- January 24, 2020
Well, here we are folks. The last Binge Blog of 2020. As promised, below is a top 10 list of the best films I saw this year. Of course, there are many I have not seen yet, and many others I liked a bunch but did not feel like writing about or didn't know what to say about, and still others that I saw and loved but are not readily available to rent or stream, so why do you want to hear about them? All that considered, this is just a list of good films I wanted to share with you today. But there's 10 of them, and they're in a list! That should count for something.
We'll be back to normal in January. Stay safe, and happy holidays.
Psst, before we begin:
Movies I still need to see: Too many to name!
Honorable mentions: "First Cow," "Possessor," "Black Bear," "Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm," "The Vast of Night."
Disney+, rated PG-13, 160 minutes
No, the play itself isn't new, but this was everyone's first time seeing "Hamilton" like this, with multiple camera angles and close-ups on Jonathan Groff's spit spewing from his maw during his solo songs.
Although no one should use "Hamilton" as a replacement for a history book — you really should read some experts on Alexander Hamilton's life; it's fascinating — there's no denying that the music, choreography and talent level of the cast make this production a great watch.
Netflix, rated R, 135 minutes
It's going to take 10-15 more viewings for me to discern what, exactly, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is about at its heart.
What else would you expect from Charlie Kaufman?
I know what it's about at its fringes; it makes that quite clear, through long conversations about art and criticism and the relationship between the two and how the things we consume become the things we believe. But it's also, sometimes, about what could have been. It's about regrets. It's about what we think we deserve versus what we get.
I don't quite know how all of those things connect yet. I'm also not sure it matters, when Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons and David Thewlis and Toni Collette are putting on the performances that they do here. My brain might not get this movie, but my soul does.
Hulu, rated R, 107 minutes
The fuzziest movie of the year, Josephine Decker's "Shirley" follows legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) as she follows her unorthodox process while writing her second novel, "Hangsaman."
Despite being the titular character, Jackson isn't the main character of the film. That would be Rose (Odessa Young), who alongside her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), stays with Jackson and her beau, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), when Fred gets an apprenticeship under Stanley. Rose and Shirley clash right away, but something draws them together all the same, while the mysterious disappearance of a local college student hangs over the small town where they live.
Decker's films are filled with a signature woozy haze, and "Shirley" is no exception. It looks fantastic. Moss crushes the role of Shirley, playing her with the correct tinge of chaos, and Young is equally good as Rose, who Jackson learns can give as good as she gets. As Rose helps Jackson find inspiration, Jackson helps her climb out of her shell cast on her by the times.
The ending is ambiguous, but whatever you glean from it, it's worth the ride to watch these actors verbally spar through Decker's trippy lens.
VOD, rated R, 150 minutes
Apparently 2020 was a big year for "I don't get this movie, but I don't care."
"Tenet" is toward the bottom of Christopher Nolan's filmography, and it still kicks ass. Don't ask me to explain its conceit because I can't. I'm pretty sure it doesn't hold up to logic.
Why are you worried about that, though? Didn't you just see John David Washington and Robert Pattinson scale that huge-ass building in Dubai? Didn't you see that other building explode in reverse — de-splode? — and then immediately implode? Didn't you see the hallway fight that looks like it's happening forwards and backwards at the same time?
Look, I'm a huge proponent of watching Vegetable Movies: movies that actually have things like "themes" and "character growth," movies that "make you feel things" and "relate to other human beings." These things are good for you. Watching these movies makes people better and more empathetic humans — I firmly believe that. I have a bunch of them on this list.
But also: Sometimes you want some ice cream, right? Ice cream is so good. And vegetables can be delicious too! But they're not ice cream. "Tenet" is ice cream. And it's good ice cream too, the hand-spun stuff. It is what you eat on your cheat day. It is designed solely to be a spectacle. Why judge it on any other criteria when it is so clearly not concerned with being anything other than what it is?
Ice cream is delicious. So is "Tenet." Give yourself a scoop, and enjoy.
VOD, rated R, 102 minutes
A perfect little gross rom-com, the premise of "Spontaneous" is that kids are exploding.
That's not a euphemism. They are combusting and dying, leaving behind pools of blood and guts wherever they stand, and no one knows why. Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer play two teens who fall for each other despite all the horrors around them.
First-time director Brian Duffield maybe tries to do one-too-many clever tricks but generally does a nice job, and Langford and Plummer have winning chemistry. I like that the story itself does not get tied in a neat bow. There are fun music cues abound, too.
Perhaps this would play differently if not released during a pandemic. We'll never know! As it is, it's quite relatable to see people consoling each other over not knowing when an invisible specter of death might arrive.
Of all the films on this list, "Spontaneous" is the one I've seen the fewest other people talk about. I hope some of you give it a chance. It's devilishly funny and won me over immediately.
Netflix, rated R, 126 minutes
A team of immortal-ish super soldiers fight for their lives while showing a new soldier the ropes.
