What a month! The pandemic spiraled on and Trump raged against the dying of his coup. The holidays felt pretty much the same as the last 10 months – lots of quality, in person time with my dishwasher, but only seeing friends & family on zoom. Plus, I had a root canal and my car was vandalized. And yet. And yet after planning out a calendar and making it a priority, I was able to watch over 15 movies this month, 13 of them 2020 releases. Sure, near the end I tapered off a bit as Christmas cookie baking (and cookie eating) demanded more of my time. But at the close of this dumpster fire of the year, we’re not counting the ways we came up short, but instead celebrating any tiny win we were able to eke out. So here are 13 of my tiny wins, ranked from least favorite to most.
All star rankings refer back to my Letterboxd account
1/2 a star. Sometimes it’s good to watch a truly terrible movie just to remind yourself that some of the other movies you complain about maybe aren’t that bad. Holidate manages to be both annoying and forgettable for its entire 104 minutes. At least I watched it during a Netflix party where friends and I got to argue about if any of the scenes were actually filmed in Chicago and why can’t romantic comedies be better than this trash.
12. Wonder Woman 1984
Two stars. I really wanted to like this more. I’m a prime target for anything set in the 80s (where are my other Stranger Things Season 3 fans??) Despite going to the trouble to include the year in its title, this movie fails to capture anything fun about the decade, except for a 2 minute scene highlighting Chris Pine’s biceps in various neon tank tops. The writing’s a mess, Kristen Wiig is wasted on a cheap Catwoman rip off, and yes, those middle eastern stereotypes are as reductive and lazy as you’ve heard.
11. The Prom
Two and a half stars. What’s the phrase for when something’s bad but you have fun watching it anyway, because musical theater is life and you miss it so much? Ah yes, a James Corden musical. Almost all the big stars in this feel superfluous, and Corden’s performance is horrible bordering on homophobic. But Meryl goes big and pulls it off (her pipes impress), and Keegan Micheal Key is such a sweetheart (that plot twist!!) and when the songs are this fun and danceable?? Let’s just say I know there’s a rewatch in my future.
10. The Nest
Two and a half stars. Another 80s set disappointment. And just to clarify, Carrie Coon , you could never disappoint me – you are my queen and you so perfectly capture the simmering rage of someone realizing their life partner (and, as a result, their entire life) has always been an empty con. Maybe Alec Baldwin should give her a call? The movie doesn’t meet her performance in any way – it has no idea what it wants to be – creeping domestic horror, melodrama chastising the political and economic policies of its time, showcase for some really nice coats? That indecision stops any momentum the plot tries to build dead in its tracks, and the viewer (me) is left bored and google-ing if there might be a The Leftovers reunion anytime soon.
9. Bill and Ted Face the Music
Three stars. I had never seen any of the Bill & Ted franchise before 2020, and its been one of the few pure and good things I’ve consumed this year. Neither sequel captures the magic of the original (it’s like we’re discovering Keanu Reeves discover Keanu Reeves – the beautiful double rainbow of the acting world), but Face the Music has a lot of fun imagining how the guys might handle with midlife’s failures and their creeping mortality. Also what if they had daughters with their exact personalities and speech patterns (they’re still in the valley after all). And what if Kristen Schaal was a futuristic being who’s the offspring of George Carlin and Holland Taylor? It’s a cheesy jumble of sweet ideas and it all just made me so happy.
8. Black Bear
Two and a half stars. Do you love messy movies about high-strung, beautiful women and/or couples having breakdowns in remote cabins? Cause there are a lot of them now (thanks, Alex Ross Perry). This latest entry gives us Aubrey Plaza basically saying, “You think I’ve played caustic and destructive before? Well, look at me now!” Whether playing a burnt out director trying to destroy an expecting couple’s relationship or a burnt out actress trying to destroy her director/husbands work of art, she makes you feel the agonizing discomfort she brings with her whenever she walks in a room. The multiple storylines that make up Black Bear don’t make much sense or mesh together that well, but seeing this powerhouse actor (once relegated to being Chris Pratt’s character’s girlfriend, bleh) come into her own is worth muddling through the rest.
7. The Assistant
Three and a half stars. Like Julia Garner’s character, Jane, this movie is disciplined and methodical in detailing the thousand little cuts that can make a person, especially a woman, feel truly subordinate to her boss. I thought a lot of Peggy and Joan from early seasons of Mad Men, and how the role of women in the office – cleaning up the stains, fetching the coffee, covering up the bad behavior of male colleagues – has changed so little in 70 years.
