2020 Review

4 Jan

2020 Review

By Tanner Smith

Well, it’s that time of year again! And even though I haven’t been able to see critically praised latecomers such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” (being released to the general moviegoing public February 2021), I figure it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: the year-end list. (Btw, am I the only one who thinks it’s unfair that critics get screeners in 2020 so they can put those films on their lists, while other movie buffs like me have to wait until the following year to see them?)

So, spoiler alert, neither “Nomadland” nor “Minari” will appear on this list…I’m sure that’s the only thing about 2020 I have to gripe about!

It’s been a crazy year for sure, and I do indeed miss movie theaters. But when I enjoy a first-rate work like the many I’ve seen via streaming services from the comfort of my own home these last several months, I take what I can get. (The times, they are a-changin’…so, up yours, Oscars!)

Also, since this was a very strange year, it’s only fitting that this is a very strange list. For example, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (one of the best-reviewed films of 2020) is not on my list (though I do admire it quite a bit)…but Impractical Jokers: The Movie (NOT one of the best-reviewed films of 2020) is. And all respect to fine films that were also critically acclaimed, such as First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, Mank, Driveways, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things…they just weren’t among my personal favorites of 2020. But I’ll try my best to explain my choices for my top 20 favorite films of 2020.

In honor of each of these truly fine films, whichever selection is available exclusively for a particular channel, I will acknowledge that very channel. Let’s begin with my honorable mentions: Tigertail (Netflix), Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix), The Rental, On the Rocks (Apple+ TV), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix), The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO Max), The Midnight Sky (Netflix), Let Them All Talk (HBO Max), The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime), The Half of It (Netflix), Horse Girl (Netflix), Banana Split, and Run (Hulu).

So, here we go: my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2020!

20. All the Bright Places (Netflix)

This year, we had the fourth season of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”–we’re already past the point where most of us are thinking that these serious teenage issues such as depression and suicide are being exploited for profit. But Brett Haley’s Netflix film “All the Bright Places” doesn’t feel manipulative or exploitative in the slightest–it feels like it was made by people who genuinely wanted to help other people.

19. Come As You Are

I have a conflicting relationship with this film, about three disabled people hitting the road to get laid. I loved “Come As You Are” when I first saw it…then I saw the outraged comments from people who were offended that the three lead actors were able-bodied in real life. On the one hand, I get it–there are a lot of disabled actors who would love the opportunity to star in a feature film. On the other hand, the movie is still entertaining and funny and heartfelt and very well-acted, so why not let it be?

18. Impractical Jokers: The Movie

And here we are…the black sheep of the critical establishment, as I see it. Maybe I knew I was going to like “Impractical Jokers: The Movie” before I even saw it–I am a big fan of the TruTV series “Impractical Jokers,” the obvious basis for this uneven but still very entertaining, hilarious romp. There’s still the same charm to the way these four lovable doofuses embarrass each other with one outrageous challenge after another. And I will not lie to myself or to you about my favorite films of the year, so I was going to make room for it on this list!

17. Stargirl (Disney+)

Director/co-writer Julia Hart and her co-writer/co-producer Jordan Horowitz (the husband-and-wife team responsible for wonderful indie fare such as Miss Stevens and Fast Color) definitely did not disappoint with their first mainstream-studio project. Maybe Disney trusted their indie-based collective creativity and/or maybe Disney wanted some low-key character pieces for their streaming service Disney+ (which no one knew would be anything at the time). Whatever the case, I didn’t expect to find a new coming-of-age high-school movie on the same level as John Hughes’ best-known works or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Love, Simon” brought to me by Disney. But it’s been that kind of strange year. 

16. Saint Frances

I’m always going to have a soft spot for indie dramedies written by the lead actor–the resulting passion that comes through brings something more to admire. Cheers to Kelly O’Sullivan, who beautifully stars as an aimless, underachieving 34-year-old who takes a nannying job for a precocious 6-year-old while also going through a personal crisis. And another cheers to O’Sullivan, who also wrote the wonderfully balanced (both funny and endearing) screenplay.

15. Mr. Jones

This is a film not enough people have been talking about. “Mr. Jones” is a film set in 1933 about a reporter who intends to interview Joseph Stalin to learn more about the Soviet Union’s plans…and gains more knowledge than he expected. The scenes set in Moscow are especially upsetting and powerful. I doubt I’ll forget this film anytime soon.

