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Losing Time in Movies

By Chuck Wilson

Back in March, in the surreal new Covid world, movies intended for release in theaters began arriving in homes via Video on Demand. Devoted movie fans could rent new films from iTunes or Amazon or cable On Demand … but should they? Audiences knew what they’d be getting if they blew $20 on Trolls World Tour but did they want to risk six or eight bucks or more on a low-budget indie or arthouse film?

There weren’t many reviews to go by. Left and right, film critics were being furloughed, or worse, their newspapers and websites shuttered forever. It was crushing that so many film voices were being silenced at the exact moment movie audiences needed them most. But the L.A. Weekly was still here (somehow). Maybe we could use that space to help people figure out what to watch. And so it was that a smaller but no less passionate team of movie lovers including myself, began reviewing new movies for this publication. The idea was to be upbeat and focus on the good stuff. It was our version of rolling bandages.

These days, with the Oscars on the far horizon, film critic inboxes are brimming with screening links – that’s true privilege – but as good as the new stuff is, I find myself dwelling on the movies I reviewed in those first few months of Covid. Why is that?

Life was heightened then, and a movie like Swallow had a strangeness that seemed true to our newly weird moment, whereas the comedy Straight Up, so brilliantly precise in its point of view, simply made me happy. I live alone (with my dog Janey) and that movie made me smile out loud. I watched it in the middle of the night, I remember, and I was so grateful. Time and Residue both showed me worlds I thought I knew but didn’t and did so in ways that altered my perception of how memory both tricks and sustains us – a good lesson in this year of lost time. Here are the 10 movies from among those I reviewed in 2020 that mean a lot to me. They carried me along. They’re my bubble.

Chuck Wilson’s Top 10 2020 Movies:

  1. Driveways
  2. Time
  3. The Truth
  4. Swallow
  5. Residue
  6. Straight Up
  7. My Dog Stupid
  8. Crip Camp
  9. The 24th
  10. River City Drumbeat

DRIVEWAYS (Film Rise)

Arthouse at Home

By Asher Luberto

It was a strange year for movies. With cinemas opening and closing due to COVID-19 restrictions and a release schedule that kept shifting to match, it was hard to keep track of which movies actually came out this year. The good news: plenty of films did come out this year, and many of them would have been extraordinary achievements in any movie season.

In fact, 2020 was a lot like an arthouse. It didn’t give us the James Bond’s and Black Widow’s of the world, or any blockbuster that would have played at AMC for three-straight-months. But it did offer smaller movies – films that otherwise might have been lost among glitzier releases – and gave them a spotlight. In terms of accessibility and quality, it was a year of riches, indies, documentaries and period pieces.

The best of those was Martin Eden, director Pietro Marcello’s personal, astonishingly vivid WWII epic. It was shot to look like a Bertolluci film, which transcended mimicry and created an intensely pleasurable experience. Another epic that had people talking was Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, starring Anya Taylor Joy, Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy. It turned out to be one the biggest releases of the year, and was as moving as it was colorful (and it was plenty colorful). Read my take on this film and more in this Summer movie survey.

But they say size doesn’t matter, and this time, that’s actually true. My year began with a pair of heartwarming gems: Driveways, starring Brian Dennehy in his final role, and Crip Camp, a documentary about a summer camp for the disabled. One of my favorite viewing experiences this year, the latter was the one film I was glad I watched at home instead of at a theater, only because theaters aren’t stocked with tissues.

Which is not to say that I didn’t see my share of tear-jerkers at home, or that Hulu, Netflix and other streaming services didn’t keep the content from pouring in. From HBO to Quibi, Disney+ to Apple TV, it almost seemed like there were more streaming platforms being released than actual movies, which brought up a few questions. Will there be more? Will they make money? Will streaming services take over the theatrical experience?

What’s certain is good, bad and indifferent movies will continue to be exhibited, one way or another, and this year wasn’t any different. The bad stuff stunk; the good stuff delighted. Gunda, Vitalina Verela and Fire Will Come delivered hypnotic, meditative chills, while feel-good movies delivered light, ebullient thrills. There’s almost too many to name here: Hamilton, Wolfwalkers, Boys State, Lovers Rock, American Utopia, The Climb, The Trial of Chicago 7, Dick Johnson is Dead and Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon were all happy surprises.

And here are a few more surprises: You won’t find Dear Santa on anyone else’s list, but I found the documentary to be as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. Andy Samberg gave a career-best performance as Bill Murray 2.0 in Palm Springs and Ninian Doff made a memorable directorial debut with Get Duked! And then there’s Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow up to the 2006 Borat. It didn’t make my list, but like 2020’s release slate as a whole, it’s strange, confusing and ultimately rewarding.

