The best movies from the first half of 2020

This article was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

Don’t let anyone tell you 2020 has been a bad movie year through five months and change.

Yes, cinemas have largely remained closed – their popcorn machines shut off, their theaters darker than usual – as the releases of big-budget productions remain delayed, but the industry’s temporary (or perhaps not?) realignment of distribution models have ensured new viewing options every week, whether via last-minute Netflix acquisition, the new virtual cinemas network or compromising to strange times by releasing movies on VOD platforms.

The result? A renewed focus on the smaller or otherwise more obscure indie movie/international offering/experimental project that would have struggled for attention alongside the “No Time to Dies,” “Black Widows” and “Mulans” of the world. And even as some of the movies that have released had big-screen aspirations once upon a pre-pandemic time, they’re all now just a click away as the COVID-19 has provided us with many more hours to kill at home. When it comes to accessibility, the digital library of 2020 releases has been just as diverse as exploring the breadth of your favorite streaming service.

As for the movies themselves? A broad spectrum of moviemaking is represented, from early Oscar hopefuls to mindless actioneers, from the thought-provoking documentary to the ambitious directorial debut. If ever there was the time (and if ever we had the time) to absorb new stories and perspectives, 2020 is it. The movie calendar has never been more in flux, but the potential to find a gem has never felt more acute.

So, in spite of everything…don’t let anyone tell you that 2020 has been a bad movie year. Here are the eight best films the first half of it has offered, in alphabetical order.

“Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley) 

Hugh Jackman’s Academy Award-caliber performance as a sultry schemer who just so happens to be orchestrating the turnaround of an upper-class Long Island high school is only part of the appeal in Cory Finley’s devilishly nuanced second movie. At its core, the funny and smart “Bad Education” considers the inevitable temptations of a money-obsessed society, and Finley’s confident direction manages to synthesize what we’d traditionally view as antagonistic forces into avatars of the platonic American capitalist ideal. Wouldn’t you stick your hand in the cookie jar?

There’s a Soderberghian energy that’s deployed as we watch our fraudsters realize how knotted up they are in the can’t-harm-anyone threads they decided to tug on juuuuuust a bit, and a triumphant practicality in the true-to-life act of high school journalism that exposed it for all to see.

RELATED: ‘Bad Education’ Review: A contemplative fraud drama, with extra credit for Hugh Jackman’s stellar performance

“Beanpole” (dir. Kantemir Balagov)

An exercise in excavating seeds of doubt and suspicion from the stormy ambiguity of blank stares and delayed vocal responses, “Beanpole” – a Russian drama following two female hospital caregivers after their time on the frontlines of recently-ended World War II – is a thoroughly captivating work. Unfolding with equal jolts of profundity and intimacy, the film strives to disentangle the paradoxes of war-adjacent drama through the No Man’s Land that separates stillness from eruption. It perfectly captures the widespread shellshock that lingers in the immediate aftermath of world-shaking conflict.

It’s also a film that finds evolved potential in the power of the long take (the kind that doesn’t call attention to itself); once you’ve adjusted to how elastic director Kantemir Balagov insists his scenes to be, “Beanpole” becomes a magnetic thing to behold, with thoughts on salvation and reconstruction that demand to be considered.

“Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

How appropriate is it that one of our most enduring American filmmakers uses American films’ fascination with war to examine the continuous cycle of trauma and pain the country inflicts on its Black people? Whatever one might expect of Spike Lee’s latest – an enraged, enthralling take on the Vietnam War epic – there’s no expecting how deftly it punctures through to the present moment. The war genre functions as both lens and subject in “Da 5 Bloods,” but Lee ensures there’s no overlooking his searing commentary on how a country refuses to reckon with the role Black lives have played, and continue to play, in shaping its history. 

“Da 5 Bloods” isn’t just a rich text; it’s a screaming sermon fueled by bullets and intergenerational pain. It’s a celebration, it’s an education and it’s an indictment. To quote one of the titular Bloods, the film is a Malcolm and a Martin.

