Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
- Athlete A
- Bad Education
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
- I Used to Go Here
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Let Them All Talk
- The Nest
- Palm Springs
- Sound of Metal
- Yes, God, Yes
Premise: A father and daughter are on their way to dance camp when they spot the girl’s best friend on the side of the road. When they stop to offer the friend a ride, their good intentions soon result in terrible consequences.
Welcome to the Blumhouse. Based on a 2015 German film, Canadian thriller The Lie begins with Kayla (Joey King) killing her best friend Britney en route to a ballet retreat. Kayla’s father Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) decides to help cover up the crime and soon thereafter Kayla’s mother (and Jay’s ex-wife) Rebecca (Mireille Enos) is brought into the fold. Together the estranged family must protect Kayla from the authorities and Britney’s father (Cas Anvar), whose mounting frustration with the lack of answers as to the whereabouts of Britney becomes more and more threatening.
Premise: A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
It’s been 6 years in the US since the latest film from Japanese master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, which means that the animation world (and yours truly) has been sorely lacking an animated film with enough style and heart to break through the candy-coated onslaught of Disney and Pixar films.
Let Them All Talk (2020)
Premise: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.
The title of director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film feels less like a thematic summation and more like a way to describe Soderbergh’s method of approaching his subject matter. Filmed almost entirely aboard a cruise ship as it makes its way from New York to Southampton, the script reportedly consisted of minimal outlines from scene to scene, and the actors were left to improvise the rest. Soderbergh, who has made a habit lately of experimenting behind the scenes by filming entire movies on iPhones, may have finally found a gimmick that meshes successfully with his sensibilities. Of course, a film with no script can only be buoyed by the performances of its cast, and Let Them All Talk is brimming with talented actors.
Premise: This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Midnight Sky, tells of a world evacuated and a dying man keeping the light on to notify the last remnants of humanity. Unfortunately, what could have been a thought-provoking exploration of regret and isolation ultimately turns into a piecemeal rehash of genre and wilderness survival elements that were done much better in the films from which Clooney draws inspiration. He forsakes exposition in favor of needless ambiguity that leads to a payoff lacking the emotional resonance the film desperately needs. What’s left is a hollow and joyless expedition into the last days of Earth that’s devoid of any real intrigue.
Sound of Metal (2020)
Premise: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
I had an optometrist appointment several years ago, in which I was told by the end of it that my vision in my right eye was slightly worse than my left. Naturally, the diagnosis wasn’t ideal, but, considering my work as a photographer, the development left me even more worried. As most photographers do, I primarily use my right eye to look through the viewfinder while using my camera. How could I continue on as a photographer if I couldn’t see the pictures I wanted to take?
Premise: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the energy of watching a stage production that’s morphed effortlessly onto film. This isn’t an easy accomplishment by any stretch and the fact that it’s pulled off so brilliantly here is a testament to George C Wolfe’s direction and overall vision for the film. The way the camera swings through sharp and incisive dialogue spoken between multiple characters in a green room gives the film a fluidity that can only be matched by seeing a stage performance. The camera commandeers the drama and makes it feel like the film itself is a ride through the interpersonal spats and ambitions of the characters without letting up. In terms of pacing, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is spectacular.
Fail Safe (1964)
Premise: A technical malfunction sends American planes to Moscow to deliver a nuclear attack. Can all-out war be averted?
Sidney Lumet’s classic political thriller Fail Safe is a masterpiece of tension and horrific verisimilitude. The film boasts a remarkable cast of characters played to wonderful effect by talented actors like Henry Fonda, Fritz Weaver, and Walter Matthau, to name a few. What is most striking (no pun intended) about Fail Safe is the manner in which the events and philosophical debates play out. Fail Safe uses an intense situation as a backdrop to address the fear of communism and “the other” head on. It also works overtime to depict a world where the people in charge of nuclear superpowers are human and fallible creatures. This creates an immersion like no other and a sense of unease that still hits home decades after its release.
David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)
Premise: Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.
How does David Byrne follow-up Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary that birthed an entire genre, even if it’s had 36 years to marinate? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of the elements that make Sense such a delight – the boundless joy and energy of everyone onstage, the production value, the musicality – are on display here, and it feels like Byrne hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. And yet, it’s the moments between the music that sets American Utopia apart from its predecessor. Sense was simply a documentation of a band’s place in time, while Utopia has more on its mind, as Byrne tries to make sense of his place in the world. Sure, Talking Heads had larger ideas on display and made some grand statements with their lyrics, but Sense never aspired to be more than a concert documentary.
On the Rocks (2020)
Premise: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.
