Films I Saw is a self explanatory monthly column dedicated to cataloging each and every film I saw within that month. Each film will be given a grade and a mini review.
Dec. 1—Grave Robbers (1989)
Ruben Galindo Jr should be a bigger name within the horror community. Not a big name mind you but a name with a bit more cache. He directed three horror films, with two of them being fun, if not derivative slashers and the other being one of the best and craziest Nightmare on Elm Street rip-offs. That one is called Don’t Panic and it’s amazing. Unfortunately, I’m not here to sell you on that film. I’m here to sell you on one of the fun albeit derivative slashers. Grave Robbers is one of those slashers where almost nothing happens till the last thirty minutes but those last thirty minutes are so entertaining, you forgive the boring hour that proceeded it. A group of grave robbing youths accidentally awaken an ancient undead cult leader who must impregnate the virgin in the group in order to awaken the devil or something. It doesn’t matter. But what does matter, is that he kills a bunch of people with an axe and that the kills are pretty great. If you’re a horror fan and you need any more than that to sell you on this film, we’re not the same kind of horror fan apparently.
Dec. 2—Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
Around the half way point, I completely stopped paying attention to anything that was happening in this film and was just watching to see the big Oscar moment that would play during the “and the nominee for best actress is” montage and to my surprise, it never came. Neither Close or Adams has that huge tear jerker moment or show stopping monologue that old people and academy voters love, which is shocking considering how calculated this film is at getting those two actresses an Oscar. It’s an Oscar bait movie that forgets the bait. Don’t get me wrong, both actresses are very good in the film but when it’s in service to something so calculated, both come off as hollow and insincere.
And since the material, which again, feels designed to win them an Oscar, falls short at that goal, there really isn’t much to recommend outside of that. The film is based on a best selling memoir about a college student who has to go back to his home town to deal with his self destructive mother and on his way there, we’re treated to flashback after flashback of his shitty mother being shitty and his sassy grandma being sassy. Having not read the novel, I can only imagine how much better that melodrama plays on the page because on screen, it feels like a Lifetime movie with a budget.
Dec. 3—Possessor (2020)
Like all children of legends, Brandon Cronenberg was born with the impossible task of somehow existing outside of the shadow of his father. He, like Joe Hill and Duncan Jones, will never not be compared to the work of his father. Hell, he can’t even announce a new movie without media outlets mentioning that he’s the son of David Cronenberg. The only way he can start to pave a way for himself, is by proving he’s got just as distinct a voice. Jones made Moon and Source Code, Hill has a number of great novels but Brandon has yet to make something to rival his father. Antiviral was a fantastic debut and while Possessor shows a real step forward in terms of craft, it’s always a huge step backwards in many other ways. For one thing, I don’t think it’s thesis, if there even is one, is that compelling.
The film takes place in the near future where a hitman (Andrea Riseborough) takes over the mind and body of someone close to the target, in order to perform the perfect executions. But after a botched job, she’s having a difficult time keeping her latest host (Christopher Abbott) under control. That’s a fantastic set up for a great psychological cat and mouse game where both the cat and the mouse are in the same body but that’s not really what happens. The hitman is losing control and the host figures it out and in the last ten minutes, does something about it. Leading up to that, there’s a bunch of uninteresting talky talk, some trippy looking visuals, a borderline excessive amount of violence (which I believe ties into the thesis, which is that video games make us violent or that seeing violence everyday secondhand has made us addicted) and some solid performances from the two leads. He’s clearly got the goods as a director, he just needs to work on that writing because it ain’t up to snuff.
Dec. 4—The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
His first film Thunder Road made Jim Cummings a director to watch and this one solidifies his place among the most interesting voices in independent cinema. It’s to early to call him the heir apparent to the Coen Brothers signature brand of quirk but if anyone was going to take over the mantle, it’s Cummings. This film already feels a tad like Fargo in that there’s a murder in a small snowy town but instead of the lovable Marge Gunderson, it’s a drunken asshole sheriff and instead of two inept murderers, there’s a werewolf stalking the streets. The Wolf of Snow Hollow likes to alternate between comedy, horror and drama (sometimes all within the same scene) and while that could be jarring for some, I had no problem with the whiplash.