Asher Luberto’s Top 10 2020 Movies:

  1. Martin Eden
  2. Nomadland
  3. Lovers Rock
  4. Wolfwalkers
  5. Minari
  6. Crip Camp
  7. Driveways
  8. Fire Will Come
  9. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
  10. Dear Santa/Get Duked!

THE NEST (IFC Films)

Searching for Identity on Film

By Chad Byrnes

As we all know, it’s been a dark and pretty depressing year. Thanks to this unexpected and rampant pandemic, which pulled humanity under its colossal tide like something out of a bad Michael Bay movie, we’ve been forced to re-calibrate how we live and how we entertain ourselves. On the positive side, we’re all in the same boat.

Whether cooped up in a mansion or a single apartment, we’re all getting take-out, playing board games, stupidly gawking out the window like Jack Torrance in The Shining and streaming lots of movies (old and new). You can say that this pandemic has been the great equalizer – not only on a human level but cinematically as well. In normal times, most of us would be throwing down twenty bucks to see a new high-octane flick in the theaters. Not this year. Now, with the simple flick of a button, we can watch new big-budget flicks and smaller, more personal films on the same TV. There they stand, side by side, ready to be screened for a small fee- a little indie gem and a gargantuan studio flick. You can’t even find that kind of variety at your local Arclight. Now, independent films, which usually have a lifespan of two days in the theaters are rubbing elbows with the big boys. Apparently, it took a pandemic to create a fair playing field in the cinematic market. Let’s delve into them both.

This year’s best movies came in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are indie film festival favorites. A couple of them have major budgets and big stars. Some were even produced by major streaming services (a trend we better get used to). Differences aside, they all have one thing in common: they reflect the tumultuous world we live in. Cinema (good cinema) remains the definitive artform for examining our modern sociological history, warts and all, and this year’s movies were no exception.

Thematically, my favorite films were concerned with identity. Is it a coincidence that they speak to this subject during a time when the country has been undergoing its own identity crisis? Perhaps. Whether it’s Brandon Cronenberg’s foray into a future where we can slip into our enemies’ skin to reverse corporate interests in his horror/sci-fi masterpiece, Possessor, or Amazon Prime’s The Sound of Metal, in which a drummer must completely shed his old persona in order to co-exist with an unexpected disability.  Consider Sean Durkin’s long awaited second feature, The Nest, where a family must be uprooted and dropped into unfamiliar territory- in this case a castle in England- in order to see the cracks in their carefully crafted armor.

There was The Invisible Man‘s revisionist approach to wrestling the consequences of trying to escape your old life; and HBO’s Bad Education, with a perfectly gleaned Hugh Jackman as a smiley superintendent at the local high school who’s been secretly embezzling millions. Even my favorite music documentary of the year, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, is about the band’s struggle to change its identity as each decade threatens to invalidate them.

Some of my top movies this year were also centered on the worlds protagonists live in and how these realms threaten their personas. David Fincher’s Mank dealt with maintaining one’s political and artistic character in the belly of the old Hollywood system. Or consider Julia Garner’s turn in The Assistant or Rachel Brosnahan’s fierce performance in I’m Your Woman. Although different story-wise, both are concerned with women locked in systems (corporate and criminal, respectively) where they’re forced to either change their values or adhere to a new set of rules. Finally, the new Paul Greengrass western, News of the World, features a withered Tom Hanks and a young immigrant (Helena Zengel) as they travel across a country that’s been decimated by opposing views and a Civil War. This has been a tough year, last four years really. It got harder with the pandemic, but the year’s films showcased the kind of human resilience and strength that gave us hope we’d get through it.

Chad Byrnes’ Top 10 2020 Movies:

  1. The Nest
  2. The Sound of Metal
  3. News of the World
  4. Mank
  5. Possessor
  6. I’m Your Woman
  7. The Assistant
  8. Bad Education
  9. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
  10. The Invisible Man

THE MANDALORIAN (Disney+)

The Year of the Binge

By Erin Maxwell

2020 was the year that small screen entertainment became a lifeline to the masses. As folks were forced to stay indoors due to a pandemic, murder hornets, Big Foot sightings, UFOs, raging wild fires, and an election that refused to end, people sought comfort in the warming light of their televisions. As movie theaters remained empty for the better part of the year, streaming services became the escape everyone turned to, and thus got the bounty of attention in a weird-ass year.

2020 was the year of the streaming service. It became a window into life and an escape route from reality. It offered original movies, amazing series and mind-boggling bizarre documentaries. And while Netflix was the big winner with a Tiger’s share of programming, every service got a chance to shine in a year when it seemed every single program was mandatory viewing … except Quibi.

The second season of Disney+’s The Mandalorian was not only some of the best television of the year (if not the decade), but it managed to revive an entire franchise. In addition to reinvigorating the Star Wars universe, it also brought beloved fan favorite characters into a new continuity while proving that event television can still exist in a binging world. The weekly series gave people something to look forward to each week other than the mounting horrors of the outside world, and the finale offered a reason to stand up and cheer for.

