My life has been spent living inside movies. All of it. Once I found an escape route from a pretty rough early life into a dark theater and a better reality I was hooked. It didn’t matter where I watched them. RKO musicals on a crummy black and white TV in a shag carpeted den in a track house in Oxnard in the late 1970s, inside a grand movie house on Hollywood Blvd with the handprints and footprints of movie stars in the cement outside, hunched over my phone at a car wash waiting for the signal that it was time to get back in the car and back into real life. Movies have always anchored me to the version of life I could understand.
I should say up front I am not a film critic. I haven’t seen nearly as many films as critics do, for one thing. Thus, there are films I have missed this year, for sure. This list is meant simply as a marker for the end of the year of what embedded in my heart and mind.
Mank -“Just some writer.”
David Fincher’s Mank is such an audacious ambitious reach for a director who never lets himself off the hook by making anything easy. Mank is about so many things at once – fake news, false gods, accidental brilliance, big risks, women undervalued, women overvalued, love (who has it, who doesn’t), great men and failed men, the dream/money factory that helped elect presidents. It is about kamikaze writing – dive bombing into genius amid total destruction. And if that wasn’t enough, Fincher made a Russian doll of a movie that isn’t just about the origin of Citizen Kane but it’s also a movie made the way a movie would have been made back then, how they talked, how they walked, how directors directed them. And if THAT wasn’t enough, it’s also a movie about the cinema of Citizen Kane. It isn’t a love letter to Hollywood – if anything, it is an indictment of it. It is, however, a love letter to Orson Welles, to the Mercury players, to Gregg Toland, to Marion Davies, and yes, to Herman J. M-a-n-k-i-e-w-i-c and out of nowhere a z. And if THAT wasn’t enough, it is also a son’s tribute to his father Jack who grew up in movie theaters to escape reality. And that makes a movie for people who not only love movies but live in movies.
It is for those of us who remembered the old ones, before the cultural revolution exploded cinema to bring up the ’60s and ’70s and beyond. Everything was buttoned up back then and so Mank must also be because David Fincher has to get it right. And that, probably more than anything, is what I love most about his films. That obsessive need to get it right. He has said he likes to make audiences uncomfortable. Mank could have been one that didn’t. But it has an ominous undercurrent from minute one that serves as a warning that there will be something very serious here. And indeed, there is. What could be more serious than the business of selling lies to the American people via Hollywood. By the end there is a sweet coda of a minor success story at the time but one that has been revered and remembered for decades. Gary Oldman, who has just recently won an Oscar, now holds one as Mank – taking due credit for the piece of the masterpiece he rightfully earned.
Somewhere in the wilds of the imagination of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh sprang the ultra modern fun house mirror that is Spree. There is something a little “precious” in how so many of us portray ourselves and our lives online – but especially so in the “draw my life” series that pops up on Youtube. In Spree, they pack so much satirical, hilarious, pitch black humor into that opening scene you know immediately what you’re in for: they hit hard economic times, they moved to Azusa, mom got really depressed and he was her best friend then he found video games. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? What goes wrong is one of the best horror films ever made about the social media age and one of the best films no one is talking about. And when I say no one — I mean NO ONE. I have to think that one day it will get its due because no matter how artificial our lives can become, in a perfect world there are going to be artists who puncture that delusion. Spree calls upon the language of new filmmaking in the age of cell phones and streaming. It is told completely through these screens from several different points of view and ultimately, it points to a culture trapped in its own perpetrated illusion of itself. It is funny, and at times terrifying, but gets everything so right, from the brutal chat scroll, to the fake charity of the influencers, to the desperation of needing to be seen, to the arbitrary recipe for success in 2020.