I also had no problem with the main character. He’s an alcoholic fuck up that treats almost everyone around him like shit but unlike most critics or reviewers, it didn’t bother me. I get this character. He’s not just a piece of shit, he’s a piece of shit because everyone around him is incompetent and it’s drivingng him insane. He’s not an easy character to like but there’s something about either Cummings’ performance or the writing that tickles me pink. After two films I think it’s fair to say that either you like his unique brand of comedy or you don’t and I’m strongly in the former category. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Dec. 5—Mank (2020)
In her essay Raising Kane, Pauline Kael made the case that it was Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, who truly wrote Citizen Kane. As much as it was an earnest attempt at rewriting history to give the proper man credit, it was a hit piece aimed at Welles and the film itself. She tore into that film like a fat kid does cake but the problem is, almost all of it was bullshit. Former film critic turned director (and good friend of Welles) Peter Bogdanovich counted her accusations with facts and made her essay immediately irrelevant. It eventually faded away and is now like the fifteenth most controversial thing she’s ever written. Since everything in it was disputed, hardly anyone ever talks about it anymore and for good reason but the one good thing it did was put Mankiewicz’s name in the public consciousness. He may not deserve sole credit but he does deserve to be remembered. Now, whether he deserves an entire film about his time writing the film is another story altogether.
Which leads to the biggest issue I have with the film: at no point am I interested in what Mank is doing, only by what he’s saying. Every time he’s sitting behind a typewriter or going to a political rally or drinks to drink, my interest wanes. He’s just not an interesting character and not a single thing he does gets me to care about him. The only reason I can’t take my eyes off of him, is because Gary Oldman was cast to play him and he’s attacking that rapid fire dialogue like a rabid dog. Words shoot out of his mouth faster than a Chicago typewriter. And even more remarkable, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies is able to keep up with him. Their verbal sparring is the best thing about the movie. The cinematography is great and the score is tremendous but this is a film you watch for the dialogue and in that regard, it’s a massive success. I just wish I cared about the titular character or was given a reason why he’d want to write the script in the first place but just like Kane pining for a sled at the end of that film, I guess I’ll just die mourning the fact that I was denied something great.
Dec. 6—Violence Voyager (2018)
Nothing gets me more excited than discovering a film I know will give me something unique. That’s why I tend to drag my feet on prestigious or critically acclaimed films I know I’ll like, I almost always know what they are and what I’ll get out of them before I press play. Outside of amazing cinematography that stays with you forever, there’s nothing better than a great cast attacking a great script and while I love all of that, chasing the new is more exciting to me. I’d rather roll the dice on something that looks weird and interesting than something that everyone said was great, almost every time. And that’s because I’m looking for experiences that often times only the strange can provide. Violence Voyager is one of those experiences.
It’s the kind of film who’s plot synopsis will betray you. IMDB will tell you it’s an animated film about two kids who discover an odd theme park deep within the mountains that soon turns sinister and while that’s all correct, the picture it paints is far less interesting than the actual film. For one thing, the animation is almost non existent. It’s paper cutouts that barely move, which immediately puts your mind on edge. There’s something about unnatural movements that taps into that uncanny valley effect that makes us feel uneasy. Whether intentional or not, the film accomplishes the same thing. In addition to the unsettling animation, the film’s plot goes in so many wild directions, it’s impossible to guess where it’s going to end up. As much as I love watching a great film, these WTF experiences are what I live for.
Dec. 7—Animation Outlaws (2020)
If you had no idea who this documentary was about beforehand or why they were so beloved within the animation community, I’d have a hard time believing you’d come away with a better understanding of them or their work after you saw it. The documentary really wants you to know that Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation was a raucous party that showed wild cartoons and that’s basically it. They delve into the festivals origins briefly and touch on the history of Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble for a bit but both of those tidbits come way too late into the film.