14. The Assistant

Very rarely have I felt such hatred and fear for an unseen movie monster. Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” is not simply an attack on horrific business moguls (such as Harvey Weinstein, who is very clearly the inspiration for this subject)–it’s a warning that the behavior will eventually be sought out. (And if anybody knows everything, it’s the assistants.)

13. The King of Staten Island

What I said about “Saint Frances,” about I especially carry a special place in my heart for indie dramedies written by the lead actor, also applies to mainstream dramedies as well–especially if they have help from the modern king of Hollywood comedy-dramas, Judd Apatow. Director Apatow teamed up with “SNL’s” Pete Davidson to tell a semi-autobiographical story of Davidson still coming to terms with his father’s death long after his passing. As with many of Apatow’s work, “The King of Staten Island” is as deeply moving as it is downright hilarious.

Also, it’s nice to know that the Impractical Jokers aren’t the only funnymen from Staten Island to make this list. (Though, I think they will argue with Davidson as to who is truly the “king of Staten Island.”)

12. I’m Your Woman (Amazon Prime)

Yes, ANOTHER Julia Hart & Jordan Horowitz film came to us in 2020 and I’m glad to say I have both this and “Stargirl” on this list! “I’m Your Woman” isn’t the type of gangster movie to fuel the screen with tons of violence and viscera to further enforce the message that these people are scum. Instead, it’s something more along the line of what would happen if we could see “Goodfellas” through the perspective of Maria Hill, mobster wife. Add a good dose of a John Cassavetes film or Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and “I’m Your Woman” is an engaging drama/thriller about how our lead (played very well by Rachel Brosnahan) reacts to everything she learns, the people she meets along the way, and the possibility of her starting a new life (if she can get out of this messy situation alive).

11. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

The late Chadwick Boseman excelled as the MCU’s Black Panther, but his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” based on the August Wilson play, is further evidence that he was such an innovative talent that will truly be missed. Even with that aside (which isn’t easy to imagine), this is a wonderful film. Its straightforward approach to the Mother of Blues (Viola Davis, also wonderful) and her band recording in a studio in 1920s Chicago reminded me of the narrative frankness of George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” And I mean that in the best possible way.

10. Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime)

Riz Ahmed turns in a nomination-worthy performance as Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing, falls in with a deaf community, and struggles to accept his situation. What I like most about “Sound of Metal,” outside of I had never seen this kind of story before, is the brilliantly clever way it uses its sound editing/design to help us further understand what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing. This is a classic example of a movie presented as what the late film critic Roger Ebert used to call an “empathy machine.”

9. Yes, God, Yes

Here’s an indie dramedy about a devout Catholic teenage girl who discovers porn and becomes obsessed while questioning everything. The idea for “Yes, God, Yes” easily could have been made as a dopey laugh-riot comedy from Hollywood, but the way writer-director Karen Maine handles it in this much lower-key independent film is a lot sweeter and more sincere, making for a delightful watch.

8. Hamilton (Disney+)

OK, this one would have been great to see on the big screen…or better yet, live on stage. But you take what you can get. There’s still a great time to be had here.

7. Palm Springs (Hulu)

“Palm Springs” is such a refreshing, original take on the “Groundhog Day” formula, with a lot of laughs and a good heart to it too. What’s better than a comedy that makes you laugh? A comedy that makes you feel. And I felt everything I was supposed to feel for the central pair of Andy Samberg and Cristin Miliotti. Side-note: Samberg’s choreographed dance scene has to be a highlight in physical comedy.

6. Bad Education (HBO)

I watched Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” many times during the lockdown; it’s only gotten more entertaining each time. For a while there, this dark satirical look at the largest embezzlement scandal in public school history was my favorite film of 2020. I love the writing, directing, and especially the acting–for instance, this is definitely some of Hugh Jackman’s greatest acting work.

5. I Used to Go Here

I truly love this film. I’ve probably seen Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here” 7-8 times since its initial release on-demand this past August. Every reviewer has that one personal entry that hardly anyone one else will celebrate in their year-end lists; this one is mine. I love how this small-scale indie “dramedy” makes me feel each time I watch it. I love Gillian Jacobs’ character’s journey, I love her discovery, I love her encounters with everyone she meets along the way, and by the end, I love her. God bless this little film.

4. Spontaneous

You bet I’m including this one! This dark comedy about exploding teens is one of the funniest AND most endearing films I saw all year. It also contains the best ending I’ve seen all year.