Sofia Coppola’s films have, regrettably, been one of my biggest film blind spots of the 21st century. Until recently, when I watched her directorial debut (1999’s The Virgin Suicides), I had yet to see any of her films. Suicides revealed an auteur who could confidently write complicated characters in a unique and interesting way. Her latest film, On the Rocks, which is streaming now on Apple TV+, retains those same capabilities but slightly misses the mark on some crucial character work. The film reunites Coppola and Bill Murray, the star of her most successful film, Lost in Translation, for the first time since 2003 (save for a holiday special in 2015). Murray has built up a solid reputation as a comedian-turned-dramatic actor, and while his role here steers more towards comedic relief, he has clearly found a director who can utilize him properly while keeping him from going off the comedic deep end (again, I haven’t seen Lost in Translation, but he was nominated for an Oscar for the role).
Molto Bella (2020)
- Narrative Feature
- Director: Alexander Jeffery
- Screenwriters: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen
- Producers: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen, Richard Wharton
- Executive Producer: Wanda and Bob Ragsdale, Mary Jo and Steve Scott, Paul Burns, Tamra Corley
- Cast: Paul Petersen, Andrea von Kampen, Jason Edwards, Elizabeth Stenholt, Vincenzo Vivenzio
Premise: In the Sicilian town of Taormina, Italy, an aspiring poet in search of inspiration meets a folk singer trying to write a follow up to her breakout hit.
Picture Character (2020)
Directors: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane
Producers: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane, Jennifer 8. Lee
Executive Producers: Fred Benenson, Peter Friedland
Cast: Rayouf Alhumedhi, Florencia Coelho, Daniela Guini, Carmen Barlow, Francis Mason
Premise: “Picture Character” explores the complex, conflict-prone, and often hilarious world of the creators, lovers, and arbiters of emoji, our world’s newest pictorial language. How do you create a global language on the fly? This film charts the evolution of emojis, and investigates what they may reveal about our increasingly technological world.
It’s hard to imagine modern daily conversations without the ever-present emoji. What emerged after the technological takeover of smartphones as a way to express a wide variety of emotions in a simplistic manner quickly spread outside our phones and became inescapable. Socks, pillows, Happy Meal toys, and bumper stickers are only a sliver of the countless products available that have cashed in on the emoji craze in recent years, with no end in sight. Emojis have largely been viewed as a force for good in the world (we can now order pizza with one simple pizza emoji sent via text message). The “face with tears of joy” emoji was named as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015. They’ve even withstood the release of The Emoji Movie in 2017.
Totally Under Control (2020)
Premise: An in-depth look at how the United States government handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak during the early months of the pandemic.
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s “shot in secret” film about the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps one of the most important documentaries to come out in the months since the outbreak and the weeks before the 2020 election. Totally Under Control does not aim to present a clear Republicans vs Democrats narrative of the way the US bungled its pandemic response. Instead, Gibney and his team present a compelling and infuriating view of Donald Trump’s antagonistic relationship to science. Totally Under Control paints a vivid picture of how the anti-science views of the Trump administration has contributed to the deaths of over 214,000 Americans and climbing. Continue reading
76 Days (2020)
Director: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Screenwriter: Hao Wu
Producers: Hao Wu, Jean Tsien
Executive Producers: Bryn Mooser, Roberto Grande, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Naja Pham Lockwood
Premise: On January 23rd, 2020, China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, to combat the emerging COVID-19 outbreak. Set deep inside the frontlines of the crisis, “76 Days” tells indelible human stories of the healthcare workers and patients who struggle to survive the pandemic with resilience and dignity.
As we live through a crisis that seems to only be exacerbated by misinformation and vitriolic political spats spilling out from social media and onto the streets, it is far too easy to lose perspective. Fortunately, 76 Days provides perspective a lot of people desperately need in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a harrowing documentary that will refocus your attention past the asinine entitlement of anti-maskers and the ludicrously dangerous contingent of Americans who cry hoax at every mention of the disease that has killed over 214,000 Americans as of this writing. What 76 Days achieves through its fly on the wall documenting is to put human faces on the superheroic actions of healthcare workers. It does so with dignity and grace as we watch medical staff in a Wuhan hospital try to stem the flood of horror at their doorstep and the emotional toll it takes on them.
Song Without a Name (2019)
Director: Melina León
Screenwriters: Melina León, Michael J. White
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas
Premise: Based on harrowing true events, “Song Without A Name” tells the story of Georgina, an indigenous Andean woman whose newborn baby is whisked away moments after its birth in a downtown Lima clinic – and never returned. Stonewalled by a byzantine and indifferent legal system, Georgina approaches journalist Pedro Campas, who uncovers a web of fake clinics and abductions – suggesting deep, rotting corruption in Peru.
Song Without a Name, the gorgeously shot debut feature from Melina León, tells the heart wrenching story of a mother searching for her newborn baby and the journalist who’s determined to help her. Set among the turbulence of armed conflict in late 1980s Peru, the film is harrowing in the way it compartmentalizes its drama into the character of Georgina and establishes the horrific journey she has ahead of her. Lonely journalist Pedro also has his own painful arc to contend with as he works to uncover what happened to Georgina’s child. The two characters’ arc intertwine and land a little differently, but the message and tragedy of Song Without a Name plays on.