As far as the faceless villain, Jane’s Weinstein-esque boss, I kept expecting The Assistant to go a little further, to really make us shake with fury, but the movie is less interested in salacious details and more in the soul crushing banality of long hours under fluorescent lights. The weariness seeps through till we feel it, just as Jane does, heading home at the end of another long day and night.
Four stars. This is the movie. You know the one you watch and say, oh yeah that was pretty good, but then the next day, the day after that, the week after that, you realize you’re still thinking about it. And it’s a tough one to talk about in a year so filled with loss, because Babyteeth is about dying, that’s really the crux of it. But it’s also about first love and how terrible and wonderful parents can be, and that moment when you’re young and dancing at a party and you get transported to another place. Maybe the trick is that Babyteeth has so much to say about life and the things that make it worth living, that the parts about death feel sad, yes, but also real and earned. And that’s a really hard thing for a movie to do. Also the soundtrack bangs and all the performances are brilliant and underrated.
5. Sound of Metal
Four stars Another one about loss. “You can never go back in time. Why do we try to” – I thought about those Francis and the Lights lyrics a lot this year. This film crystallizes exactly what it feels like to be going along, drinking green juice, trying your best, doing what you love, and to then have it all pulled out from underneath you by loss so meaningless and incomprehensible it turns your whole body into a live nerve that can only communicate rage. And rage is what Riz Ahmed’s Ruben does so beautifully here. There’s a scene where his counselor Joe (a fantastic Paul Raci) compares Ruben’s behavior in trying to fix his hearing to that of an addict – aren’t we all that way after we lose something or someone? So desperate and just sitting there bouncing our knees and fiddling with our keys in our pockets, begging god or whoever to go back in time, to go back and undo what’s been done. But Ruben can’t and we can’t either. Ruben sits on a bench at peace in the final scene, accepting that time only moves in one direction – hopefully one day that will be all of us recovering from this year, moving into a future that’s uncertain, but that holds some healing and grace.
Four stars Oh, Mank. Mank really through me for a loop because I watched it early on when there was a lot of negative film twitter talk, and it confused me to the point that I thought I didn’t like it. And then I watched it again and let go and found I loved it. It’s 1930s Hollywood (a place I always want to live onscreen), and it’s Fincher (so good at atmosphere even when sometimes it’s too dark to see anything), and it’s Gary Oldman, who was always my favorite part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. He’s at his best when he’s beaten down but still up for the fight and that describes Mank so perfectly. He already knows he lost to the millionaires and Republicans, but he picks up his pen (and a bottle) and keeps writing anyway. In 2020, we’re all Mank, ok?
3. First Cow –
Four stars. First Cow so sweetly captures how relationships are so often made up of one person eagerly trying make do with the present situation and another always dreaming of moving on to the next thing. Also how the North American frontier was full of people who could steal and lie and sweet talk cows with the best of them, but so few of them ever really did beat history to the punch – opportunity just wasn’t set up by those in power to work that way. Not then and not now.
2. David Byrne’s American Utopia
Four and a half stars – I’m gonna dance to this movie all day on January 1st just to start 2021 with the best vibes. So joyful, so weird and funny, so bursting with wonder at what we strange human beings have done but also what’s possible. Spike Lee captures David Byrne and David Byrne captures America and it’s all there on the screen – watching it is a communal act. Seeing dance and music and poetry and performance (and eyeliner!) come together binds us closer to the human experience, while reinforcing the urgency that pandemic recovery include support for the arts and artists who make such beautiful experiences possible.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Four and a half stars – It’s funny that I put off watching this movie for so long, and now I’m almost certain it will be my favorite film of the year. Yes, it’s hard to watch and yes, it’s an “important movie” in the sense that it’s about healthcare and human rights, those basic things our Supreme Court will probably be leeching away from us in the coming years and decades, making it necessary that we fight for them even harder. But the heart of this movie, the thing it wears on its sleeve so brilliantly thanks to the performances of the two lead actresses, is the dichotomy of powerlessness and empowerment that comes with being a teenage girl. Not a moment of Skylar and Autumn’s struggle – to get access to abortion care, to slip the grasp of the predatory men in their lives (there are so many), to make a way in the world in which they can have autonomy despite being young and poor and margenalized – feels false. Eliza Hittman’s camera devotedly follows these characters until they come into perfect focus – the masks they have to wear, the choices they have to make and the bond of friendship that keeps them alive and together in a dangerous world.