Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Rob's Top 10 of 2020

 by Rob DiCristino

Even in 2020, there were movies.

10. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that special kind of stage-to-screen adaptation that doesn’t feel limited by its tiny handful of locations. In fact, whereas many filmmakers would try to expand Wilson’s jazz drama by adding lots of exteriors and chopping the narrative into smaller, more “cinematic” segments, director George C. Wolfe instead leans inward, letting his actors warm the tight studio spaces with their charisma and shaping the film’s rhythms through their performances. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman lead an incredible cast in a celebration of music, love, youth, and freedom.

9. Another Round
“In Vino Veritas,” goes the old adage: “In wine, there is the truth.” Thomas Vinterberg’s new film tests that theory, chronicling the journey of four Danish teachers who — disaffected by middle age and suburban malaise — have elected to maintain a slight buzz throughout their work day in an attempt to rekindle the inspiration of their glory years. Mads Mikkelsen is exceptional in the lead role of a husband and father hoping not just to spice up his marriage or better engage with his students, but to reconnect with the philosophical truth of the beautiful world around him. The plan is not without its complications, of course, but it’s all worth the catharsis: Another Round’s final scene is a song of inner joy for the ages.

8. Shithouse
Many of the best stories dramatize relatable life experiences. There are some trials that we’ve all toughed out, some feelings we’ve all felt, and some places we’ve all been. Some stories are universal. And then there’s the rare story — like Cooper Raiff’s college dramedy Shithouse — that feels as though it’s cribbed from your private diary, a secret you never told anyone that was somehow broadcast into the heavens, anyway. Raiff leads his own film as Alex, a homesick freshman whose chance encounter with the capricious Maggie (Dylan Gelula, giving one of the unsung performances of the year) leads to a long weekend of highs and lows that runs the social and romantic gamut in a way that only college life can sustain.

7. Underwater
Yup, that Kristen Stewart Alien-looking thing came out this year! And you know me: You know I love when the monster is used as a metaphor. This time, it’s Stewart’s engineer Norah Price mourning the loss of a loved one and doing her level best to push away her grief. That grief is personified by a giant Cthulhu monster and punctuated by director William Eubank and director of photography Bojan Bazelli’s murky and claustrophobic undersea landscape, a visual palette that gets my vote for cinematography of the year. Make no mistake: Underwater is a B movie. But to dismiss it under those terms misunderstands the alchemical genius that is the Genre Picture. This is a damn good Genre Picture. And around here, that matters.

6. Soul
I’m going to freely admit that I should have known the name Pete Docter before I watched his 2020 Pixar masterpiece, Soul. The Oscar-winning brain behind Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out deserved more of my respect. But something about Soul resonated with me the way that even those other films did not. It’s Docter’s cleanest and most engaging plot yet, an exercise in worldbuilding that avoids the convoluted pitfalls of Nolan’s Tenet or the empty moralizing of Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 to create something simple, singular, and complete. Soul’s reach exceeds its grasp at times, mind you, and there are lots of bits that don’t land. But I’ll be damned if I don’t admire its sheer ambition, its eagerness to ask the hard questions about the shared human experience that connect us all.

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
At the outset, Eliza Hittman’s quiet drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like homework. A teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan) travels to the big city in pursuit of an abortion. Along the way, she and her best friend (Talia Ryder) face judgment from doctors, social workers, and any number of assorted passers-by. We know this story. We expect a lot of hand-wringing about responsibility and fateful decisions made under a swelling score. We expect the young girl to come of age. Instead, Hittman crafts something intensely personal and empathetic, a story of tangled bureaucracy and economic horror that explores the connection between emotion and reality, between trauma and self-esteem. It’s a primal scream into the aether, a plea to the universe for love and understanding.

4. Da 5 Bloods
Elegant, electrifying, and literate though he may be, Spike Lee is at his best when he gives less than a single fuck, when he’s big and bombastic and angry and righteous. Sporting some of the most vibrant and uncompromising celluloid images of 2020, Da 5 Bloods is a masterwork of historical reckoning, a no-holds-barred attempt to set the record straight not just about the Vietnam War and African American identity, but about the essential consequences of masculinity, marginalization, hypocrisy, and nationalism. Like Martin Scorsese’s 2019 epic The Irishman, Da 5 Bloods reads like more than a single film. It reads like the culmination of an entire career of activism, anger, and inspiration. But most importantly: Del. Roy. Lindo.

3. Spontaneous
No film captured the mood of 2020 quite like Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous, an irreverent comedy about a group of high school seniors plagued by a mysterious phenomenon that makes them explode — yes, literally explode — without warning. 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford proves that she should be Hollywood’s next big thing, giving her Mara a punk rock energy that feels honest and vulnerable with a hint of that performativity inherent in any teenager’s finely-crafted persona. As she leads a group of misfits through the existential terror of graduation with reckless abandon, Mara learns the hard way that youth must be savored, that tomorrow is never promised, and that love is always more powerful than fear.

2. Kajillionaire
All families are weird. There’s just no avoiding it. The problem is that, until we leave the nest, there’s no way for us to measure or calculate just how weird our families have made us. Early adulthood ends up being this awkward clash of biases and phobias, a period of realignment in which we reconcile the values of our upbringing with those of our burgeoning individuality. The family of con artists at the center of Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is especially weird, as is the persona that Evan Rachel Wood embodies as Old Dolio Dyne. But though her methods may seem strange, Old Dolio is just looking for the same things as the rest of us: Love, trust, acceptance, and opportunity. She may not find them where she expects to, but how many of us really do?

1. Palm Springs
No surprise, here. I’ve said everything I can about Max Barbakow’s exploration of spiritual loneliness, and I’ve praised its hunt for redemption in the face of our immeasurable personal flaws to high heaven. More than my favorite film of 2020, Palm Springs is an instant classic of my personal canon, a film I’ll revisit in dark days and light for years to come. Here’s to everyone finding their Irvine in 2021.

6 comments:

  1. Love your list, Rob! Your praise for Palm Springs earlier this year made me appreciate that movie even more, so I'm not surprised to see it in your top spot.

    I am dying to see Another Round, because I love Mads Mikkelson and I appreciate Thomas Vinterberg's previous films that I've seen. It sounds like a good one!

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    1. "Another Round" is a $6.99 rental across the board (Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon, etc.). Mighty tempted to take the plunge myself, but do l like Mads Mikkelson that much? 🤔😔

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    2. I'm probably partial to it because I'm a teacher, but I hope you both check it out and enjoy!

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  2. Find your Irvine is definitely the movie line of the year for me and Palm Springs is a topper too. Another Round”s final scene I’ll shamelessly YouTube forever. Mads is so good.

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  3. Another list with films I have to hunt down to watch. Thanks tons

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