By the time they get to the two most important aspects of the festival (the what and the how), the viewer has already been assaulted by a million talking heads and even more clips. It acts as though you already know this shit and treats everything not associated to the party-like atmosphere of their showings as incidental. Which is fine, I guess, but it doesn’t have enough footage of those crazy times to justify giving everything else short shrift and honestly, the footage they do have isn’t as wild as the documentarians think it is. Audience members push around a giant beach ball and I think maybe if you squint, you can see some one maybe smoking a marijuana cigarette. This should’ve been more concise, have more talking heads (the fact that Mike Judge and Don Hurtzfeldt aren’t in this is egregious) and more clips from the cartoons that played both festivals.
Dec. 8—Zappa (2020)
Frank Zappa is among a handful of musicians that I’m endlessly fascinated by in spite of the fact that their music does absolutely nothing for me. Much like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, I see the talent and I recognize the genius but the music might as well be white noise. Thankfully, Zappa focuses more on his life and artistic pursuits than the actual music. Let me clarify: the music is the focal point of the doc but it isn’t wall to wall music. Since he documented every thing, director Alex Winter had to comb through over 10,000 hours of footage (most of it unseen by the public) to create a cohesive and entertaining narrative using Zappa’s own words as narration and I think he succeeds. It’s impossible to whittle down an entire man’s life and work down to two hours, especially a man who released almost one hundred albums but I think Winter did an excellent job of focusing on the important and trimming away the excess. You’ll get the famous beats of his life as well as some rare concert footage I never knew existed. It was a treat watching him perform with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. If you’re a fan of Zappa, this is a must see and if you’re not, his story is still compelling enough to keep your attention.
Dec. 9—Penitentiary (1979)
An exploitation Rocky through and through, Penitentiary throws so much at the viewer, it’s almost impossible to tell what is sincere, what is intentional and what is accidental. After getting thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Martel Gordone (Leon Issac Kennedy) finds himself in caught between a violent gang that wants to kill him and an equally violent boxing team that wants him to fight. In any other movie, that would be enough to craft a simple action film but Jamaa Fanaka goes that extra step and delivers a sometimes emotional social commentary on what it’s like to be a black man in prison. There’s an old inmate that has a monologue that’s every bit as emotionally devastating as the Brooks subplot in the Shawshank Redemption and there’s violence and implied rape in this, that’s equally as hard to stomach as that film, too. It’s the kind of exploitation film that gives you what you came for (action and sex) and just a little bit more than you were expecting.
Dec. 10—Crip Camp (2020)
One of the flaws of biopics outside of their inherent cheesiness (seriously, that trailer for Stardust was so eye rollingly bad, I thought it was a parody) is the element of fabricated dramatization. Both Sorkin and Fincher had to manufacture drama and rejigger history for the Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank in order to create a more satisfying narrative. History isn’t a movie and while it may provide the occasional cinematic moment from time to time, it hardly does so in a cinematic way. Crip Camp is an extraordinary example of history continuously giving huge cinematic moments to real life to such a degree that you’d swear whoever’s running the show is actually trying to make a movie in real time. It’s not a biopic but the events therein and how they play out are so perfect, you wouldn’t believe them if they happened in a biopic.
The film starts off as a documentary about a summer camp designed for the physically handicapped and ends on the steps of city hall with hundreds of disabled people struggling to get up the stairs in order to remind the people in congress and the senate and the rest of the world, that they exist and that we have to do a better job at accommodating them. It becomes a clarion call for change but before it does, it feels like a lost summer camp movie from the 80s. There’s romance, drama, comedy (at one point, the entire camp gets invested with crabs) and heartbreak and drama. There’s a film here just waiting to be made and you can say that goes double for everything that comes after.
Once the film moves away from the camp and focuses on one specific person and her never ending quest for change, it becomes the most enthralling and astonishing true story I’ve ever seen in quite some time. Every twenty minutes or so, the film introduces a new element to their struggle and everyone of those brief segments could’ve been a movie in and of itself. Crip Camp is a fascinating doc about a camp I’ve never heard of, populated by people I’ve never seen before, fighting for something that changed the world that I didn’t even know happened but now that I do, their story and their struggle will stay with me forever.