3. The Invisible Man

The horror film genre is best used for allegorical purposes. This horror film is as effective in its “gaslighting” commentary as it is tense and entertaining. It takes a lot of talent to make an invisible stalker work the “chill” factor, and director Leigh Whannell has pulled it off–this film gave me CHILLS. Side-note: this was the last great film I saw in a theater.

2. David Byrne’s American Utopia (HBO Max)

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is one of the most joyous entertainments I’ve seen in a while. David Byrne and director Spike Lee have crafted a marvelous, flat-out entertaining, even bitingly blunt experience about both celebrating art and using it to make a statement. And it definitely worked for this Talking Heads fan!

And my personal favorite film of this crazy mess of a year is…

  1. Soul (Disney+)

Big screen, small screen, wherever I would’ve ended up seeing it, doesn’t matter. I still would have called it my favorite film of the year. Disney & Pixar have done it again, and I rank this wonderfully creative, ingenious, moving treasure among one of their best. But probably more importantly, I love what it has to say about living life. Just because you found your dream job doesn’t mean you found your passion. There’s a lovely shade of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to complete this film which is all about reexamining your life. And let’s be honest…that’s exactly what we needed to close out 2020.

I always love this time of year. And even in a messy year such as this, we can still get good movies–it’s just a matter of where you find them.

Love, Victor (Limited Series) (2020)

11 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Victor” is a series available exclusively on Hulu. (I usually don’t review series, but whatever–here I go…)

This is a sequel/spin-off to the hit teen film “Love, Simon.” When I first saw “Love, Simon,” I liked it fine. But after seeing it again (and a few more times since then), I celebrate it for the game-changing and beautiful gem that it is–it’s a wonderful film.

For those who don’t know, “Love, Simon” was about a closeted gay high-school kid (named Simon) who searched for his soulmate while finding the courage to tell his family and friends his secret. I did mention in my original review that Simon had it easier than most gay teens who have a tougher time with coming out of the closet than he did, especially since he had understanding, sympathetic family & friends and even the support of the entire school. Though, when you think about it, John Hughes movies weren’t any grittier.

(2018, the year “Love, Simon” was released, did give us two grittier films about the subject: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased,” the latter of which ended up on my year-end list.)

Anyway, now we have the 10-episode series “Love, Victor,” about a Latino teen (named Victor) who goes to the same high school as Simon did. Simon and his boyfriend Bram are now in college in NYC, but the high school in Atlanta is still looking back on the events of “Love, Simon,” finding inspiration in Simon’s act of courage. Well, Victor (played by Michael Cimino) isn’t so inspired–in fact, he even emails to Simon, “Screw you for having the world’s most perfect, accepting parents, the world’s most supportive friends. Because for some of us, it’s not that easy.”

He’s right.

Victor is either unsure about his sexuality or just doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but he feels that if he comes out about it, it will hit his religious parents hard. And the parents (and his sister Pilar) are going through enough right now, especially after the move from Texas. He tries to put his focus on other people, including his new high-school friends such as his annoying geeky buddy Felix (Anthony Turpel), the popular rich girl Mia (Rachel Hilson) who connects with Victor, and the handsome (and gay) Benji (George Sear), whom Victor has a crush on, thus complicating things with Mia, who doesn’t know that Victor is struggling with his sexual orientation.

Victor can only trust Simon as they correspond through email back and forth. (And yes, Simon, played by Nick Robinson who was also a producer for this series, does narrate numerous parts of all 10 episodes as well as make a brief but important appearance in one of the later episodes.) Simon knows that Victor’s deal isn’t the same as his own, but he still finds ways to help inspire him to keep moving forward.

Victor is a likable lead and is played very well by Cimino, but I was surprised (more than I should have been, considering it’s a 10-episode series) to find room for development amongst the other characters. Felix has his own fling with a popular girl who would rather have their relationship kept secret. Benji has a boyfriend but still harbors some feelings for Victor, which results in an awkward encounter when he invites him on a road trip later. We find out more about the parents and why they uprooted the whole family to start a new life. Victor’s sister Pilar (Isabella Fierra) slowly but surely finds ways to help other people besides herself.

And then there’s Mia, who I think is the most interesting character in the series. Played wonderfully by Rachel Hilson, Mia has to go through A LOT. First of all, her father brings home a new woman and is thinking seriously about a future with her–Mia still isn’t over her mother abandoning them. Secondly, she is in love with Victor and they do start a romance, but she doesn’t understand why Victor’s interests in her seem to turn on and off at random. That’s the most moving part of the whole series to me–when you love someone who knows they can’t love you back in the same way, isn’t that sad? And Victor, who does care for Mia, wants to tell her the truth but doesn’t want to hurt her any further than she’s already been hurt…but that just hurts her more, sadly.