That's the basic premise of "The Old Guard," but Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a lot more on her mind. This is a film, as I have said a few times in Binge Blog, about how humanity needs to connections to survive. No one can do life alone, no matter how independent they are. This could have been a generic action movie in the hands of a less-talented director, but Prince-Bythewood gives it a lot of heart.
It stars Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, but Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari steal the show as a couple separated by space and time but never truly apart. One scene of theirs in particular, taking place in the back of a van after a kidnapping, is one of the year's best.
Plus, Theron uses a sick ax.
Hulu, rated R, 90 minutes
Simply the platonic ideal of a rom-com.
It has to be funny, first of all. Way too many rom-coms settle for "smile" humor. But I don't want to smile. I want to laugh! "Palm Springs" achieves that. You know it will because The Lonely Island crew is involved. But it also has to have a unique hook, and it does — "Palm Springs" is a time loop movie, one that has fun with that premise, stretching it into a skewering of the joke that "once you're with someone long enough, all days are the same."
Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti rule, J.K. Simmons makes probably the funniest side performance of the year, and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. Every comedy should be 90 minutes. It's wonderful.
Filthy. Funny. Charming. "Palm Springs" can do it all.
Prime Video, rated R, 121 minutes
For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), hearing is not only a sense; it's crucial to his job. He's a drummer in a black metal duo with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). But before a performance on the duo's tour, Ruben suddenly loses his sense of hearing. He plays the show anyway, but a doctor's visit the next day confirms the worst: His hearing isn't coming back. There are expensive workarounds, such as cochlear implants, that might help a bit, but even those won't be the same.
From now on, Ruben's life will be quite different.
He's also an addict, and losing his sense of hearing sends him into a tailspin. Worried for his safety, Lou checks Ruben into a community for deaf people with addiction. Part of the deal is that he can't have any contact with the outside world, so she drops him off and leaves. Ruben is then forced to process his rapidly changing life on his own: No more music, no more career, no more conversation, no more girl. What is there to live for?
What makes "Sound of Metal" so effective is a few things. One, Ahmed gives astounding performance, as do Cooke and Paul Raci, who plays the leader of the deaf community. Two, it gets the details right. It shows how much music is a part of Ruben's life, and not just while he's performing. He plays jazz while making coffee each morning. He and Lou sing songs together a capella while driving from city to city. All of that is gone. It also focuses on the sounds we take for granted: the rustling of wheat fields, the singing of birds, the whisper of the wind. It's so beautiful, but we don't notice it until it's no longer there.
The film is kind to the deaf community, showing people learning in classrooms, playing outside, doing chores and more. They're not props; they're human beings with depth. Sign language in the film is not subtitled, so when Ruben is first learning it, we're as lost as he is. But we learn when he learns, too. It's a neat trick.
"Sound of Metal" is about Ruben's journey to acceptance, his road to learning that you can't always just go back to normal, no matter how hard you try. The sound design should be a lock for an Oscar nomination. The performances should be, too. Frankly, "Sound of Metal" knocked me out.
VOD, rated R, 102 minutes
Maybe the film that spoke the most to younger me in 2020, "Shithouse" is a movie about a dude learning that nice guys need to grow up, too.
Cooper Raiff directed, wrote and starred in the film as Alex, a freshman in college who is more homesick than he'd like to admit. He thinks he's in the wrong place, so he doesn't even try to have fun. He wallows in his own misery and complains to a stuffed animal.
Then Alex meets Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore RA, and she challenges his perspective. She's working through some issues of her own, though, like learning to live for herself while not hurting others around her.
In the vein of Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, "Shithouse" is mostly just two people talking. That's fine if the conversations are engaging, which they are here. Easily the most earnest movie of the year, "Shithouse" is a great reminder for people in their 20s and late teens that you don't know everything, even though you think you do. You're not a fully formed personality yet. You're running on alcohol and hormones, and that's OK. But you have some work to do.
Really funny and really, deathly relatable in certain spots, "Shithouse" is a winner (despite that god-awful title).
Hulu, rated R, 120 minutes
Technically "Portrait" was released in 2019, but it did not land a wide release in the U.S. until it hit Hulu in March, so I'm counting it. Honestly, I'd probably cheat and count it even if it had.
No other film comes close to the humanity on display here. No other film cares as much about the details, how one glance can mean a million different things or how a lack of score can be just as devastating as a grandiose score when said lack of score is used as a suffocation device, making audiences feel as reined in as Heloise feels throughout the movie, until finally we hear the chime of a piano key and get to release it all.
It's a love story that dares to examine what the word "love" actually means. Marianne and Heloise don't fall for each other because they both like the same books or because their career trajectories match. Like magnets colliding, they fall for each other because their bodies and minds are designed to intertwine.
In a year of cataclysms, we could all use some cataclysmic love to balance things out.