End-of-Year Movie Roundup – 2020

Well, 2020 is officially over, and not a moment too soon. It was a shitty year, and most of the movies I ended up watching weren’t too good either. From lesser fare from big-time directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese to other mostly average stuff, I was definitely more impressed with some of the series I was able to catch on TV. Anyway, here are the rest of the films I didn’t have time to write about in the past few months. Here’s to a better year ahead.

1917 (2019)

written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns

directed by Sam Mendes

1917 follows two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) in World War I as they try to deliver an urgent message that could save thousands of men from a German ambush. Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes, the film consists of elaborate long takes that make you feel as if you’re watching one continuous shot, and it’s impressive… for maybe the first twenty minutes. But what starts as an immersive experience soon becomes a gimmicky exercise in technical prowess, leaving story and characters stuck deep in the trenches. Much like Dunkirk (2019) two years prior, 1917 is a big military spectacle that resonates as long as you don’t think much about its lack of humanity underneath.

Rating: **

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016)

written and directed by Matthew Ornstein

Musician Daryl Davis is a black man who’s dedicated himself to an uncommon endeavor: Befriending Ku Klux Klan members and white supremacists. His question to all those who loathe him because of his race: “Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?” It’s a tantalizing subject, and the documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America shows us Davis’ moderate success as he engages in intellectual debate and tries to fight bigotry with logic. Even more interesting are the reactions from people who think his quest is ridiculously quixotic, like Black Lives Matter activists in Baltimore who chastise him for wasting his time on racists instead of getting involved at the street level. Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America doesn’t delve as deep as it should into its subject matter – Davis is as much of a star here as Michael Moore is in his films – and that’s a shame considering our current state of hatred and division in America. But it’s still fascinating to watch an ordinary man looking to find common ground with those who threaten his very existence.

Rating: **½

Ad Astra (2019)

written by James Gray and Ethan Gross

directed by James Gray

In the cosmic drama Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut on a mission to Neptune where his spaceman father (Tommy Lee Jones) has been for decades searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. It’s a performance as emotionally removed as Ryan Gosling’s in First Man (2018), all blank stares into space (sometimes literally) that are meant to show the void felt by a son with no connection to the father who abandoned him. The psychological underpinnings feel as trite as those in the similarly themed Interstellar (2014), but Ad Astra does impress in other ways: The minimalist approach recalls other great sci-fi flicks such as Solaris (1972), there are a couple of truly thrilling scenes (the rover chase on the moon is unlike anything else you’re likely to see in these days), and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is fantastic as usual. Take the trip.

Rating: **½

Animal (Animal – 2018)

written by Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bó Jr.

directed by Armando Bó Jr.

I had higher hopes for the Argentinian film Animal (English title: Animal), starring Guillermo Francella as Antonio, a middle-aged man whose uneventful middle-class life gets turned upside down when he finds himself needing a kidney transplant, or else he’ll die. As Antonio gets increasingly desperate and angry – at his family, the medical establishment, the utter pointlessness of life – he comes across Elías (Federico Salles) and Lucy (Mercedes De Santis), a young destitute couple who desperately want a house… and are willing to offer anything for it. Animal has its moments, but writer/director Armando Bó Jr. can’t find the right balance between the film’s drama and dark humor, ending in a third act – and a happy ending of sorts – that feels completely unbelievable.

Rating: **

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

written and directed by Osgood Perkins

Horror movies about Satan are a dime a dozen, but there have been some interesting variations on the genre lately, from the retro B movie pleasures of The House of the Devil (2009) to the folk naturalistic terror of The VVitch (2015). In The Blackcoat’s Daughter, writer/director Osgood Perkins introduces us to three main characters: Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are Catholic schoolgirls in upstate New York who run afoul of the Evil One, and Joan (Emma Roberts) is a young woman who escapes from a mental institution and hitches a ride with an older couple. How Perkins slowly reveals the connection between these separate narratives is a bit fragmented, but there’s no denying The Blackcoat’s Daughter‘s grasp on haunting imagery and mounting terror. I look forward to checking out his other films, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) and Gretel & Hansel (2020).