All 10 episodes are solid and wonderfully written, with one character development as interesting as the next. If I had to pick my least favorite one, it’d probably be episode 8, in which many of our side characters are brought together for a little “Breakfast Club” homage (right down to one of them thrusting his arm into the air)–that felt a little forced to me.

“Love, Victor” will most likely have a second season (or at least, that’s the hope for the creators–the series ends on a cliffhanger). I’ll definitely be interested in seeing what happens with Victor, his family, Mia, Benji, Felix, and others in the future. It’s a solid series.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

7 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” was a Broadway show that was a modified version of David (formerly of The Talking Heads) Byrne’s “American Utopia” album, and this HBO film is a live recording of the performance. It includes many of Byrne’s solo singles and also a few Talking Heads songs like “Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Road to Nowhere” (my favorite Talking Heads song)–so, being the Talking Heads fan that I am, I checked out the film on HBO Max.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is one of my favorite films of the year.

The fact that this concert film was directed by Spike Lee may shock you at first, but there’s a number involving a powerful cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which is updated with tragic current events (a trademark Lee-ism). This happens late in the film, and it made me think back to what I had seen prior–I had been having so much fun watching this incredible performance, I didn’t have time to think about how much more it is than “just a concert film.”

We got David Byrne, who is pushing 70 by now and still has everything that made him famous to begin with long ago. We got his backup band, who are all dressed in the same grey wardrobe and playing their instruments live (most of it is percussion, with a couple of basses here or there–Byrne wants to emphasize that the songs are performed live). We have all these different styles of songs, which is no surprise to anyone who’s a fan of Byrne and/or Talking Heads. We have all these different camera positions/movements that might even make the makers behind the “Hamilton” film envious. And we have all these topics such as human connection, the importance of voting, climate change, immigration, and, as I implied above, police brutality towards African-Americans. What does it all amount to in this film? I think it all represents connection through art, at which both Byrne and Lee excel. We admire and appreciate the hard work that was put into the art by the artists and we come away from it feeling somewhat enlightened by it.

But I don’t want to make “David Byrne’s American Utopia” sound so serious that people who are exhausted by the state of the world won’t get a kick out of it, because it truly is A TON OF FUN. I think anyone who is down or depressed before streaming this film on HBO Max will smile at least once or twice or about 10 times by the end of its hour and 45 minutes of running time. Byrne and the band are clearly having a great time and they want to share that great time with us–they even dance with the audience in the final number, and everyone’s just up and dancing and having loads of fun!

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is such a joyous entertainment that I cannot recommend enough, and it’s going to earn a high ranking on my year-end list for sure.

Yes, God, Yes (2020)

3 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For every high-school teenager’s sexual awakening, there’s a movie made to exploit it for broad comedic purposes. But there’s a film that handles it differently. While there are funny moments in it, it’s a surprise to see that it’s handled very delicately. It’s a sweet and sincere little indie gem that knows how difficult it can be if you’re not sure about whether or not what you’re feeling is good or bad.

The film’s title… “Yes, God, Yes.” OK, it doesn’t sound very delicate, but trust me when I say this film, about a sexually-awakened teen, takes teens more seriously than others.

Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame is 25 years old and probably going to play high-school-aged characters until she’s 35-40. She absolutely shines here as naive, innocent 16-year-old Alice, who is sexually inexperienced–that’s why when there’s a rumor spreading in the halls of her strict Midwestern co-ed Catholic high school that she performed a sexual act for a male classmate, she has no idea what anyone is talking about. (It’s not true–it’s just a rumor.)

A funny running joke is she quietly tries to figure out what “tossing the salad” means and she doesn’t get valid answers until near the end. I should also mention that this film takes place in fall 2000, so she doesn’t have a smartphone to give her a proper definition of the term.

Yep–2000. Alice goes on AOL chat rooms. She has a contraband cellphone that she mostly uses to play that addicting “snake” game we all remember. And she watches “Titanic” on VHS–actually, to be specific, she watches the making-love scene of “Titanic” and rewinds it again because she’s so fascinated by it.

While in one of the chat rooms, she comes across provocative photos of a couple having sex. This leads her to discover masturbation for the first time–she’s surprised to learn the effect of it and even more surprised that she enjoys it.

