep in My Love
Watching this documentary is more than a guilty pleasure — its a look back at two decades (the 1960’s and ’70’s) of rapidly evolving pop music. It’s the kind of movie that tries to make you feel guilty for ever scorning the amazingly prolific Bee Gees and largely succeeds. Be warned, though, that if you don’t like disco its because you are either racist, homophobic, or both (this, in a movie about three of the whitest, straightest, most hirsute guys in the business).
11. The Trip to Spain
This is the third “Trip to” movie involving a couple of British comics who go on exotic trips, eat fantastic meals, do Sean Connery impersonations, and have at least one existential crisis. The formula is always enjoyable but is wearing thin now. I literally had to go back and read a recap to refresh my memory about what happened in this one.
12. Wonder Woman ’84
This actually wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but in a year when a lot of movies “didn’t make sense,” this was the most disappoining. I had admired the original “Wonder Woman” in 2017 and hoped the director Patty Jenkins would build on that ,but WW84 was a sad step back into Marvel-grade territory. As usual, the future of the planet is in doubt, this time because a Donald Trump-like businessman has a self-esteem problem. Gal Gadot is great, though. I enjoyed watching her, even in civilian clothes.
13. The Book Sellers
I have nothing against this documentary, which is a pleasant, genteel look at the rare book store business in New York City, but it’s a trifle dull and doesn’t deliver the “Wow” moment of a great documentary.
14. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Another perfectly fine documentary about a marginally interesting subject — the band called “The Band.” This is not that different from the knock-off movies of other bands that you can watch on Amazon Prime and I only included it in the list because it was theatrically released and we paid to watch it during the first month of the pandemic.
15. The Prom
If you ever watched Ryan Murphey’s “Glee,” you can’t be surprised by the massively uneven way his full-length movies turn out. “The Prom” has an interesting premise. Four Broadway stars — Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells — cynically try to rehabilitate their careers by cynically taking up the cause of a high school lesbian in Indiana denied admission to her prom. You’l never guess what happens! Oh wait, you will. As in “Glee” there are some genuinely affecting moments, but they are buried beneath strata of cliches, absurdity, and blatant emotional manipulation.
I hate to pile on, but this really was terrible. I never saw “Cats” in the theatre or listened to the soundtrack but didn’t realize that, except for “Memories,” the score is actually pretty bad. And that’s just the first problem. The plot is apparently about alley cats competing to see which of them will win the chance to — it’s a chance to die, right? I literally cannot explain how this Broadway musical became such a musical sensation.