Wednesday, January 20, 2021

17 Movies from 2020 That I Liked Just Fine

45. Sonic the Hedgehog
Faint Praise, I know, but this could have been so much worse.

It takes a very easy ("lazy," if I'm being less generous) approach with the relationships and themes, so there's no emotional depth to it, but James Marsden and Sonic are charming enough and Jim Carrey brings the perfect amount of Jim Carreyness so that he's silly without taking over the whole production. It's a perfectly fine, fun movie based on a kids' video game.

44. Dolittle
Soft pitch right down the middle at a kid audience. It's funny and imaginative enough that it's not a waste of time, but it's not trying hard at all. It only cares about keeping audiences mildly entertained for a couple of hours and it succeeds at that.

43. Three Christs
Two things attracted me to this: the cast and the theme of identity. I was especially interested in exploring identity through the specific delusion of people thinking that they're Jesus Christ. Like, why that specific person? What aspects of Jesus Christ are they so attracted to that they want to literally immerse their own identities in his? (As opposed to the spiritual immersion that's pretty much the basis for all of Christianity. I didn't expect the movie to get into that, but I would've been fascinated if it had made that comparison.)

Three Christs does spend a little time talking about the traumas that sent Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, and Bradley Whitford looking for other personalities to take on, but it's mostly interested in the methods that Richard Gere uses to help them. It doesn't even care that much about the concept of identity, though it does make superficial connections between the title characters' mental illness and the healthier, mundane wisdom of not letting other people define who you are. I would have loved to see that examined in more detail.

But even if the movie's not what I wanted it to be, Dinklage, Goggins, and Whitford are so good in their roles that I got invested in their characters and in Gere's attempt to treat them humanely. It's not a profound movie in any sense, but I never regret an opportunity to practice empathy. Although, even as an exercise in compassion, Three Christs can be overly melodramatic (with Kevin Pollak's role as the head of the hospital being especially two-dimensional).

42. The Lodge
I have to stop reading reviews before watching movies, even for films I'm on the fence about. Based on the buzz around it, I was prepared for The Lodge to be an intense, disturbing experience that made me squirm. But though the film's atmosphere is terrific, what actually made me uneasy were the characters' unmotivated decisions. I never bought into the premise or cared about anyone in that house.

That said, the mood is great and The Lodge has all the right gothic influences. It's about a stepmom who has to spend some time alone with her husband's kids, dealing with the specter of a former wife like in Rebecca. And the kids may or may not have some extra, sinister knowledge like in Turn of the Screw. There are also elements of Gaslight, so all the ingredients are here for something great. But they're mixed with unbelievable characters who kept me from getting too interested in what happens to them.

41. The Owners
If you've seen the movie Don't Breathe where some young delinquents break into Stephen Lang's house and come to regret it, The Owners has the same premise. But it takes a different approach with the creepy homeowners, so instead of a tough old badass, they're a kindly, old couple. I don't like the ending, but everything up to that is captivatingly bonkers and enjoyable. 

One thing that really bugged me though was the unnecessary and extremely distracting change in aspect ratio right at the end when everything's coming to a head. Suddenly going from widescreen to a little square box yanked me right out of the film (literally, since I had to actually stop the film and manually adjust my screen so that the box would at least fill as much space as it could). And this, just at the point when I should have been most engrossed. I thought it might have been just the copy I watched, but pretty much every review I've read mentions the same thing.

40. Blood and Money
Tom Berenger plays an elderly hunter who finds a dead body and a bunch of money and bravo to him for getting out and doing an action movie in the physical shape he appears to be in. Either that or he's acting his butt off... or his hips and knees, I guess would be more accurate. But sincerely, this is a brave performance.

I wish the script was better. It starts off pretty good. Berenger's character has a lot of weaknesses that I enjoyed seeing revealed. The best parts of the movie are when he's interacting with other hurting people. There seems to be little chance that anyone's going to fix anyone else, but I had some hope that maybe someone would be comforted by the end.