News of the World
The one big beautiful studio movie in the race proves why we still need theaters. This has to be seen as big and wide as possible. But even still, what drives the film are two main things. 1) It’s about why we need storytelling and how people can exploit that need with propaganda. 2) The two central performances of Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel. I’m not sure any other actor but Hanks could have pulled this performance off in quite the same way. Plenty of them could play the stoic father figure who rescues an orphan girl, but to then also be able to mesmerize a crowd with storytelling. The cinematography, the score, the production design all serve as a reminder of what Big Hollywood can still do. And I needed this movie more than I knew. I suspect many will, provided enough people get to see it.
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell is both wildly funny and adept at composing a shot. There aren’t many writer/directors who can be both this well. I think I can count them on one hand. It isn’t that the film is funny funny. It is tragic and very sad but the dialogue is funny throughout, disarmingly so. Her timing as a director, where to bring the audience and when, is one of the reasons the film is so successful as it goes from light to funny to weird to brutal to ugly to terrifying, and finally, to heartbreakingly sweet. She is a new voice whose career as a director I will be watching.
The combination of Frances McDormand’s face and Chloe Zhao’s lovely sensibility makes this film one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking films of the year. Zhao is a poet with her camera. While much of it is about McDormand’s inner world, to be sure, how she evolves from being a wife with a husband who has a job to a woman living in her van and moving from town to town connecting with people, Zhao’s love of the natural world is in every frame.
This is another film that does the heart good as it tells the story of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood in rural Arkansas as his immigrant family arrives in America from South Korea to become fruit and vegetable farmers. Told through the eyes of the children, whose lessons must be learned the hard way, Minari is the rare film that reminds us how we’re all Americans and in this together no matter where we come from.
One Night in Miami
Regina King turns out to be good behind the camera as she brings to life the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke come together to discuss their lives, racial justice and their futures. Moody and sensual, King often places her camera behind walls and doors, or objects to give the sense of being a fly on the wall observing this history unfold. Leslie Odom, Jr. is wonderful as Sam Cooke.
On the Rocks
Few things are better than watching Bill Murray rattle around pre-COVID New York in a red MG. Well, then you have his slightly jaded daughter, Rashida Jones, having a mild crisis in her marriage. This is a lovely father daughter story that seems to be yet another chapter in Sofia Coppola’s storytelling, where you start with Lost in Translation, then you go to Somewhere and finally you have On the Rocks. Stories with charismatic, boundary-free fathers of father figures and in their wake, somewhat reserved, unformed daughters craving out their own lives. On the Rocks is one of the few uplifting films this season that doesn’t ask much of you except to spend some time with some great people as a reminder of what life was like before everything fell apart.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
You can’t get to the best performance of the year, Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, without this being one of the best films of the year. In celebration of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play, directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey is a sultry, playful but ultimately haunting story of musicians who were expected to play for little profit and no rights. It is driven by the writing and the acting, much like Denzel Washington’s Fences, another August Wilson play that won Viola Davis the Oscar. She very well might win a second one for this.
Even if this movie hadn’t resonated with me I would have placed it on my top ten just out of spite – because that is just the kind of terrible person that I am. Watching the critics go overboard in their beatdown of this movie brought out my inner defender of underdogs and lost causes. But the truth of it is, I watched the movie as saw a lot of my own life in it. If you know what it is to grow up in chaos, and you know how hard it is to escape that life and make something of yourself, if you know how it still howls in your ear from time to time – you will see a lot of yourself in this film. Ron Howard is an actor’s director and it’s clear that he gave both Amy Adams and Glenn Close much room to find these characters. Both of them are exceptional in their roles – and this should be remembered, regardless of how the film fares with critics.
This is another film not many are really talking about but it’s a pretty great story of a woman escaping an abusive husband and, with a little help from her friends, decides to build her own home from the ground up. It is harrowing but involving. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, co-written and starring Clare Dunne.
And a dozen more: 12. Ammonite 13. Wolfwalkers 14. Soul 15. The Mauritanian 16. Emma 17. The Outpost 18. The Social Dilemma 19. Gunda 20. Da Five Bloods 21. Supernova 22. Pieces of Woman 23. Let Him Go