But she’s brought up to believe that it’s a sin. In school, she’s taught that any sort of sexual activity outside of marriage is punishable by eternal damnation. She doesn’t know what to think of everything she’s discovering except that she’s curious about it. When the rumor that she hooked up with classmate Wade (Parker Wierling) gets her slut-shamed, she seeks to redeem herself by attending a school camping retreat that she hopes will put her back on a pathway to righteousness. But while she’s there, she learns more ways of pleasuring herself, develops a crush on hunky senior Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), and learns something about a seemingly angelic senior (Alisha Boe) and even about hip, 30something priest Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) that has her asking even more questions.

By the way, if you’re wondering, none of the scenes in which Alice practices masturbation are portrayed in graphic fashion. Writer-director Karen Maine, who wrote the film as a semi-autobiographical account of her own experience as a youth, cares more about how she feels rather than what she feels, which is a huge difference and makes the film all the more refreshing for it.

I’m not sure how Catholics would take to this material, but I’m a Christian and I found “Yes, God, Yes” to be smart, engaging, and quite funny–especially when Alice visits a nearby bar and has a heart-to-heart with lapsed-Catholic lesbian (Susan Blackwell, wonderful), who teaches her more valuable life lessons than any of her teachers/mentors had attempted. It leads to a wonderful scene near the end in which Alice gives a speech (it’s not forced–everyone has to express themselves at this retreat) about how we shouldn’t feel the need to hide who we are, because Jesus himself would want everyone to treat each other with respect and honesty.

And that about sums it up.

Side-note: This may or may not be an odd aspect to praise about a film, but I admire that this film is only 77 minutes long (including credits). It’s as long as it needed to be, and I don’t know why certain other films feel the need to be overlong.

Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Charlie Plummer is one of my favorite young actors working today. He has a certain innocence and world-weariness to himself that comes through in each role he plays, and it’s always interesting to see him work because of that. In 2018, he delivered an excellent performance as my favorite character of the year: Charley in Lean On Pete. In 2019, he was the lead in the Hulu dramatic limited series “Looking for Alaska” (based on the John Green novel). And just a couple of months ago, in October 2020, he gave another truly impressive performance in Spontaneous. Now, here in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” he plays probably his most challenging role to date. He’s up to the challenge.

In the film, based on the award-winning novel by Julia Walton, Plummer plays Adam Petrazelli, a nice teenage boy with a potential future in culinary arts…who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He hallucinates terrifying situations in which rooms are filled with blackness and/or a flaming inferno, has imaginary friends including a heavyset bodyguard ready to pounce on anyone who comes near him, and is often derided by a tormenting disembodied bass-tone voice that always seems to be with him. Adam’s inner demons become all too real to him, which leads to consequences in trying to escape them–one of which results in his school friend getting severely burned in chemistry class and Adam getting expelled for his own good.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is a mainstream-friendly teen movie similar to John Hughes’ movies, Love, Simon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in that while it plays it safe with a serious issue, it still does a service to it while also being a charming, likable, entertaining film with appealing characters and a worthy message.

That being said, I’m not sure that Adam’s invisible friends (which include a hippie girl, the aforementioned bodyguard, and a horny-best-friend type) who come and go in Adam’s life are necessarily an accurate representation of what it means to live with schizophrenia (they mostly serve as comic relief)–but they’re not overly exaggerated that they lose the respect the movie deserves, in my opinion. (I could be very wrong here–but they didn’t bother me that much.)

Anyway, Adam goes through a medical trial to treat his illness and isn’t allowed to cook anymore (not with big knives at least). His caring mother (Molly Parker) and her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins), whom Adam isn’t so sure about, get him enrolled in a Catholic school, headed by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant), who wants no mention of his condition whatsoever. Adam is here to get good grades, take his medications, and graduate–that’s what Sister Catherine wants to hear and that’s also what Adam wants to believe. But he’s very uncertain about his own future, further evidenced by witnessing a mentally ill homeless man–he wonders if that’s what’s going to happen to him. (Adam even wonders at one point why everyone cares so much about cancer and yet don’t want to acknowledge schizophrenia. There are moments of thought-provoking truth here.)

The light at the end of this long tunnel comes in the form of Maya (Taylor Russell), class valedictorian with secrets of her own. He takes a liking to her and gets her to tutor him in math, and from there sparks a touching romance that also includes a date at an outdoor-screening of “Never Been Kissed” (THAT old classic).

