Monday, December 28, 2020

The best movies of 2020

As has been the case for the last few years, although I wrote a lot of articles and reviews about a lot of movies in 2020, I didn't have an outlet for a traditional top 10 list. So here are my favorite movies (plus some favorite performances) of a very strange year for cinema, in which theaters were mostly closed but I probably saw more new releases than I ever have before.

1. Dreamland I remain surprised that this movie hasn't become a major awards contender, but I don't want to turn people off by describing it as typical Oscar bait. The Depression-era drama about an intense but doomed connection between a fugitive bank robber (Margot Robbie) and a troubled dreamer (Finn Cole) explores elegiac themes about the lost American dream, with a strong Terrence Malick influence (albeit more accessible than anything Malick has made in quite some time). Gorgeous cinematography, haunting score, careful pacing, evocative use of cross-cutting, and a great performance from Margot Robbie make this easily my favorite movie of the year.

2. Selah and the Spades Tayarisha Poe makes a striking debut with this gorgeous, clever and totally original take on the high school drama, with what should be a star-making performance from Lovie Simone as the title character, who runs the mafia-like underground at an elite prep school. Poe combines the plot elements of a crime thriller (threats, betrayal, rival factions) with the environment and activities of a typical high school (the major showdown is over the prom). The visuals and the dialogue are heavily stylized, immersing the audience in a world that is both unique and entirely familiar. More thoughts in my CBR review.

3. Gretel & Hansel I saw Oz Perkins' third feature in a mostly empty movie theater back in January, when people weren't staying away because of pandemic restrictions, but because apparently nobody cared about this movie. But they missed out on another haunting, atmospheric horror movie from Perkins, who has established a distinctive impressionistic style in his three films. His take on the classic fairy tale is moody and artistic, with a surreal narrative, gorgeous production design, and great lead performances from Sophia Lillis (as Gretel, a young woman tempted by dark power) and Alice Krige (as the witch who attempts to bring Gretel under her spell). More thoughts in my Piecing It Together podcast appearance.

4. The Invisible Man This is another horror movie I got to see in a theater before the pandemic shutdown, although I watched this one with a full house, and that probably added to my enjoyment of Leigh Whannell's delightfully suspenseful reimagining of the iconic Universal monster movie. Elisabeth Moss is predictably great as the victimized woman standing up for herself against a literally invisible abuser, making the somewhat absurd scenario completely believable and emotionally devastating. And Whannell creates such a convincing narrative that he manages to generate tension just by pointing his camera at empty spaces. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

5. Banana Split There were quite a few charming teen coming-of-age movies this year, but this delightful comedy from co-writer and star Hannah Marks was easily my favorite, with its story about the bonds of teen-girl friendship transcending any romantic entanglements with boys. Marks and Liana Liberato have fantastic chemistry as two teenagers who should be fighting over the same guy (one is his ex, one is his current girlfriend) but instead discover that they love hanging out together far more than they care about who's dating whom. It's joyous and funny while tackling real, complex emotions. More thoughts in my Crooked Marquee capsule review.

6. The Assistant The scene in which Julia Garner's title character attempts to report her boss' serial sexual harassment and abuse to her company's HR department is the best (and most uncomfortable) scene I saw in any movie this year. Kitty Green's movie is full of those mundane and yet horrifying moments that add up to a portrait of the dehumanizing cost of being a low-level female employee at a corporation full of entitled men who never face consequences for their actions.

7. Bad Education I loved director Cory Finley's first film, the dark teen comedy Thoroughbreds, and Bad Education (which he directed but didn't write) is a very different kind of story. But it's sharp and funny and wonderfully acted by Hugh Jackman (in possibly his best-ever performance) and Allison Janney, among others, taking a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal and turning it into a meditation on the costs (and benefits) of institutional corruption. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

8. Palm Springs This rom-com riff on Groundhog Day is far more than that high-concept pitch suggests. It's a smart take on the time-loop formula, a hilarious comedy about the soul-sucking experience of attending a destination wedding, an existential musing on the nature of identity, and a giddy romance between two soft-hearted cynics played by the dynamic team of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

9. Shithouse This is a frighteningly assured debut from 23-year-old writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, who finds honest, vulnerable ways to tell a familiar story about two young people (college students played by Raiff and Dylan Gelula) discovering a thrilling, unexpected connection. The story struggles a bit after the heady first night the two characters spend together, but it's still a sweet romance and a sensitive look at the difficulties of being away from home for the first time.