Dec. 11—Berserker (1987)
A man dressed as a bear kills a bunch of teens camping in the woods. If this was a smidge better or crazier, it might be more infamous among horror fans because it has a scene that’s almost “holy shit, you gotta see this” as the zombie versus the shark scene in Zombi 2. The crazy bear man fights an actual bear with his bare hands. It’s definitely a real bear and he’s really wrestling it. It’s a neat treat for whichever poor, unfortunate soul has to watch this because outside of that and maybe the poster, there’s really nothing worth mentioning. People walk in a poorly lit forest solely inhabited by smoke machines until bear man pops out from behind whatever and kills one of them. The group then precedes to run away only for the cycle to repeat about ten minutes later. That’s it. That’s the movie.
Dec. 12—Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)
Blurring the line between what is real and what is the truth, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets presents itself as a documentary but it’s entirely fictitious. The bar the patrons are all inhabiting isn’t closing in 24 hours, the city it takes place in isn’t Las Vegas and there’s clearly some deliberate staging going on but the patrons are all actual barflies and everything they say is improvised. The reality is fabricated but the emotions are real, which makes this far more interesting than a simple documentary. Much like how Herzog uses little lies to get to bigger truths in his docs (in one of his films, he has a subject touch the doorknob to his house three times before entering even though he didn’t have OCD to signify that even though he escaped a POW camp, he can’t escape the prison of his mind), this film does the same thing except it’s fictional. It might be the greatest example of cinéma-vérité in existence. You could remake this shot for shot with the finest actors and it wouldn’t be any more captivating and you could make an actual documentary about these barflies and it wouldn’t be any more revealing. If alcohol brings out the real truth in people and the camera never lies, this might be the most honest film in the history of cinema.
Dec. 13—Grandma’s House (1989)
Methinks M. Night Shyamalan is a big fan of this film or at the very least, saw this when he was younger and it made a huge impression on him. While they don’t really have the same twist, the final revelation in this is very similar to the one in The Visit. Well, the first twist that is … because this film ladles on the twists like it ladles on the crazy. It takes a good amount of time before the crazy kicks in (besides the slow-mo shot of an old man spilling pickle juice all over himself at a swimming competition) but once it does, the film goes full tilt. You will get an extended car chase in an orange field. You will get a kid shooting a rocket at a crazy bitch trying to kill him. You will get crazy cannibals. And you will get a slow-mo shot of an old man spilling pickle juice all over himself at a swimming competition. It’s never scary and I’d argue it’s never particularly good but if you’re amused by the bizarre and want to watch a horror movie you haven’t seen a million times, I recommend checking this one out.
Dec. 14—Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Densely packed but without an ounce of wasted screen time, Bad Day at Black Rock effortlessly juggles different balls made up of genres and themes and actors without ever managing to drop one. Which is made all the more impressive due to its relatively short runtime. It mixes the western with the noir, has a killer cast of Hollywood legends and is also a scathing indictment on America’s treatment of Japanese Americans during WW2. On the surface, the film is about a one armed veteran (Spencer Tracy) coming to the little town of Black Rock to investigate what happened to his friend. While there, he uncovers a web of lies, secrecy and murder.
You know from frame one that everyone in the town is shady and is clearly hiding something but you don’t know what or why. Since it’s obvious that everyone is the bad guy, it’s never a case of who the villain is but what they did. Unraveling the mystery is what makes the movie entertaining but what makes the movie great, is the revelation. Few films have ever addressed America’s concentration camps and even fewer are as righteously angry as this film is about them. This is an angry film. It’s disgusted by our ugly past but never in a preachy way. It deals with anti racism the same as it deals with anti ableism, subtlety and with respect.
Dec. 15—Paris is Burning (1990)
A vibrant snapshot of the underground drag-ball scene of New York in the 1980s, Paris is Burning has become ground zero for all things queer in pop culture. There were documentaries about the same subject matter before this but they contributed nothing to the lexicon. This introduced voguing and throwing shade into the popular vernacular and acted as a stepping stone to all that came after it. RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy owe their existence to this film, as does Madonna’s hit song. The impact of this film is incalculable but its importance is more than just pop culture ripples. It helped normalize a scene that outsiders didn’t understand and made the people within, who were looked at as lesser than and were often times targets for abuse, super stars. It made the competitive world of drag shows as mainstream as beauty pageants and helped in some small way to remove the negative stigma attached to the gay community. This is landmark cinema.