Another helpful supporting character on Adam’s road to safety is the kindly Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). Adam confesses he doesn’t believe in God–Father Patrick assures him that he’ll listen anyway.

I should also mention the actors playing the imaginary friends: AnnaSophia Robb plays the flighty hippie chick; Lobo Sebastian is the bodyguard; and Devon Bostick is Joaquin, the kind of smarmy best friend you’d find in teen movies. They do what they need to do, and they’re good company, despite playing caricatures (which I think is the point anyway).

What is the message of “Words on Bathroom Walls?” Basically, it’s that everyone deserves to be recognized, which we see in many teen movies. But it’s also something more than that here–Adam wants more than just to be loved; he wants to be independent and do what he loves. And it works very well here. The moment Adam shows Maya what his true passion is (which is to cook and to go to culinary school), I knew I was in, especially when his hands started to shake. I was surprised by how wrapped up I was in his struggle.

Plummer carries this movie like a champ; it’s another top-notch performance to add to his resume. I remember seeing his first film King Jack at the final Little Rock Film Festival back in May 2015–he appeared for a Q&A with director Felix Thompson. I remember thinking this kid was going to go places. How right I was.

The Rental (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Thanks to today’s modern conveniences, we can go online and check for highly positive ratings on a restaurant or a hotel or an Airbnb homestay (instead of just take a chance on it regardless of customer reviews)…but we forget that there’s always that one chance that something will still go terribly wrong with our own experiences there.

How bad could it be? Well…worse than a one-star rating would suffice, let’s just say.

The characters in the low-key, chilling, stylish, and witty horror film “The Rental” are a small group of people who rent a large remote seaside dwelling for the weekend. Nothing wrong with a little time away from home…but this is a horror film, so even if they don’t know something’s bound to go horribly wrong, we sure do.

Directed by Dave Franco (brother of James and actor in films such as The Disaster Artist), making his feature directorial debut, and co-written by Franco and mumblecore king Joe Swanberg (who directed Franco in the Netflix series “Easy”), “The Rental” is very sly in setting up these four main characters as real people with moral dilemmas and easing the audience into the terror that is to come. Without giving away many particulars, lest I spoil the fun of discovering them for yourself, it begins as two couples–Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also Charlie’s business partner–take a trip to this house on the Oregon coast for a weekend getaway, get high on ecstasy the first night, and, uh…Mina and Charlie hook up in the shower.

So far, we’re a half-hour in and “The Rental” just seems like an ordinary indie “dramedy.” It isn’t until about 10 minutes later that a chilling discovery is made that could kick things into high tension.

Oh, and why don’t Charlie and Mina call the police when they make this discovery? Because then, it would expose their little fling to Michelle and Josh! Priorities, of course.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go in describing the story of “The Rental” because going into the more chilling aspects of it cold is part of the fun, as things go from relaxing to uncomfortable to straight-up nightmarish for these people who don’t even suspect that there’s far more here than meets the eye. When answers are revealed, some may be turned off due to its ability to negate many other parts of the film, but that’s another reason I liked it–it uses an old-fashioned Hitchcockian approach to unraveling this chilling mystery.

I’ll sum up my final thoughts: The actors are solid, their characters are well-defined, Franco proves to be a capable director, the cinematography from Christian Sprenger captures the perfect establishing moods for both day and night, and what begins as an effective ensemble character piece smoothly descends into a twisted horror film. All of that, plus the creepiest ending (or rather, ending-credits) I’ve seen in a long time, makes “The Rental” more than worth recommending.

Echo Boomers (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Echo Boomers,” the feature debut from director Seth Savoy (whose work in short films I’ve admired in the past). is about a group of millennial activists who break into wealthy residences, steal valuables, trash the place, and get paid for what they consider a hard day’s work.

Did I say “trash the place?” I meant they f***ing DESTROY each house they break into.

Their general political message is to make middle-aged rich people suffer while their generation is struggling to make ends meet–and as a result of delivering/selling their stolen items to Mel (Michael Shannon), who runs a legit business while also providing the youths with the addresses to rob, they live carelessly. Of course, the irony of making money while partaking in heavy criminal activity (their own “Millennial Mob,” if you will) is that they’re self-entitled a**holes who spend everything on heavily expensive items such as clothing and cocaine, because what the hell, they’re gonna get more of it anyway.

Robin Hoods, they are not…necessarily.

