There is an experimental ambient album called Everywhere at the End of Time by the Caretaker which takes the listener on a multi-stage journey through what is supposed to be the sounds of dementia. It is a truly devastating and terrifying view of the disease that I have never felt put into art until watching The Father. This film captures this disease in both subtle and unsubtle ways, putting emphasis on the confusion and frustration that comes with losing your memories and falling out of touch with everything and everyone around you. Anthony Hopkins delivers one of the season’s best performances, brilliantly capturing the highs and lows that come with someone suffering from dementia. Olivia Coleman also plays her role excellently, showing the pain that dementia causes for those who are witness to it. It is a brutal watch, one that had me holding back tears at many points, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Biopics about big political or civil rights leaders can be hit-or-miss, occasionally glossing over too many details or using someone’s image to overemphasize a contemporary message (we will get to one of these later). This film, thankfully, approaches the story of Fred Hampton from a unique angle, making him a supporting role to William O’Neal, an ex-con turned FBI informant who was tasked with getting close to Hampton and the Black Panthers. The framing works to not only capture a smaller, important era of Hampton’s life, but to capture it in a way where our main character is also viewing him as an outsider. On top of this, the film’s politics come so naturally here. We not only hear about the fight for liberation but there is an emphasis made to paint how the real fear for oppressors comes with class solidarity among different races. It also must be stated how phenomenal these performances are all around. Daniel Kaluuya gives career-best work as Fred Hampton, absolutely commanding each scene he is in, especially when it comes to his speech delivery. LaKeith Stanfield also deserves plenty of credit for the complexity of his character arc, which is ultimately the center of the film. While it comes off as a bit cold on occasion, and depending on your knowledge of Hampton going in you might not be learning much, the story is still thoroughly engaging and thoughtfully handled.
David Fincher is one of the greatest directors to ever do it and Mank is basically him flexing on that fact. Between the writing, sound design, costumes, sets, cinematography and score this truly does feel like a movie from the 1940s. And while from a technical standpoint it does nearly everything correct, there was still a bit of an emotional disconnect with me. The most obvious initial thought I had was that this is not actually about the making of Citizen Kane but instead a drama about industry and politics that served as the events which inspired Herman Mankiewicz to write the script. For the right person, this is an absolutely fascinating subject matter, and I would say it is the kind of story that I have grown to appreciate over time since my first watch. But it is a niche story and one that I can imagine many people having little to no interest in. But, based on the presentation alone, this is an achievement and yet another example of Fincher’s versatility as a director.
This is the kind of story that could have been really generic if not handled with such care. A Korean family moves to an Arkansas farm in the 1980s to start a new life for themselves. Not exactly anyone’s idea of “original” or “exciting,” yet Minari finds ways to tell this story in an engaging way while still capturing the understated beauty of its story. This is clearly a very personal story for writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and it comes across with how much heart is put in the characters here. Every member of the family fills a role and is going through some form of transition here and they are each given just enough screen time for you to connect with them. The performances are great all around nut it is particularly great to see Steven Yeun finally get a more commanding, mature leading role after all these years as a supporting actor. And Alan Kim is absolutely adorable as the son who is really our central character as the audience. We are following his journey growing up in a new environment and a lesser child actor would not have been able to capture that journey nearly as well. Just an all-around beautiful portrayal of family and the American dream and one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the nominees.
Watching Nomadland almost felt like watching a documentary about the life of nomadic people in America. Director Chloé Zhao, whose work I had been unfamiliar with before this, throws herself and Frances McDormand into the life of a nomad, going from location to location and interacting with actual nomadic people at actual campsites. This, mixed with some breathtaking cinematography, helps create a sense of intense realism. You might go into this thinking that moving around the country in a van could be fun, liberating experience but instead you see a brutal struggle to sustain an impoverished lifestyle. Especially in the midst of a pandemic which has taken so much from people in this country, it was hard to watch this and not think about many similar struggles people are continuing to have every day. Despite this bleak backdrop, Zhao and McDormand do plenty of work to add some levity here, especially McDormand whose big personality shines through even the darker moments of the story. I always love seeing new sides of my country, for better or for worse, and this is definitely the most immersive experience I could have asked for into this lifestyle and gives a needed voice to those who choose to live it.
Promising Young Woman
There are few movies from the last year that engaged me in the same way as Promising Young Woman, which I will disclaim now is likely my favorite film of 2020. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell’s dark revenge story will undoubtedly cause much debate about the topics of sexual assault, gender dynamics and responsibility. These topics are not presented in a particularly subtle way here, I would actually argue not much about this film is subtle to begin with, but how it goes about crafting this story is impressive, especially for a debut film. The way Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra goes about her revenge, and the ultimate arc she goes through as a character by the end, is captivating. You spend much of the film wondering which direction it is going to turn and how far it will decide to push itself and in the end I think it handles these sensitive topics in a more than appropriate way. Fennell’s script is full of colorful characters in a twisted story that gives them all plenty of purpose and room to shine. I have not stopped thinking about it for months and will be rooting for it to at least pick up some deserved wins for Mulligan and screenplay.
Sound of Metal
And if Promising Young Woman were to be my favorite of 2020, Sound of Metal would be right behind it. The initial plot of a heavy-metal drummer losing his hearing is terrifying enough, but this film is much more than a portrayal of hearing loss. It is really an incredibly human story of dependency and acceptance. Riz Ahmed gives arguably the best performance of the year as Ruben, who spends the film learning how to manage his deafness and move his life forward with it. Ahmed is on screen nearly every second of the film, making him the central emotional weight of each scene, a challenge that Ahmed rises to at every opportunity. There also needs to be some acknowledgement of Paul Raci’s performance as the person who runs the deaf community Ruben relocates to. It is a deep empathetic role, where he uses his own deafness to connect to Ruben’s struggle and stands as a comforting, guiding hand through the exhausting process of grief and acceptance. The sound design here is also insanely immersive, and made me wish I was able to see this in a theater. As great as Ahmed’s acting is, being able to hear the film from his perspective, with all the detailed distortion and emptiness included, only adds to the sympathy you have with the character. It is a difficult ride to sit through but an ultimately cathartic watch that rewards those who make it through.
Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin certainly knows how to do a biopic, he wrote arguably one of the best of all time with The Social Network. That being said, Trial of the Chicago 7 did leave a bit to be desired for me. Having done some research on the events of the film and the character within it, I am comfortable saying there were plenty of moments that were not seized on in this script, which is an engaging yet generic retelling of the events here. The characters are all entertaining and the actors all do phenomenal work, but the actual plot points are all fairly basic and the story itself leaves more to be desired than it should. And as smart as Sorkin can be, it is painfully obvious at times that he is using the historical events of the film to draw parallels to today. This is obviously not something I am against in principle, but the execution here is far too obvious at times, especially the end which is embarrassingly cheesy. The road to that cheesy ending is still decently executed though, the editing in particular is outstanding and the riot scenes are thrilling to watch in the moment. Far from a bad movie, but definitely one that had much more potential behind it.
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