The final season of Schitt’s Creek was another reason to smile as it indoctrinated American audiences with the comedic escape Canadians have been turning to for six seasons. The fish-out-of-water cliche was elevated thanks to great writing, hilarious acting turns, one hell of a cast and plenty of heart. The Daniel and Eugene Levy-created comedy was rightfully celebrated at the Emmy’s as it gave Netflix audiences a reason to laugh again.

Netflix’s limited series The Queen’s Gambit was able to reinvent the classic sports movie by giving it a Mad Men sense of style and charismatic leading lady. The story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon managed to avoid a Lifetime-movie template by creating a compelling character-driven story that was truly one of the very best of the year.

2020 was also the year of the dark superhero tale. While 2019 offered HBO’s critically-acclaimed Watchmen, 2020 offered second seasons of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy, Amazon Prime’s The Boys, and HBO Max’s Doom Patrol, all of which excelled from their freshman outings to become social-conscience programming about fuck-ups with super powers. While it seems each property is tromping on well-worn, subversive superhero ground, they all work in their own unique way.

And finally, who the hell expected Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness to be just the thing we all needed to help us through the early days of the pandemic? The strange story of Joe Exotic and his rivalry with leopard lover Carole Baskin was just the perfect amount of insanity needed to make a stay-at-home order seem a little less bonkers. The deranged dealings of exotic animal dealers and big cat owners was told with some incredibly crafted storytelling making its bat-shit insane true story the must-binge distraction of the year.

Erin Maxwell’s Top 10 2020 TV (series):

  1. The Mandalorian
  2. What We Do In the Shadows
  3. Unorthodox
  4. The Queen’s Gambit
  5. Doom Patrol
  6. The Boys
  7. The Flight Attendant
  8. Schitt’s Creek
  9. The Crown
  10. Big Mouth/ I May Destroy You

DA 5 BLOODS (Netflix © 2020)

Looking Back & Moving Forward

By Lina Lecaro

Movie-watching became more personal than ever following Covid-driven theater closures, which forced us to screen everything at home. And while the return of the drive-in became an option for those of us who craved a semi-communal entertainment experience, seeing movies -and rolling through “drive-thru” event pivots in general- ultimately remained more of an old school novelty than a viable alternative to the multiplex/party/concert experience.

Despite the collective cabin fever we all felt, there was just so much to choose from at home, with niche streaming services for every taste popping up left and right. My attitude towards music, film and TV was all the same- more often than not, I revisited older stuff that brought good vibes and memories of a simpler time. My Spotify Year in Review had very little to do with 2020, and in terms of what I streamed TV and film-wise, I found myself scrolling through Pluto and Peacock for older shows and Shudder for horror gems quite a bit.

Still, I was thankful for binge-worthy newer series like The Queen’s Gambit, Ratched, Dead To Me and Tiger King on Netflix, Dave on FX, the Curb Your Enthusiasm return on HBO, Vida on Starz (which I’m still livid was canceled when we need authentic Latin queer voices on screen more than ever) and Drag Race (always).  I even got into some network TV this year including the tearjerker This Is Us on NBC and flashbacky fun of The Goldbergs on NBC. I loved almost everything Blumhouse produced for streaming TV too.

But if I’m honest, more often than not, I was glued to the news networks: MSNBC (The Rachel Maddow Show was like an end of the day -every day- savior amidst all the political insanity this year), CNN (Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo feel like family at this point) and even FOX (just to try and understand how the other side sees things… I still don’t).

In terms of full length films, my favorites were documentaries about music, politics and history, but there were a few fictional theatrical faves in the mix too, and I was honored to interview the people behind three of them for the Weekly: Autumn de Wilde on Emma, Spike Lee advancing Da 5 Bloods and Nicolas Cage about Color Out of Space.

I’m looking forward to more in 2021. So much so that I bit the bullet and subscribed to HBO Max after they announced WarnerMedia’s decision to release every 2021 movie on the channel. I also wanted to see Wonder Woman for Christmas, and while it wasn’t all that wonderful I am really, really hoping that this year will be, at least a little. One thing is for sure, movies and TV shows will be there even if it’s not, and the L.A. Weekly team here will continue to celebrate and lament with you about it all either way.

Lina Lecaro’s Top 10 2020 Movies:

  1. Da 5 Bloods
    2. Cuties
    3. Miss Americana
    4. Hillary
    5. The Go-Gos
    6. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
    7. Emma
    8. The Beastie Boys
    9. Color Out of Space
    10. Stardust

Lina Lecaro’s Top 10 2020 TV (series):

  1. Vida
  2. Dave
  3. The Queen’s Gambit
  4. Dead To Me
  5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
  6. This Is Us
  7. The Goldberg’s
  8. RuPaul’s Drag Race
  9. We’re Here
  10. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
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