Rating: **½

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

written by Anthony McCarten

from a story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan

directed by Bryan Singer

While I’ve always appreciated the music of British rock band Queen, I was never a huge fan. Still, growing up, I’d always be amazed at guitarist Brian May’s inimitable sound and frontman Freddie Mercury’s operatic voice. The loose biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was not particularly well received by Queen enthusiasts, citing simplistic creative decisions and historical inconsistencies. Me, I couldn’t care less. This is crowd-pleasing, exuberant stuff (much like the band itself), anchored by a dynamic performance from Rami Malek as Mercury. It may not be the definitive statement on the group, but I was thoroughly entertained.

Rating: **½

El Aviso (The Warning – 2018)

written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Chris Sparling, and Patxi Amezcua

based on the novel by Paul Pen

directed by Daniel Calparsoro

El Aviso (English title: The Warning) is a Spanish thriller about a mathematician (Raúl Arévalo) who thinks a numerical pattern exists between several deaths that have happened at the same location over many years… and that it will happen again. When done well, this type of movie can build to an inexorable ending that feels predestined, like in 12 Monkeys (1995). When done badly, you get stuff like The Number 23 (2007). El Aviso is adequate for most of its running time, but its hodgepodge of ideas never comes together satisfactorily. Heed the warning.

Rating: **

Everest (2015)

written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy

directed by Baltasar Kormákur

I wasn’t quite impressed by this drama based on the real story about the 1996 disaster that resulted in the deaths of eight climbers as they descended from the summit of the titular Himalayan mountain. While it has fine cinematography/special effects, Everest spends too much time on visual candy instead of giving its multiple characters distinct personalities. It’s also curiously devoid of suspense. There are plenty of other survival flicks much better than this one, including the similarly themed Touching the Void (2003).

Rating: **

Good Time (2017)

written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie

directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie

If you’ve never seen Robert Pattinson in anything other than the tepid Twilight (2008-2012) film series, I strongly urge you to check out Good Time. Pattinson is a revelation as Connie, a small-time crook who robs a bank with his disabled brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie) and then has to figure out how to bail him out of jail. What follows is a visceral if somewhat disjointed ride that takes place in one night, as Connie races from one bad decision to the next in a desperate effort to set things right. Good Time won’t make you feel like you’re having a good time, but it’s certainly a pretty memorable one.

Rating: **½

Green Room (2015)

written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Green Room has the sort of premise that John Carpenter would’ve knocked out of the park right after Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). A punk band (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) gets a gig at a skinhead club in rural Oregon. But after the concert, the group witnesses a murder and gets trapped in the green room, while angry neo-Nazis led by bar owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) wait patiently outside. Green Room has a pretty good introduction, but I had trouble believing that this bunch of violent psychos was real, and worse, that they wouldn’t just kill these kids from the get-go. Can’t they just break the damn door? Add a lack of suspense and confusing action scenes, and all that’s left is a good idea with unconvincing execution. Not even Captain Picard himself can make Green Room engage.

Rating: **

Hold the Dark (2018)

written by Macon Blair

based on the novel Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

directed by Jeremy Saulnier

In a remote Alaskan village, several children have disappeared, seemingly killed by a pack of wolves. Medora (Riley Keough), a young mother whose small boy is one of the missing, asks wolf expert Russell (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate. Eventually, Russell realizes it’s Medora who’s killed her own son, apparently possessed by a “tournaq,” or wolf-demon. She escapes but is soon followed by her soldier husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), just returned from Iraq and on a killing spree. Is he a howler himself? I don’t really have a clue. Hold the Dark boasts a haunting atmosphere, but it meanders aimlessly between abstract supernatural thriller, action flick, and social commentary. For a more accomplished take on all those themes – plus wolves – check out 1981’s Wolfen instead.

Rating: **

It Comes at Night (2017)

written and directed by Trey Edward Shults

An unnamed disease is decimating the planet. A family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hides out in a home in the woods, getting by day by day. But then, they run into another group of survivors, cautiously agreeing to live together, and share resources… until infection finds its way in. It Comes at Night is purposefully vague as it focuses more on style and mood and less on the reasons behind the apocalypse. I wish writer/director Trey Edward Shults had turned down the ambiance somewhat in favor of more fleshed-out characters. Still, the final shot in which a mother and father sit and await their fate is quietly devastating. It Comes at Night is one of those rare end-of-the-world pics in which the enemies are not aliens, zombies, or sentient robots, but our own distrust of each other.