10. Boys State I don't watch nearly as many documentaries as a lot of critics (or my Awesome Movie Year podcast co-host Jason Harris), and I tend to prefer nonfiction films that play more like cinematic narratives. So this character-driven documentary about a mock-government retreat for Texas teens works perfectly for me, making incisive (and scary) points about the political future of our country while remaining focused on its engaging central personalities.

Honorable mentions: The Dark and the Wicked, The Devil All the Time, Driveways, The Platform, Sea Fever, Swallow

Top five lead performances: Julia Garner, The Assistant; Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man; Hugh Jackman, Bad Education; Margot Robbie, Dreamland; Christopher Abbott, Possessor

Top five supporting performances: Brian Dennehy, Driveways; Allison Janney, Bad Education; Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs; Rene Auberjonois, Raising Buchanan; Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'John Paul Jones' (1959)

I'm not sure I should even bother including the 1959 biopic John Paul Jones in my Bette Davis series, since Davis' appearance in it is so brief that in the intro to the TCM showing I recorded, Ben Mankiewicz referred to her role as a cameo. Davis gets a splashy "special appearance" title card all to herself in the opening credits, but she only shows up for about four minutes near the end of the movie. The rest of the two-hour-plus movie belongs to Robert Stack as the title character, a hotheaded naval commander considered one of the founders of the modern U.S. navy.

The final film directed by John Farrow (father of Mia, who briefly makes her first onscreen appearance at age 13), John Paul Jones is a lavish but stilted military epic, full of bombastic patriotism but very little human emotion, even in its attempts at depicting its title character's romantic dalliances. Stack is stiff and robotic as Jones, like an exhibit in Disney World's Hall of Presidents, playing the rough-and-tumble Scotsman as a humorless scold who condescendingly dismisses pretty much all of his colleagues as spineless idiots.

The characterization may not be far off, since the real Jones was known for his questionable leadership tactics and possible criminal activities as much as for his bravery and strategic insight. But this movie glosses over any sordid aspects of Jones' life, portraying him as unerringly honorable and correct, whether arguing with the founding fathers of the United States or facing down a rival British sea captain. He comes off as equally pompous when interacting with his love interests, neither of whom get much screen time or make much of an impact on the story. Charles Coburn brings some earthy wit to his performance as Benjamin Franklin, whom Jones befriended during the Revolutionary War when he was based in France, but he's the only cast member who brings one of these historical figures to life.

And what about Bette Davis? She plays Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who employed Jones' services for a few years after the war, and she's appropriately regal in her brief appearance, even getting to speak some Russian and French. After that, though, it's back to Stack's bloviating, which continues all the way to Jones' deathbed. The movie is framed by modern-day Navy footage, connecting Jones to the integrity and honor of the contemporary American Navy, in a way that plays like an extended recruitment film. Given the movie's lackluster sea battles and self-important blowhard of a hero, though, it's hard to imagine it convincing anyone to sign up for military service.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Beyond the Forest' (1949)

Bette Davis' final film in her 18-year career at Warner Bros., Beyond the Forest is mostly known for its extraneous qualities, from the behind-the-scenes battles that led to Davis' departure from Warners, to her later comments about its low quality, to the bad reviews (including a designation from the founder of the Razzies as one of "the most enjoyably bad movies ever made"), to the iconic Davis line ("What a dump!") that's generally used as a clip without any context. Although it's still mostly regarded as terrible, Beyond the Forest has also picked up a cult following of sorts, like any campy movie with big stars tends to do, and some critics have re-evaluated it as subversively brilliant.

I fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. Watching the movie, I had kind of forgotten about its reputation, so aside from waiting for that famous line (which is such a throwaway that I never would have guessed it was particularly notable), I wasn't focused on how notorious it apparently is. Mainly, as usual with these lower-tier Davis movies, I was watching for Davis' performance, which is vampy in the extreme, possibly because she held the production in such contempt and just decided to let loose on what she felt was a poor script. Davis plays Rosa Moline, a vain housewife who's contemptuous of her small Wisconsin town and her square doctor husband Lewis (Joseph Cotten).

Rosa dreams of moving to the big city (Chicago, just because it's the closest), and is having an affair with a rich businessman named Neil Latimer (David Brian) who clearly does not care about her at all. The movie is sort of a tragedy about Rosa's ambitions ruining her happiness and ultimately leading to her death (after she attempts a self-induced abortion by literally throwing herself off a cliff), but Rosa is such a haughty, mean-spirited person that it's hard to sympathize with her. Davis is great at playing these kinds of imperious villain figures, but the movie doesn't seem to know whether Rosa is actually a villain or not, and so Davis' nasty line readings don't have much of an impact.

Poor Joseph Cotten plays the world's blandest, most upstanding man, who endures all of Rosa's abuse with saintly patience, takes her back after she runs off with Neil and then is rejected, and serves his small-town patients with compassion and dignity, even if they can't pay. The dynamic between them is so lopsided that there's no interest in them staying together, but there's also no reason to want to see Rosa end up with Neil, especially after she commits murder just to keep word of her pregnancy a secret. Seeing Rosa end up dead isn't very satisfying, either, since she's at least partially a victim of sexist expectations of women (and possibly of unspoken racial prejudice, according to some viewers who read her as Latina, although that's never explicitly stated).

Director King Vidor puts together some striking compositions (as is often the case, Davis makes sure to get great lighting during her most dramatic scenes), and the story is so increasingly over-the-top that it's at least an entertaining train wreck. It's not quite insane enough to qualify as a camp classic, and I think the people who read sophisticated social commentary into it are reaching too far. But it's far from Davis' worst film, and it's certainly far from the least memorable (any number of 1930s cheapies outweigh it there). It's at least worth a look from anyone interested in Davis' late-period turn toward camp icon.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days in France' (1968)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the impressionistic sports documentary 13 Days in France declares that it's not the official film of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and it's not hard to see why this movie would be the wrong choice as a sanctioned record of the Olympic games. Produced and co-directed by French New Wave icon Claude Lelouch (along with more than a dozen credited collaborators), 13 Days is an abstract snapshot of the games that's almost entirely devoid of context, with virtually no dialogue and very little diegetic sound. It more closely resembles something like Aquarela or Samsara, documentaries made up of a series of images around a central theme, rather than what you'd expect from a movie about the biggest sporting event in the world.

Considering that I have no interest in sports or the Olympics, this approach generally works for me, although at nearly two hours, the movie does get repetitive and tedious at times. Having at least some sports knowledge would probably help, since there's no explanation of the various events or competitors, and while I eventually spotted a couple of famous athletes via context clues (Jean-Claude Killy and Peggy Fleming, both of whom have songs sung about them on the soundtrack), most of the time I had no idea what was happening in the competitions, or even what many of them were (there's a weird skiing one where you shoot a gun in the middle of it?). Lelouch and his collaborators are just as interested in local color and behind-the-scenes details (including parties and musical performances), though, and the movie is really a feat of editing, as various athletic accomplishments are juxtaposed with mundane activities.

Even when portraying the athletes, the filmmakers focus on the less obvious aspects of the competition. There's a montage of hockey players spitting, and one rapid-fire sequence of a starting pistol indicating the beginning of multiple races that we never see. There are scenes of spectators frolicking in the snow, and one shot of a baby's diaper being changed by the side of a ski slope. Lelouch matches the shots of the Olympic flame being lit with shots of a cameraman's long, dangling cigarette ash. It's playful and also clearly meant to sort of deflate the self-importance of the games, especially in brief shots of newspaper headlines about Vietnam inserted between marching bands and cheering crowds. The point of view is a bit muddled, but the movie is distinctive enough to make it worth watching as cinema, and not just as a recording of sports history.