Dec. 16—Sound of Metal (2020)
As cheesy as it is, the film’s tagline (music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one) really does succinctly reveal what the film is ultimately about. If the film was just about one man’s journey in dealing with his deafness, it wouldn’t be half as interesting nor would it be if it was just about a man struggling to come up with the funds to get the surgery to fix it. Making the lead a former addict adds another layer on top of what easily could’ve been a clichéd melodrama. He got over his past addictions by fixing it. He applied his inherent need to fix things to his own life and worked at it till he overcame them. His sudden hearing loss is now another thing he needs to fix and it’s this character trait that makes the film fascinating.
While on the surface he comes off as a stubborn asshole who refuses to accept his new life, he’s actually just a frustrated fixer who just became impotent. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film, after he’s checked into the facility, where his counselor (Paul Raci giving an award worthy performance) tells him to just go to his room and just write, where he smashes the donut he’s holding out of frustration and immediately after obliterating it with his fist, he immediately reconstructs the crumbs into a new donut. Which he then precedes to destroy but it’s that act of piecing it together first that reveals everything you need to know about that character. He’ll self destruct, try and fix it and then self destruct again. It’s only when he leaves the donut alone that he’ll finally find peace.
Dec. 17—Attack of the Demons (2020)
As far as I know, Eric Power is the only animator making full length films with paper cut out animation. Think the first couple episodes of South Park but more fluid and that’s his films. It’s an eye catching aesthetic that separates it from everything else out there but visuals can only get you so far. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst written films of the year or at the very least, the worst performed. The line delivery in this is almost unbearable. The actors are a hair better than an virtual assistant AI like a Siri or an Alexa. In fact, I’m confident you could ask them to find you five community college actors to redo every line for free and they’d be better. It’s atrocious. But if you can push that aside and if you have a high tolerance for clichés and good enough action, there is a moderate amount of fun to be had with this one. Or you could check out his previous film Path of Blood instead. There’s no dialogue, so there’s nothing to cringe at. Which based on this film, should be the case with every film going forward.
Dec. 18—Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (2020)
This is a film that dares you to find two comparative things to merge to try and succinctly describe it. I don’t think there’s a single high concept sci-fi film and insane piece of oddball cinema you can combine to equal this film. Inception by way of the Beastie Boys? World on a Wire crossed with Adult Swim? Philip K. Dick meets a bag of edibles and acid? The plot is similar to about a million other stories but the execution is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The film is about two secret agents who use a VR simulation to take down the Soviet Union, which is easier said then done.
While inside the simulation, the agents wear paper cut out masks of celebrities (one is Robert Redford and the other is Richard Pryor) and every action is stutter stop like stop motion animation. The visuals outside of the simulation are more conventional but are still hyper stylized. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the actors themselves are offbeat and strange. Every inch of this film is designed to make you question your sanity. Nothing makes sense and the longer it goes on, the crazier it gets. It’s clearly aiming to be a meme or cult classic and while I do think it’s trying too hard to be a new WTF staple, it does get points for going after that title harder than anything else released within the last five years. I’m not even sure I liked it but I know I’ll never forget it.
Dec. 19—His House (2020)
There’s an old stand up bit about the difference between white people and black people in horror movies, specifically haunted house movies. The second a creepy house says “get out”, black people listen. It’s a funny joke that reveals a major deficiency in most films within that sub-genre, which is “why are these people still in this house?” Some movies try to subvert this by explaining that it’s the people within the house, not the house itself, that’s haunted. His House does something similar but the way in which it addresses that question is brilliant. The couple at the center of the film (Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku) can’t leave their house due simply to the fact that they’re refugees assigned a shitty duplex within England’s housing complex. If they complain about ghosts or try to leave, they’ll immediately be deported. They’ve left hell for purgatory and they didn’t go alone.
If that’s all this film had going for it, I still would’ve liked it but what makes that set up work even better, is how they both deal with the situation. They both see the ghosts; there’s no question that they’re being haunted but instead of dealing with it, the husband actively chooses to ignore it just so that he can more easily blend in with society. He wants to purge himself of the past in order to adjust to his new life but as the old saying goes, “the past is a ghost that haunts you, from the moment it exists, to the moment you don’t.” His House is an immensely clever and spectacularly spooky haunted house film that’s only one great jump scare away from being a classic.