Not so much though. The last half of the film is a mix of survival movie and crime thriller that wastes the earlier character stuff. And while it's not bad - Berenger is slow, but the bad guys aren't very smart or even good shots, so it evens out - I'd gotten my hopes up about feeling something about the end and the movie let me down.

39. Tenet
Tenet is a cool movie. John David Washington is funny and suave, Robert Pattinson is quietly composed, and Kenneth Branagh is chilling. It was also nice to see Elizabeth Debicki so soon again after another movie that will be higher in my rankings. And of course there's just the sheer challenge of the effects that Christopher Nolan created for himself.

That all said, Tenet's time-travel mechanics aren't as cool as the film thinks they are. I'm not enough of a technical nerd to really appreciate the skill and effort that went into creating those sequences; I just care about how they serve the story. And the story is pretty rough on first viewing, for a number of reasons throughout the filmmaking process starting with the script (Branagh's motivations are so trite) and going all the way through the final stages of production (especially around sound design).

I don't doubt that the plot all makes sense when deeply studied, but as much as I enjoyed watching Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki try to save the world, I never really cared about any of them enough to want to go back and figure out the nitty-gritty mechanics of whatever was going on. I picked up enough to enjoy the adventure and I think that's all the effort I'm going to give the film.

38. The Sunlit Night
I loved Jenny Slate as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation, so I was excited to see her in a humorously dramatic role going to Norway to learn about art and herself. The film delivers on Jenny Slate in Norway, so it's charming and gorgeous, but I'm sadly not clear on just what she learned or how she learned it.

37. Guns Akimbo
Fun premise and performances just so long as you're ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence. It was a bit more than I wanted, but I really dug the bonkers plot. And Natasha Liu Bordizzo's hair.

36. The Turning
This one put me on a Turn of the Screw kick for a lot of 2020 and I'm still not done with it. I read Henry James' novel a couple of years ago and was fascinated by it. I hated it while I was reading it, but started warming to it by the end. And then after I had a chance to sit with it for a while, I liked it quite a bit, realizing that there are multiple ways to read it and that the most frightening ones are the least supernatural. 

I was curious about how The Turning would interpret it: Straight-up ghost story or psychological horror? Sadly, it tries to have it both ways, but not in a subtle, ambiguous way like James' novel. Instead, it decides to just give two, conflicting endings: one supernatural and one psychological. It's a bold move, but unsatisfying.

On the way there, though, I enjoyed the performances, the mystery, the setting of the mansion and its estate, and the tension. There are a lot of jump scares, but they worked to make me almost as much of a nervous wreck as Mackenzie Davis' beleaguered character.

I don't understand the need to set the film in the 1990s, but that's a minor head-scratch. Whatever the reason for the decision, the film worked just fine in that time period. I'm looking forward to watching it again after I finish the other adaptations on my list and see if the comparison helps or hurts this one.

35. Come Away
Come Away is marketed as a prequel to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, but it doesn't really work that way. And I don't mean from a geeky, continuity perspective. It's just that the film is interested in other things than connecting the two stories or creating a new origin for them. 

And that's not bad, because what the movie is interested in - a family's grieving in a variety of ways - is moving. The literary references are mostly just peppered on top of that to add some flavor. As a story of a family's painful struggle after a tragic death, I like it a lot. It's got some beautiful moments and not just visually.

But somewhere in there the film does want to comment on the two stories it's connecting and that's the part I have a hard time with. Both Peter and Alice escape to other worlds (at the very end of the film and off camera) and only one of them of course comes back. Alice visits Wonderland for a short period while Peter will remain in Neverland forever. My problem is that the movie doesn't seem to have a point of view about either decision. Is Alice more honorable for returning to reality? Are we meant to admire Peter's ultimate escape? Come Away asks the question, but if it offers any answers, it's quite subtle about it. I may like it more if I watch it again, but for now I'm a bit dissatisfied.

34. Hunter Hunter
Hunter Hunter starts off pretending to be about a wilderness family whose hunting territory is threatened by an especially aggressive wolf, but it plants subtle clues that maybe it's actually about something else before suddenly yanking back the curtain on what's really going on. I respect the hell out of that.

