Thursday, January 21, 2021

18 Movies from 2020 That I Liked a Lot

A couple of these reviews get a little spoilery. I've put warnings on the ones that do.

28. Black Beauty
A Girl and Her Horse isn't a genre I'm automatically drawn to, but I read an interview with the director where she talked about how seriously she took the novel's focus on raising awareness about animal exploitation and cruelty. Her film reflects that and I appreciate the message even if I'm not naturally invested in the sentimental relationship between Jo and Beauty.

Not every actor is good in it, but all the important ones are. Mackenzie Foy is convincing as an emotionally wounded teenager and it's very nice seeing Iain Glen again after Game of Thrones. There's not enough explanation for the early tension in their relationship, but the actors sell that the tension exists, so I was able to roll with it.

27. Underwater
Underwater is a very good monster movie. It never rises above its genre, but it's atmospheric, scary, and has characters I like in a world I enjoyed exploring.

26. Onward

There's a lot about Onward that doesn't work for me. I don't love the character designs or the premise of a magical world that's converted to technology through the sheer laziness of its people. I also feel like the film started with a theme and then built a story to support it, meaning that it had to sacrifice some authentic emotion and decision-making in its characters in favor of making its point. I have a hard time believing that Dad makes no effort whatsoever to see his younger son in the last few moments left.

But it's still a good, strong theme and the relationship between the brothers (and also their mom) is authentic and emotional. The movie's also really funny and I come out liking it a lot even if it's not among Pixar's best.

25. Rebecca
I've never read Daphne du Maurier's novel, but I understand that the classic Selznick/Hitchcock adaption (which I'm very familiar with) made some changes to at least an earlier draft if not the book itself. Ben Wheatley's film changes it back, which is a cool exercise. I've often wondered how that might affect the story and now I know. The Selznick/Hitchcock version was right.

It doesn't affect the plot much at all, but it does affect the characters and sadly I don't think Wheatley's version deals with the full implication of Rebecca's actions in the past, Max's in the present, or how both influence the new Mrs. de Winter.

All that aside though: I really like this version. The cast is brilliant, the photography is lovely, and it adds some character layers to the Hitchcock version that make re-adapting it worthwhile. Hitchcock wins on subtlety and sheer style, but I appreciate Wheatley's film very much.

24. Soul
I may have built this up too much in my imagination. It's a lovely film with a great message; I just expected to be sobbing in my chair by the end of it and I wasn't. It may be because Joe is learning lessons that I've already internalized, so I wasn't exactly pulled along on the journey with him, but was waiting (and rooting) for him to catch up.

Some beautiful moments though and it's a great-looking film. And I love how (like Inside Out) it so skillfully visualizes abstract concepts.

23. Happiest Season

I had the wrong idea thinking Happiest Season is a standard romcom with the familiar setup of bringing someone home to meet the family while trying to keep your actual relationship a secret. In this case, it's Mackenzie Davis as a closeted lesbian who's introducing her girlfriend Kristen Stewart to Davis' judgmental family. Davis and Stewart have to pretend to be platonic roommates until Davis can summon the courage to come out.

Knowing that, I expected the usual hijinks and sneaking around, culminating in a third-act confrontation that forces Davis to finally make her announcement. And there is all of that. But I also expected that the whole time I would be rooting for the couple to make it work, and that's not the case.

I was surprised to hit the halfway point of the film and realize that I pretty much hated Davis' character and wanted nothing but for Stewart to get far, far away from her. Still thinking that I was supposed to be cheering for them as a couple, I almost gave up and turned the movie off, but decided to see it through, partly because Dan Levy is so great as Stewart's friend, but also because I was super intrigued to see if it would somehow turn into a love story between Stewart and Aubrey Plaza. Wouldn't that be a weird, but very cool turn?

But the film subverts even that and stays committed to Davis as a character even more than to her as a love interest for Stewart. It's very interested in being funny, and it uses romance to drive the plot, but it's just as interested in being real about the process of coming out and how that's different for everyone. It's an insightful and moving film and much more substantial than I anticipated.

22. Palm Springs
Really good, clever, funny spin on the Groundhog Day concept. I don't think it's ultimately doing enough that Groundhog Day isn't, but it's coming at the same ideas from a unique angle and it's highly entertaining.

21. Proximity
It would be unfair to compare Proximity to '80s Steven Spielberg films, but it's justifiable to lump it in with all the other knock-offs featuring alien visits and evil government agents from that decade. It fits nicely with my memories of movies like The Last Starfighter or Cloak and Dagger.

Proximity gets more and more bonkers as it goes, but I enjoyed that about it. It's also uneven in its special effects - sometimes shockingly amazing; often making obvious budget choices - but even that has some charm. And the location photography is consistently, often breathtakingly gorgeous.

It's wild and uneven enough that I imagine some viewers will be frustrated with it, but I rolled with the movie and had a great time.