Dec. 20—The Chill Factor (1986)
Imagine the fifth best Evil Dead rip-off Xeroxed about a thousand times and that’s the script for this movie. Six friends slowly (and Jesus Christ do I mean slowly) get killed off in an abandoned ski lodge (or Christian Bible camp or some shit) after they decided to mess with the world’s ugliest Ouija board. The story moves slower than a crippled sloth; the acting is so bad, it makes Britney Spears look like Laurence Olivier, the deaths are at best, mediocre and there’s not a single titty not nowhere. The bat shit last ten minutes are almost enough to make this a crazy cult item (or at the very least, a fun so bad, it’s good) but as crazy as the finale is, it’s not worth sitting through 80 minutes to get to either.
Dec. 21—Home Sweet Home (1981)
Before Body by Jake (I know he has a name but much like how I’ll never not refer to Billy Blanks as Tae Bo, Jake Steinfeld is and will forever be, Body by Jake) got fat couch potatoes off their asses and exercising, he was shooting acid underneath his tongue and murdering everyone he runs across. Lucky for him, a family reuniting for Thanksgiving is right in the middle of his rampage. A reunion I had mistakenly thought took place at an asylum because everyone there is fucking crazy. Within the first five minutes, before we even meet everyone, two separate couples try to fuck, with one of them being in the drive way ten seconds after they arrived. The only reason neither couple gets to go to pound town, is because they’re both interrupted by a rock ‘n roll mime.
He’s a guitar playing mime that never stops talking and performs slight of hand tricks for children. There’s also a Spanish woman who’s amused by everything, a drunk who’s very upset that he’s missing the game and about six other people who are surprisingly nonplussed about all of their friends going missing. It’s not a good slasher and it’s technically not even a crazy one but the fact that it’s still obscure despite being one of the only Thanksgiving themed slashers, is wild to me. Body by Jake body slams the hood of a car while someone was underneath it and runs over an old lady and laughs. This should be a holiday classic.
Dec. 22—American Utopia (2020)
At first glance, a collaboration between David Byrne and Spike Lee makes little sense. One is an angry filmmaker who’s films zero in on what he perceives to be racial injustice and the other is an idiosyncratic singer known for giant suits and music old hipsters love. They have almost nothing in common outside of one minor thing: they’re both obsessed with the lie of the American dream. We were all sold a bill of goods that we all bought into but throughout their entire careers, they’ve asked “who wrote the bill, what goods are actually on it and who’s ultimately paying for it?” Lee shouts that question from a bullhorn while Byrne says it in a way that makes us feel as though we’re the ones that thought of it. One is telling you where the water is, while the other one is reminding you that you’re thirsty. They’re polar opposites who have radically different approaches to the same problem, which make for an interesting collaboration. A collaboration that really doesn’t become apparent till the last twenty minutes or so. Lee smartly gets out of Byrne’s way and let’s him do his thing until he decides to interject with a montage that helps land the emotional weight of a later song. It’s the only instance in the film where his hand as a director can be felt. The rest of the time, it’s a crowd pleasing spectacle from one of the world’s greatest showman.
Dec. 23—Let Them All Talk (2020)
Since he’s ping-pong’n between each character and has to juggle a bunch of requests and hold on to a couple of secrets, it feels like the Lucas Hedges character could’ve been played by Woody Allen back in the day. The film never plays up the comedy of his situation, which is fine because this film is clearly not focused on farce but the potential for it is so obvious and crystal clear to me, that I can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh acquired an old Allen script in an estate sale, dusted it off and reconfigured it to work in the present day. To further support my theory, the cast feels like a greatest hits of his repertory players. Streep and Wiest have both appeared in some of his best films and while she never appeared in any of his films, Bergen feels like she should’ve been in at least a handful of them.
Speaking of feelings, the film just feels like one of those films he made that I never got around to seeing. The plot just screams Allen: A celebrated author takes a journey with some old friends to have some fun and heal old wounds. Her nephew comes along to wrangle the ladies and finds himself involved with a young literary agent. that set up couldn’t be anymore Allen if it tried. It doesn’t have the witty dialogue but the acting is just as good and the deliberate pace is extremely reminiscent of his 80s films. As a fan of films where nothing happens but great actors talking to other great actors for 90 minutes, this was like cat nip for me. Your mileage may vary.