“Fourteen” (dir. Dan Sallitt)

One of 2020’s most captivating dramas unfolds through blissfully frank vignettes of a years-long friendship increasingly on the rocks. In one minute, we’re watching Mara and Jo (Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling, respectively, and both excellent) wax poetic about stumbling through life as busy twenty-somethings in New York; the next, we’re swept up in the ferocious tides of time progressively chipping away at a bond while magnifying the consequences of its inevitable end. Writer-director Dan Sallitt doesn’t fetishize the ugliness of his story, nor does “Fourteen” distractedly explain where its devastating power will eventually be rooted in. This isn’t capital-D Drama by any means, and it makes everything we’re seeing feel profound in its mundanity. The filmmaking is on par with the ebb and flow of life itself.

RELATED: ‘Fourteen’ Review: A quietly powerful portrait of a slowly splintering friendship

“I’m No Longer Here” (dir. Fernando Frias) 

The second feature from Mexican director Fernando Frias thrives, or rather simmers, on the juxtaposition of cultural celebration and geographic displacement while spectacularly subverting the immigrant narrative. A story that rebounds through time, the Netflix offering “I’m No Longer Here” follows the young leader of a tight-knit Monterrey street gang as he navigates the streets of Queens after being forced to leave for the U.S., finding some remnants of comfort in the cumbia style of dance he’s always cherished but which seems alien to the New Yorkers he dances in front of thousands of miles from home.

The mesmerizing camera work of Damian Garcia and seamless editing of Yibran Asuad puts a magnifying glass to the melancholy stitched into every moment of Frias’s film. The American Dream in “I’m No Longer Here” isn’t about finding success in America; it’s about finding a way home, and desperately hoping it has remained unchanged. The movie’s blend of subject matter and form suggests an emerging master of lyrical storytelling.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (dir. Eliza Hittman)

The best of writer-director Eiza Hittman’s movies about adolescent reckoning, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a minor miracle of an abortion drama that doesn’t look to indict, preach, vilify or politicize. Instead, Hittman finds a new kind of urgency in her straight-faced, disarmingly affecting filmmaking, centering on two teenage girls who communicate and lift each other up through sheer empathy. The movie is a subtle acknowledgement of the limits of the U.S. healthcare system and an even more subtle nod to perseverance not as a level of personal capability to aspire to, but as a platform to force ourselves onto as the ground gives way underneath.

As Autumn, first-time actress Sidney Flanigan’s stunning performance translates the desperate practicality and quiet contemplation of thousands of girls’ real-world stories. There is no storytelling deception or narrative fakeouts deployed by Hittman in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”; its ideology is reality.

RELATED: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Review: A stark, straightforward story of seeking an abortion

“Shirley” (dir. Josephine Decker)

A fever dream of extreme close-ups, psychological spontaneity and another unpredictably madcap performance from Elisabeth Moss, “Shirley” is no more a biopic than it is a Kaufman-esque thriller. In its exploration of artistic vulnerability and personal enlightenment, Josephine Decker’s latest is a cousin to her last enigma of a movie, “Madeline’s Madeline,” and also no less challenging to untangle. There’s often no telling if what we’re seeing is real or through whose perspective we’re witnessing certain events, but that ambiguity and occasional frustration goes a long way toward inserting ourselves into the head of the titular 20th century horror writer, and toward understanding the toll of the expectations her audience had of her—even those who lived under her own roof.

RELATED: ‘Shirley’ Review: Elisabeth Moss powers bewitching psychological drama about an author and her muse

“The Assistant” (dir. Kitty Green) 

Kitty Green’s excellent, exacting movie is a quietly disquieting thriller for the #MeToo era, literalizing the monster of workplace systems designed to keep suspicious actions hush-hush while suffocating the agency of female employees. It’s the slowest of slow-burn stories as we follow Julia Garner’s Jane over the course of one day at work; Green pays hair-raising attention to the details that are as monotonous as they are threatening, and employs sound design that cuts to the core like a gust of freezing arctic air—all of it adding up to a hyper-specific narrative that deftly translates how women in the workplace can be caught between a rock and a hard stare from an HR superior. It’s as vital as anything that’s come out this year.

RELATED: ‘The Assistant’ Review: A biting look at abuse of power and a workplace looking the other way

The best movies of 2019

This piece was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

What to make of 2019 as a year in movies? How about what not to make of it?

It was an unexpected as Baby Yoda’s world domination, and as exhaustively satisfying as watching Rick Dalton let it rip on the set of “Lancer.” It provided an all-timer crop of sophomore features from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Robert Eggers and Ari Aster while also yielding one last group of mesmerizing, decade-ending debuts that includes Olivia Wilde, Joe Talbot and Lulu Wang. The bread and wine of “The Irishman” looked tasty, the ramdon of “Parasite” even more so, and the trophy for Movie Most Likely To Scare You Out of a Summer Trip to Europe is finally in the hands of something other than “Taken.” First-time director Lulu Wang let us in on a family secret, and institutional director Martin Scorsese let us into reflections of a career.