20. My Spy
Not much of a spy movie, but it's not really supposed to be. Super charming and funny with lots of chemistry between the leads. I'm so in the bag for Dave Bautista that I'm not objective, though.

19. The New Mutants
The New Mutants suffered so many release delays that it was funny and then not funny again, but it was worth waiting for. The delays were no one's fault (first Disney's buying Fox; then COVID) and don't factor into my enjoyment at all. If it had come out on time, I would have thought it a unique and enjoyable, if imperfect entry in Fox's X-Men canon. And that's what I still think. I'm sad that we won't get more movies with these versions of these characters.

I showed up for Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy, but enjoyed the whole team. It makes me want to finally read some classic New Mutants comics now. That's been a blind spot in my comics reading for too long.

18. Wendy
Lovely adaptation of the Peter Pan story that finds new ideas to bring out of the theme about growing up. I love that there were a few times where I thought the film was going in some weird, divergent direction and then I'd realize that it was just a different way of thinking about something from Barrie's story.

The non-professional kid actors are all great. Devin France is wonderful as Wendy and holds the whole film together without effort. Yashua Mack is a delightful pixie as Peter. And Gage and Gavin Naquin are heartbreakingly real as Wendy's twin brothers.

I think the only thing keeping me from full-on loving Wendy is the design of an important non-human inhabitant of Peter's island. It's a low-budget film, so director Benh Zeitlin works around that by never giving us a good look at his creature, but a side-effect is that I never felt connected with the creature the way the kids did in the movie.

17. The Wretched
I'll watch pretty much anything about a witch in the woods, but this was so much cooler than I expected. It's about a young man who realizes that something weird and creepy is going on at his neighbors' house, so it's closer in tone to The Lost Boys or Fright Night than something like Blair Witch or The Wicked. It's creepy, it's funny, it's occasionally sweet, and there's a cool mystery that needs investigating.

I'd have loved it without reservation if it didn't do that thing where it clumsily and nonsensically ends on a question mark to leave room for a sequel. The movie was better than that.

16. The Invisible Man
An excellent combination of Gaslight and the 1933 Universal version of HG Wells' story. Elisabeth Moss is amazing in it (as always) and sells the horror of her situation from the very first scene. I worried and ached for her and dearly hoped to see her overcome her nemesis.

Universal has finally figured out how to bring their monster movies back to life. More of this. Make them scary. Make them standalone. Make them good.

15. The Gentlemen
It's a standard Guy Ritchie English crime movie, but I really enjoy Guy Ritchie English crime movies.

14. Birds of Prey
And speaking of Guy Ritchie, what if he made a movie set in Gotham City instead of London? Same energy. Totally dug it.

13. The Short History of the Long Road
This is the first of a few teen dramas that I really enjoyed in 2020. I don't know what's up with that, except maybe that they were palate cleansers between genre stories. The Short History of the Long Road is probably best described as a slice-of-life story, which normally wouldn't be my thing. I like plot and it threw me that this isn't as focused as I expected. 

But I found myself not really missing a stronger plot. The life of homeless, teenaged Nola after the unexpected death of her father is worth slicing into and spending time with. It has its tragedies, but it's also filled with kindness and hope.

12. All the Bright Places
I'm a big fan of Elle Fanning and loved Justice Smith in Pokémon Detective Pikachu, so I figured I'd dig both of them in a romance. And I did, but it's so much darker and more real than I expected. I don't wanna say anything specific and spoil it, but there's a lot of heartbreak. I hated it. I also loved it.

11. The Secret Garden
I'm such a sucker for this story that it only bothers me the tiniest bit that it's reset in the 1940s and that it feels the need to enhance an already amazing practical garden with CG elements. I don't remember many details of the other versions of this story that I've seen, but this one powerfully focuses on grief and the characters' journeys through it. That's from the book and usually present in adaptations, but I felt it especially powerfully in this one. One of these days I'm going to get around to reading the book and fully exploring the various movies based on it.


Paxton said...

So, now I have two new movies added to my list; Proximity, and The Wretched.

You mention a few movies I should've brought up on my honorable mentions.

Birds of Prey - I love Margot Robie as Harley Quinn. I also really liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress. But, I didn't love this movie. There's way too much going on. So much weird visual stimulation. And the movie is a mess. Throughout. I had a lot of problems staying engaged.

Invisible Man - This was so close to making my main favorites list. I almost wish I'd put it there. it's great. I loved it. More, please.

The Gentlemen - Really enjoyed this. Great cast. I even liked Charlie Hunnam and I can't say that very often. I'm hit or miss on Richie's crime output but this was a winner.

New Mutants - I've kept trying to watch this all week but it's just not happening. Maybe tonight. We'll see.

Michael May said...

Would love to hear your thoughts especially on Proximity.


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