Dec. 24—Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
An uplifting affirmation of life through a collage of staged death scenes, Dick Johnson is Dead is a unique documentary from Kirsten Johnson about her father and his battle with dementia and her desperate attempt to deal with it. She uses the surreal and the comical to deal with the inevitable, all the while, her father’s cheery deposition never wavers. While it is absurd, It’s still a very serious subject but the film never gets maudlin or downbeat because unlike the title of the film, Dick Johnson is very much alive. He might be losing his mind to dementia and is nearing the end of his time on Earth but he’s still very much a character. There’s a handful of faux death scenes to help her cope with the reality, a couple of scenes in a pretend Heaven to give him a sense of what the afterlife will be like and a slightly nightmarish set piece that explores what dementia must feel like. It’s an interesting approach to death and a fascinating character study.
Dec. 25—Magic (1978)
I don’t know if all ventriloquists are as crazy as films portray them as but there’s something about sticking your hand up a miniature person and making it talk that insists on insanity. Seriously, all films about ventriloquists are either about the performer losing his mind because the doll may or may not be alive or that they’ve already lost their mind and are using the doll to cope. There are no films about a stable ventriloquist and thank God because they make for some compelling drama. After he rejects an offer to do a huge talk show because he’s afraid to fail the psyche evaluation, Corky (Anthony Hopkins) and his famous dummy retreat back to his childhood town. While there, he reconnects with an old flame (Ann-Margret) but the dummy, sensing the romance will make their partnership obsolete, grows increasingly more jealous and tries to convince Corky to cut it off. Permanently.
Based on that plot synopsis, it’s obvious that this lands in the former category of ventriloquist movies. The film tip toes around the answer up till the closing credits. You don’t get a definitive answer till about ten seconds before the screen goes black, so if you’re looking forward to some puppet killing mayhem, you’re out of luck. But in place of that, there’s a fantastically unhinged Hopkins performance. This is a good decade before he became one of the silver screens greatest over actors, so his manic performance is far more nuanced and subtle than his Hannibal Lector. He still screams an awful lot but it never feels over the top, which a great number of Hopkins performances tend to do. I’m not saying that’s a negative, I love his theatrical performances, I’m just saying it’s a different kind of performance than we’re used to from the actor. Getting to experience a great Hopkins performance I had never seen before was a pleasant surprise within an equally pleasant hidden gem of a movie.
Dec. 26—Koko-Di Koko-Da (2020)
After the death of their child, a grieving couple decide to go on a camping trip to try and reconnect but are soon interrupted by a trio of carnival-like villains who decide to trap them in a time loop of terror. A confounding tale of profound weirdness, Koko-di Koko-da is like a seven layer bean dip with half the layers made up of question marks and shrugs. The subtext is obvious (grief is a never-ending cycle) but everything else is purposefully obtuse. If you like piecing together the ambiguous, this is definitely the film for you because it makes you do all the work. I don’t mind that approach normally but that’s when I feel like the director knows what the final picture is before he asks me to piece together the puzzle but here, I don’t think there is a picture at all. It’s all puzzle. I also don’t think it goes as far in the violence as it should have. I’m not asking for it to be a torture porn but it needed a bit more bite.
Dec. 27—Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)
There’s something hypnotic about watching a fire flicker in the dark. Something about the way the flames dance around that pulls you in and keeps you captive even though you know it’s dangerous. But as fleeting as it is, you let yourself be bound by its seductive flickers. The dance pulls you in but the heat keeps you enthralled. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to let the flames extinguish themselves than snuff them out. Because even though it’s just a bonfire and you know the heat was only temporary, for a brief moment you gave yourself over to something beautiful. You know from the beginning of this film, that the love affair between these two women will only be temporary. Their love, like the fire from the title, has an expiration date. On an isolated island at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel) but since the young woman is despondent over the marriage she never wanted, the painter has to paint the portrait in secret. The plan is for her to pretend to be her friend, get close enough to her to make her smile and then use that image to create the portrait.