Tom Hooper’s “Cats” broke Twitter, and then broke its awards chances by not breaking the box office. Sagas ended (for now) with “Avengers: Endgame,” sagas ended definitively (or so they say) with “The Rise of Skywalker” and sagas received an epilogue with “Toy Story 4.” Adam Driver was in everything. Florence Pugh: hello. Joe Pesci, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Lopez: hello again. We couldn’t decide whether “The Lion King” was animated or live-action (it’s animated). We couldn’t decide whether “Under The Silver Lake” is problematic or in on the joke (it’s the latter). Robert Pattinson lost his mind in space, then in a lighthouse, then on a European battlefield—spanning about five centuries in the process.

Netflix quadrupled down on its bid to be taken seriously as a new kind of movie studio, while A24 and Neon continued churning out indie darlings with budgets the size of Thanos’s pinkie. The knives came out, the gems remained uncut and the popes came in sets of two. What to make of 2019 as a year in cinema? It may very well have been the decade’s best. Continue reading →

The 25 best movies of the decade

This article was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

It’s a maxim among cinephiles that movies don’t change—but people do. Our reaction to a new film is shaped by the experiences and perceptions we bring into it, even as the first words upon leaving the theater (or turning off Netflix) typically are about an actor’s performance, a screenplay’s effectiveness, a specific shot’s inventiveness. That we can revisit movies later and come away with new insights – new pieces of the cinematic fabric to grasp onto – says as much about the medium’s unspoken power as it says about our malleable connections to art. Who among us doesn’t have a movie we refuse to revisit for the first time since childhood, out of fear that adult sentiment will muddle our memory of it?

A decade that felt both historic in that the world has never been more connected by social media and fleeting in that we’ve never been more empowered to move on to the next viral story – or the next thing in our streaming queues – shaped the cinematic product, too. For one, movies have never felt so much like a reckoning with real-world forces that are continuing to mold what the 2020s will look like.

For another, it’s an increasingly rare thing for a film to be universal, in its ability to resonate not (or not only) through legions of audiences, but through time, beyond the moment it carved out for itself on a release schedule. These 25 films – the best of the 2010s – remain moviemaking triumphs as the curtain begins to close on this decade, and may very well endure as such into the next as well.  As a certain purple Mad Titan would say: They are inevitable. Continue reading →

Movies in the 2010s largely captured, and warned of, our moments of reckoning

This article was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

Spoiler alert for “Parasite” and other recent movies

In “Parasite,” Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s newest masterwork that identifies class warfare as as much a fact of 21st-century life as Twitter and streaming entertainment, there’s no telling where a plan will get you.

For a time, a plan gets the destitute Kims – who can’t afford wi-fi and resort to constructing pizza boxes around the dinner table for scant income – into the cavernous home of the wealthy Park clan. The plan then, cruelly, leaves them homeless, having not been there to salvage what was in their sewer of a home when a biblical flood overtakes it.

“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all,” Song Kang-ho’s Kim Ki-taek tells his son when asked what the plan is going forward.

The domino effect that results from another invasive element having thrown the Kims’ lives into an even higher state of disarray than before is a bloody series of unfortunate events, one that leaves the Kim patriarch virtually imprisoned, his daughter dead and his son vowing to one day free him. “I made a fundamental plan…” he tells him in a message, and even before we see the best case scenario played out on the screen, “Parasite” has betrayed our yearning for catharsis. Joon-ho, after all, has just shown us where plans get people hoping to break out of the confines of systemic capitalism. Art has confronted reality.

More than perhaps any other shared characteristic, this decade’s standout movies often reflected onto us the inevitability of a reckoning—of recognizing systems and histories whose massive consequences have started to be magnified through the communicative avenues of a world that has never been more connected. Movies have always been conversation starters, but the medium takes on a different might when the conversation is everywhere, as the bullhorns of Twitter, acute polarization and slow erosion of privacy standards have ensured is the case this decade. And take on that power cinema has, in ways sometime subtle, in ways sometime extravagant and in ways almost always irrefutable. The line between fiction and non-fiction has never felt nimbler when it comes to the movies. Continue reading →

What 2018’s films taught me

For as long as they’ve existed, movies have been synonymous with entertainment. We sit down in the theater, $6.00 Coke and $7.50 popcorn in hand, with the expectation that we’ll be awed by memorable performances, transcendent storytelling and the latest razzle-dazzle in what special effects have to offer.