A common criticism I’ve seen against this film is that it “takes itself too seriously,” and indeed, I was about ready to agree, especially when Michael Shannon’s Mel takes this operation just as seriously as the young people when (in my opinion) a toned-down authority-figure type would have been more effective. But the reason I appreciate this film more than other crime movies involving young adults, like “The Bling Ring” and “American Animals,” is because while those movies included youths who committed crimes due to apathetic boredom, these characters feel more of a purpose. Whether you agree with their statement or not (and like I said, it can be difficult to root for them), it’s more interesting to follow them. Because of that, I do admire how seriously the material is taken.

The film’s frantic kinetic energetic style keeps the audience on-edge as we see just how much joy these kids get out of what they do and especially when things start to go wrong, which they inevitably do. It’s the familiar message about how gaining more makes you want even more of it and so forth (that’s just how it goes).

The young actors, who include Patrick Schwarzenegger as the lead, Alex Pettyfer, Hayley Law (great in Spontaneous), Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper (welcome back, Costa), and Jacob Alexander, all turn in good performances. And as much as I criticized the character portrayed by Michael Shannon…c’mon; it’s Michael Shannon. The guy could play a mobster in “Kangaroo Jack” and he’d still be incredible to watch.

There’s just such a heart and energy to “Echo Boomers” that I have to congratulate Seth and his co-writers Jason Miller and Kevin Bernhardt for. And I look forward to seeing what they do next.

I Used to Go Here (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s right there in the title–“I Used to Go Here.” You ever go back to your old school (whether it be grade school, middle school, high school, or college) and expect the ghosts of your old classmates to still hang around the cafeteria or the student center? That feeling is perfectly captured as the protagonist in this wonderful indie gem, “I Used to Go Here,” visits her alma mater and notices what has changed and what hasn’t. She even attends a house party in the place where she used to live, now mingling with today’s students as if she never even left.

Written and directed by Kris Rey (whose previous film was the underrated Cobie Smulders indie dramedy “Unexpected”), “I Used To Go Here” is about a 30ish-year-old writer named Kate (played by Gillian Jacobs) who is invited to her alma mater to read from her newly-published novel. Her book tour has been cancelled due to low ratings (as established by her overly cheerful publicists) and plus her fiance dumped her, so why not go back to school? While there, she reconnects with her favorite writing professor (Jemaine Clement) and finds herself connecting with a group of new students who now live in her old house. But more importantly, she comes to terms with weighing both her successes and her failures long after college.

Side-note: it’s such a strange coincidence that I’ve been chatting with a buddy of mine about how things have changed and/or not changed since college, and now here’s a film about a person in a most uneasy time for her, in her mid-30s, when her college dreams didn’t quite pan out (and she also learns that things that did work out didn’t do so the way she expected). I’m in my late 20s, and I already identify with her. (And my buddy would too.)

Anyway, “I Used To Go Here” is a delightful little film. Gillian Jacobs, a comedienne whom I’ve liked in shows like “Community” and movies like “Don’t Think Twice,” delivers a wonderful performance as Kate–she keeps the film on a grounded level; honest yet lighthearted at the same time. My favorite scene is when she reads from her book to a crowd–it feels like even she knows she’s lucky her novel got published in the first place.

And then there’s A LOT of colorful supporting characters–I was surprised to find not only how funny these people are but how memorable they all are. Screenwriter Rey clearly has an affinity for each one…well, except for Jorma Taccone’s bit part as Kate’s old college acquaintance–the film just sort of forgets about him after a couple brief scenes. Jemaine Clement is smooth, authoritative, and a bit blunt as the professor; Cindy Gold is brilliant as the no-nonsense B&B proprietor (do not lose your keys!!); Zoe Chao is very funny as Kate’s best friend whom Kate calls from time to time; and then there’s the group of helpful, likable college kids played by Forrest Goodluck, Josh Wiggins, Brandon Daley, Khloe Janel, and Hannah Marks, all of whom make good company for Kate and have their own little quirks. (Particularly, Daley as “Tall Brandon” has a payoff late in the film that was so funny, I had to pause the movie to collect myself.)

Oh, and there’s also Rammel Chan as Kate’s guide Elliot, who is very, VERY enthusiastic about his duties–he’s my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Even when Kate and the kids go on a little half-baked mission to expose someone’s implied wrongdoings, I was happy to go along for the ride with these people. And in the end, I just hope for the best with Kate and her future career as a writer–hopefully she’ll write a better book, one that’s more from the heart.

I’d read it.