As you most likely guessed, the closer she gets and the harder she tries to make her smile, the stronger their bond gets until passion overcomes the both of them. Once they fall for each other, everything else falls away. Most films would’ve used her subterfuge as the third act conflict but the film wisely drops it in favor of an affair on a ticking clock. In a handful of days, the young woman’s mother will be back to pick her up to move her to her future husband’s house, meaning the two will never see each other again. So the film makes every second as romantic as it is heartbreaking. Their love may be like a fire but the film itself is like a painting. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous to look at with some frames looking like they belong in louvre. While not a sub-genre per say, studios need to retire the lesbian period piece costume drama because anything released after this will feel redundant.
Dec. 28—Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
After the film ended and I was reading through the credits, I laughed out loud because of course the directors name is Eliza Hittman because only an emotional assassin could’ve made this film. After she discovers she’s pregnant, a teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan), along with her cousin (Talia Ryder), travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City in order to get an abortion. There’s much more plot than the premise but it’s the little things that makes this film riveting. The attention to detail that paints a larger world than what we’re seeing. Even after the film’s big emotional scene (which is where the title of the film comes from), the film still makes you piece together the implications of her answers. It conveys emotion through a single tear and uses silence, not monologues, to give you everything you need to know. I still have my own theories as to what exactly happened but whether I’m right or not is irrelevant, what matters is that I feel for her in that moment and not only do I, I see past that moment to a lifetime of hardships both past and in the future. Her entire life was summed up with a handful of words and I understood it completely. It’s a fully realized performance in a masterfully directed scene that unlocks the entire film. Out of everything I saw this year, that scene is what will stay with me for years to come.
Dec. 29—Bad Hair (2020)
An ambitious high concept horror film that works as both allegory and a gonzo brain melter, Bad Hair gets major points for really leaning into its premise but unfortunately, outside of those last twenty crazy minutes, there really wasn’t much I connected to. In order to succeed and move up the corporate ladder, an ambitious young woman (Elle Lorraine) gets an expensive high end weave and after doing so, immediately becomes successful within the company but soon she’ll realize that some gifts come with a terrible price. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the hair is carnivorous and needs to be fed blood constantly. You’ve seen a horror movie before, so you know where this film is going way before it gets there but while it does feel very paint by numbers in most regards, there are some fun twists here and there. The problem I have with the film is that it’s trying desperately to mash together the sensibilities of Spike Lee with the aesthetic of Sam Raimi but it’s not smart enough to do the former justice and nowhere near directed well enough to pull off the latter. So what you end up with is an oddly misshapen Frankenstein movie made up of parts that don’t fit together that’s held together by a game cast and some fun ideas. Edit this down to an hour and this would’ve been a terrific episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Dec. 30—Bacurau (2020)
Since a good chunk of this film’s enjoyment comes from the mystery of what it actually is, I’ll do my best to talk around the plot. I’ll also try and deflate any hype you have beforehand because while it does get crazy, it’s nowhere near as insane as the critics would lead you to believe. Inspired by but not directly lifting anything from two well known story shapes (I’ll give you a hint: one is from Kurosawa and the other is a famous novel that’s been adapted a million times), Bacurau is about the inhabitants of a small Brazilian town who suddenly realize that they no longer appear on Google maps. There’s also UFO shaped drones popping up around town and locals that seem shifty. What this all means and what it ultimately adds up to, is probably far less sci-fi than you’re expecting but is still a bunch of fun. I just wish it went a bit further. I can’t get into my specific gripes but I wish there was a tad less set up and a smidge more action. I do appreciate the subtle anti message that runs through out though.
Dec. 31—First Cow (2020)
After a chance encounter with a kind Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee), a skilled cook (John Magaro) abandons the group of fur trappers he was with and the two collaborate on a successful business venture involving delicious pastries and a nearby wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow. A simple yet beautifully told story of a friendship trying to overcome the trials and tribulations of the West. That cows milk is their ticket to a better life and with no other options, the two decide to gamble their lives on the pursuit of the American dream. Much like how Portrait of a Lady on Fire found the beauty within a doomed romance, First Cow succeeds at making a doomed friendship beautiful.
What movie did you see last month?