But the cinema is also a classroom, a place where we learn things about ourselves and the world around us. Directors, screenwriters, production designers, cinematographers, special effects teams—they’re all artists, yes. They’re also philosophers, psychologists and theorists; people who seek to bring messages through their medium. Like all artists, they aren’t creating something for the sake of creating something. Continue reading →

Stan Lee’s impact on someone who never opened a comic book

I had just turned 9 years old when Dad took me to see “Spider-Man 2” at an Indiana movie theater. It was the summer of 2004, and there was little foundation in my mind for what I could expect to marvel at on the big screen, other than the first Spidey movie and a tie-in computer game I spent some time playing a few years prior.

Of course, that didn’t stop me, nor millions of others, from having a hell of a moviegoing experience. In 2018 “Spider-Man 2” still a highlight of the genre—even though its arrival was still early in the era of the superhero movie, when Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t yet a part of the Hollywood lexicon.

It was also a movie that led me to an epiphany. Continue reading →

The Surgence of the Spring Movie Season

11 years ago, amid what society at large (including The Hollywood Sphere™) had for years deemed the “movie calendar’s graveyard shift,” a comic book movie burst onto the screen.

There were no superheroes in it. Six-packs, absolutely, but no genetically altered physiques housing superior, moral objectivity or superhuman wit. In other words, it would be another year before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character of Iron Man was about as familiar to the mainstream moviegoer as a contemporary Oscar contender released before March — aka, not very familiar. But, more on that later.

The movie I’m referring to is the uberviolent, uberlubricated “300.” The only still-relevant aspect a decade later is its (over)reliance on CGI as an innovated form of box office-busting, audience-driving weaponry.

(And no, I won’t hear your argument that Gerard “Sure I’ll Sign Up For Your Generic B-Movie Action Flick That Won’t Make More Than $30+ Mil Opening Weekend” Butler has remained relevant.)

(Lena Headey makes a strong case, though.)

Virtually transplanted for the screen from its comic book roots in a way that somehow didn’t constitute plagiarism, “300” transported audiences in a way few films had up to that point. More importantly, it transported them at a time when virtually any film of its kind didn’t dare to.

Continue reading →

Fish-men, dressmaking and peaches: The top 10 movies of 2017

With a few weeks left before what has quite loudly morphed into the most unpredictable Oscars in years, it’s finally time to take stock of what we had in 2017 at the cinema.

In brevi: It was an astounding dichotomy of auteurs operating – or continuing to operate – at the height of their powers (Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve) and first-time directors yielding surprise gems and excitement for the future of film (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele).

In a year that ended with Hollywood beginning to form a new identity – the result of which may not be evident on the big screen until at least 2019 – it also gave us much to cry, scream and ponder about in the theater.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the months following an incredibly epic and incredibly awkward Best Picture win by “Moonlight” – itself a eulogy to identity and the winding road it can personify itself as – some of 2017’s best movies featured heroes, villains and everyday characters grappling with theirs.

Sometimes it involved busting out a move at an impromptu dance party in Italy, other times it was shedding your identity for the entertainment of others.

And, at other times still, it involved fish sex. 2017 truly had it all.

Adding to the sea of similar pieces that represent closing a chapter and opening a new one more than anything of actual substance, here is this film critic’s top 10 films of the year. Continue reading →

Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater. Continue reading →

2017: Surprises and storylines so far in movies

Welcome to (almost) August.

Well, ok, in the real world. But in the parallel cinematic universe that mirrors our own, it’s probably more accurate to say we’re coming up on the end of April as far as the movie year goes, what with most of the year’s best films to come as the weather gets cooler.

Nonetheless, 2017 has been supremely interesting for movies so far.

We got a 2018 Best Picture dark horse contender almost a full year early in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Following a series of misfires, DC finally gave us a film that is both a critical darling and box office smash in Wonder Woman. After La La Land invigorated the musical last year, Edgar Wright reinvented it with Baby Driver. And, of course, Marvel Studios keeps doing Marvel Studios things. Continue reading →