My problem is that I wasn't paying enough attention to the clues and was completely, jarringly blindsided by the third-act revelation. And that revelation is so unexpectedly dark that it made it even harder for me to keep up. Or really to even want to.

But it's a genius piece of filmmaking and maybe one day I'll be up to revisiting it.

33. Color Out of Space
"The Colour Out of Space" is one of the few Lovecraft stories I've read and I thought at the time that it would make a cool film. I'm not a fan of Lovecraft because he takes such a distant, clinical approach to describing horror, but sometimes that works and I enjoyed the increasingly alarming reports about the Gardner family after a meteor crashes on their property. It's ripe for a version in which we actually get to know the people involved and experience the horror with them; which is what director Richard Stanley does in this film.

The movie's visuals are gorgeous from the landscape photography to the effects of the weird, vibrantly colored plants and insects that appear after the meteor has landed. And I enjoyed the early scenes getting to know a little about the Gardners' personalities and their relationships with each other. The film needs more of that.

Mom Joely Richardson doesn't get enough attention and I'd like to have a better handle on the family's financial situation in general. Richardson is super concerned about her online business and clients, but Nicolas Cage doesn't seem to share her anxiety. Is that because he's callous or because she's over-reacting? Clues point to his being insensitive, but he's very tuned into her in other ways, so I have a hard time reading the couple. Same goes for their kids who go back and forth between quirky and seriously troubled.

That shaky foundation is especially tough to build on when the story is about breaking the family down and putting them through an appalling amount of stress. It's hard for me to care about what's happening to their relationships when I don't fully understand what their relationships were before the meteor hit.

Tommy Chong is awesome, but way underused as a hippie scientist squatting on the Gardner's property. And I liked the idea of including Lovecraft's narrator (a land surveyor in the short story; a hydrologist in the film) as an observer and would-be helper to the family's tragedy. That character doesn't really go anywhere either, but the building blocks are here for a great adaptation if only they were put together better.

32. Wonder Woman 1984
The plot is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ridiculous and not all of the CG works great. A couple of the shots of Wonder Woman running are pretty bad. Someone needed to have watched Black Panther and Captain America chase Winter Soldier in Captain America: Civil War again as a reminder of where the bar currently is on this stuff. But I love pretty much everything else.

The problems with the plot are a huge part of the movie and the reason it's so low in my rankings, but I love the character of Wonder Woman in general, I especially love Gal Gadot playing her, I love Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, and their relationship in this is real and emotional in spite of the weird way the movie brings Trevor back.

Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal are great at what they do even if these aren't my favorite versions of either character. And that mid-credits cameo at the end... mwah!

31. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
I don't know if I missed some clues, but the ultimate solution to the mystery felt as out-of-nowhere as the red herring it tried to distract me with earlier.

But while I didn't care for it as a mystery, I do love the idea of a deputy with anger issues hunting a werewolf (which is often symbolic of unrestrained emotion). It works as a character study and family drama with a cool monster element to liven it up. And I especially love Riki Lindhome as another, more stable deputy working the same case. 

30. Gretel and Hansel
I'm not in love with the production design on Gretel and Hansel. Jeremy Reed is clearly going for something in particular, but the simple costumes and clean architecture aren't my preferred aesthetic and I can't tell what this specific design does for the story. The forest locations look great though. I love every second that the characters are in the woods.

Even though the look of the film doesn't always connect with me, I appreciate the thought that's gone into the story and what themes can be coaxed out of it. "Coming of Age" doesn't satisfactorily summarize it. The movie sees growing up as a dark, violent process and not just for loss of Innocence. There's a lot the movie wants to say and I'm not sure if my not picking up all of it is my fault or the film's, but I'd enjoy revisiting it at some point to see.

Certainly the cast is perfect for me from Borg Queen Alice Krige as one aspect of the Witch, Jessica De Gouw (from the excellent TV series Underground) as another aspect, and Nancy Drew / It Girl Sophia Lillis as Gretel.

29. Shirley
Oh wow I have some Shirley Jackson to read. I don't know how one person can be so tragic and badass at the same time. Only this low on the list because it was kind of stressful to watch.

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