All the Bright Places (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a film on Netflix that tackles grief, bipolar disorder, and suicide…but this isn’t “13 Reasons Why.” “All the Bright Places,” based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven, is not an easy film to sit through, as it takes these issues very seriously. But it is an important film to get through because of that same reason. (The producers even went out of their way to list many helpful resources on the film’s website. There’s also a note during the end credits: “This film is dedicated to those who have been impacted by mental health concerns, suicide, or grief. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, you can find more resources at allthebrightplacesfilm.info.”)

Netflix was already in hot water because “13 Reasons Why” premiered with a depiction of a teenage suicide in graphic detail, so much so that they had to edit that scene out two years later. In adapting the book “All the Bright Places” into a film and dealing with teenage depression and suicide, Niven, her co-screenwriter Liz Hannah (“The Post,” “Long Shot”), and director Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud) agreed with Netflix that they need to take extra care while presenting tragedy as earnest as possible. (They even brought mental health professionals on board as consultants.)

Btw, there are mild spoilers from this point forward.

The film is about two high-school teens, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), who are each grappling with their own personal demons. Violet has survivor’s guilt after surviving a car accident that killed her sister, and Finch has manic episodes, which puts him on probation in school (where students refer to him as “the Freak”). When he first meets her, she’s standing at the ledge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

Finch decides to help heal Violet, and as they work together on a class project, his advances work in helping her come out of her shell. But when she tries to help him in return, he doesn’t go for it. And things get more complicated from there…

If you’re looking for a typical Netflix teen romcom, check out The Half Of It or “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” or “Candy Jar,” because “All the Bright Places” gets pretty heavy.

There is a death. It occurs off-screen, leaving it open to our interpretation what exactly happened, as details about the death are left purposefully vague. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? While “13 Reasons Why” delves deep into meanings about why its suicide happened, “All the Bright Places” asks us to open a conversation about its tragedy ourselves. Why? Because what happened and why it happened is never as simple as we might like to think.

Some of this is even explained in more detail in the book, but author Niven agreed some things should be left vague in the film. “All the Bright Places” is not manipulative or exploitative in the slightest–it was made by people who genuinely wanted to help other people.

And for that reason, it’s one of my favorite films of the year.

The Hike

13 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: The film I’m reviewing has not been released yet, so consider this an “early review.”

“‘The Hike’ Drinking Game: The Next Time You Watch This Film, Take A Shot Everytime Vinnie Almost Falls Down Or Touches His Face. You Will Not Make It To The End…” -Post-credit stinger for “The Hike”

“The Hike” is a horror film made for cheap by a group of friends–a group you can tell just wanted to go up to some mountains and make a fun indie horror flick. It’s set in the woods, as a couple (played by co-writers Vinnie Vineyard and Kandi Thompson, who collaborated with the film’s director Luke Walker) go on this titular “Hike” for a camping trip–anyone who has seen any horror film knows that when you think you’re alone and isolated…someone with malevolent intentions might be creeping around. (There just aren’t enough dramas about camping, are there? They all have to be horror films.)

The couple comes across some disturbing photographs and a camera with something apparently even more disturbing (we never see what’s on the camera, but a change in filter indicates something is wrong before the characters can announce it). But why should they let a trek towards a ranger station (so they can report this evidence) get in the way of a good time when they could be trying out some ‘shrooms? By the time they get further along the trail and come across some troublesome folks (and yes, they’re burly mountain men with huge machetes and a bow-and-arrow), they’re already in danger.

There’s nothing that is particularly groundbreaking about this amateurish production, save for a particularly laughable extended sequence in the final act that had me going, “Are you kidding me? Is this really what we’re doing right now?” But the spirit of the thing kept me invested in staying to the end. I knew the people who made this film were making a film not for critics but for fun–and who am I to get in the way by stating what they already know and criticizing it for that reason?

There are some funny one-liners, such as when the couple argues about whether or not their potential oppressors are “rednecks” (she says they can’t be, because of their shoes), and Vinnie Vineyard is sincerely dopey as the male lead. And being a horror film, there are at least a couple of moments that I found particularly unnerving, such as when a character is alone with a lighter in a dark cave. There’s also a continually surfacing legend involving something called “Spearfinger” that may or may not be relevant to anything the characters are facing, but you never know…

I dunno, I just had fun with “The Hike.” Call it the side of me that appreciates both the art of filmmaking and the spirit/passion that comes from people working together to make something. All I know is I wouldn’t have fun picking on “The Hike,” and so I recommend it instead.