Rating: **½

The King of Comedy (1982)

written by Paul D. Zimmerman

directed by Martin Scorsese

I watched The King of Comedy when I was a teenager and didn’t remember it well. I knew it was good, but watching it again made me appreciate just how much. It’s a pitch-black comedy-cum-thriller about Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a mentally unstable man who aspires to be a successful stand-up comedian. As Pupkin becomes more and more fixated on an arrogant talk-show host (Jerry Lewis) he thinks can help his career, it’s clear he’ll stop at nothing to become a star. The King of Comedy took a backseat to more high-profile Martin Scorsese films of the era, such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), but it’s right up there with the director’s best, filled with incisive commentary about celebrity culture and obsession. De Niro ties it all together with a high-wire performance that makes us feel both uncomfortable and sympathetic. “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

Rating: ***½

Marriage Story (2019)

written and directed by Noah Baumbach

There’s a moment towards the end of Marriage Story where Charlie (Adam Driver), a theater director going through a messy divorce, suddenly goes to a mic at a bar and starts to sing Being Alive from the musical Company (1970). As he goes through lines such as “Somebody know me too well / Somebody pull me up short / And put me through hell / And give me support / For being alive,” you can feel his sadness and frustration for having lost his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). It’s one of the few moments that ring true in Marriage Story, a busy drama that goes for authenticity but feels overly staged. The non-chemistry between Driver and Johansson doesn’t help either. This made me want to watch Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) again.

Rating: **

Molly’s Game (2018)

based on the memoir Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom

written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

If you’re into writer Aaron Sorkin’s kinetic style (like I am), then you’re probably a fan of his television series The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Newsroom (2012-2014), as well as his forays into film with movies like The Social Network (2010) and Steve Jobs (2015). Amazingly, Sorkin had never directed before. His debut behind the camera with Molly’s Game is solid, adapting the real-life story of Molly Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain), a former professional skier who reinvents herself as a savvy businesswoman with a poker empire. All the usual Sorkin flourishes are here – the extended monologues, the quick-witted characters, the moral superiority – accompanied now by multiple timelines, fast editing, and tons of visual effects. I suspect the result won’t be to the liking of regular viewers, specially those not used to Sorkin’s tempo. But I was gripped from the start.

Rating: ***

The Mule (2018)

written by Nick Schenk

based on the article The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule by Sam Dolnick

directed by Clint Eastwood

Aside from Woody Allen, I can’t think of any other American directors who work as expeditiously as Clint Eastwood, with a whopping 40 or so movies to his credit since his debut in 1971 with Play Misty for Me. Over his career, Eastwood has explored everything from westerns to thrillers to dramas, all in an unshowy style that mostly works precisely because of its restrain. The Mule is based on the true story of Leo Sharp (played by Eastwood), an octogenarian man who became a courier for a Mexican drug cartel and went undetected for roughly a decade. It’s not a deep film by any means, but it’s honest and engaging in its portrayal of a decent guy who’s made one mistake too many… and now has nothing left to lose.

Rating: **½

Roma (Roma – 2018)

written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most overrated directors on the planet. There, I said it. Aside from Children of Men (2006), I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. And don’t try to convince me Gravity (2013) is some sort of masterpiece. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts? Give me a break. In any case, Roma (English title: Roma) is not a bad film at all. Based on Cuaron’s own recollections of his family in 1970’s Mexico City, Roma focuses on the life of live-in maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a quiet and devoted indigenous woman. The movie is told in a leisurely style that goes well with its sincere topic, but it suffers from Aparicio’s lack of acting experience and unnecessary black-and-white cinematography that immediately signals pretentiousness rather than simplicity. I also wish Cuarón had shown us more of his actual connection to a person so essential to his upbringing, he even called her “mamá.” Still, a step above Gravity.

Rating: **½

Carlos I. Cuevas