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S#!%house (2020)

10 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don’t you love it when you tell people that you’re highly recommending a genuinely sweet indie dramedy…and it’s called “Shithouse”?

Well, that’s what I’m doing because “Shithouse” (stylized as “S#!%house”) is one of the most touching and beautifully insightful films I’ve seen in a long time. (I missed it when it was released in 2020, but I guarantee it would have ranked high on my year-end list.) So what makes a movie called…”S#!%house”…so special? I’ll try and explain.

The story: Alex (Cooper Raiff, who also wrote and directed the film) is a young college freshman dealing with loneliness. He’s far from home; he has no friends; he doesn’t get along with his party-animal roommate Sam (Logan Miller–Martin from Love, Simon); and he regularly calls his mother (Amy Landecker) and kid sister (Olivia Welch) to chat. (Even when Alex attends a frat party, at the titular dwelling, and gets hit on by a gorgeous young woman, he makes up an excuse to leave and call Mom. This Alex kid isn’t your typical college-movie character even at the start–he needs help. Bad.) It’ll take a special someone to get him out of his comfort zone, and he finds that “special someone” in his dorm’s RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who invites him to her room to “hang out” (even Alex knows what she means by that). After hooking up, they spend a pleasant night of conversation (as well as misadventures about town) together.

Sounds very much like Before Sunrise, right? Do we need another “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”? (Maybe, but that’s not the point.) Well, it’s not that simple. By the time their night ends, we’re only at the halfway point of the film. And where “S#!%house” goes from here is where it truly shines, as freshman Alex goes on an important coming-of-age journey where his innocent emotional vulnerability puts him in conflict with sophomore Maggie’s experienced and attitudinal (and self-isolated) flair. It’s not pretty and it’s quite uncomfortable at times, but as I watch it unfold, I realize that it doesn’t matter that “S#!%house” is set in college days–this is a film I needed to watch now, in adulthood. This is a film about connecting with new people, coping with loneliness, stepping out of your comfort zone, learning (and maintaining) boundaries, and knowing when to say OK. And I think we could all use a film like it.

Cooper Raiff is this film. He made “S#!%house” on a micro-budget at college with his friends, and he approaches the material with honesty and special care. There are laughs in his film, but never at the characters’ expense–they come more from a place of relating; even the comic-relief a-hole roommate (played by Logan Miller, who is too good at playing brash jerks in movies) has more dimensions than we’d initially give him credit for. (There’s also a comic device involving subtitles from a stuffed dog Alex keeps on his bed–even that gives us insight into Alex’s thought process.) It’s all about how this kid, who is away from home for the first time and has an idealized version of relationships, grows up after learning harsh truths. Raiff wrote, directed, and starred in the film as the kid in question–not only can I feel the energy and passion he brings to the script, the production, and the role, but I’m also a little hard-pressed to find the right comparison to his mix of DIY filmmaking and heartfelt storytelling. (Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” for instance, didn’t feel nearly as honest as this–nor did Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” which involved a lot more than your typical DIY passion-project style.) Cooper Raiff is on the right track for his debut feature; I eagerly anticipate what he does next. (He’s also a very good actor, which makes it easier for us to care for him when he does something like send his would-be girlfriend way too many Instagram messages, not remotely aware he’s being clingy.)

“S#!%house” shows that the DIY style of filmmaking is alive and well and reminds us that new voices demand to be heard. And more importantly, it’s just a really terrific film.

That is an unfortunate title, though. “S#!%house”? I get the feeling Cooper Raiff gave it that title so the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus would use this clever pun: “this Shithouse don’t stink.”

My Favorite Movies – The Rental (2020)

24 May

By Tanner Smith

The Rental was an honorable mention on my year-end top-20 list…seeing as how I’ve been watching it again and again just shortly after, maybe I should’ve found a spot for it on the list. And in the months that passed, I’ve watched it quite a few more times. I could say, “I’m not even sure it’s that good–I just like it a lot.” But…I do think it’s that good.

“The Rental” was the directorial debut of Dave Franco, who co-wrote the film (with mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg) based on his personal paranoia about house-sharing. I hope it was therapeutic for him, but at the same time, I can see some people watching this horror film and thinking twice before renting an Airbnb.

Before the blood hits the fan, “The Rental” works as a nicely-observant comedy-drama about two couples who rent a large remote seaside dwelling for the weekend. The renters are Charlie (Dan Stevens), his business partner Mina (Sheila Vand), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who is also Mina’s boyfriend. The film does very well at setting up these four main characters as real people with moral dilemmas…especially when they get high on ecstasy on the first night, leading to Mina and Charlie hooking up in the shower.

Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it. Oh well, it won’t happen again and neither Michelle nor Josh need find out about it. But then Mina discovers there are tiny hidden cameras in the house…including one in that same shower.

I love it when a thriller eases you into the terror. For the first half-hour or so, “The Rental” is an indie dramedy as good as a writer like Swanberg has ever done (maybe even better), and Franco proves to be a solid director and knows to put interesting people at the center of the screen.

But now we’re getting into some tense stuff here. What about these hidden cameras? How many are there? Why are they there? Who put them there? What happens when Mina and Charlie try to figure it out without their significant others knowing their secret? (Btw, that’s why they don’t call the police right away. Priorities, I guess?)

I won’t give away what happens as the characters (as well as the audience) try to find answers to these questions. But I will say it works pretty darn well as a horror film, with lots of surprises and chills to come as things go from relaxing to uncomfortable to downright nightmarish for these people who just wanted to share a relaxing weekend together and have no idea what’s coming for them next.

“The Rental” probably isn’t for everybody, and when answers are revealed, I can see a lot of people turned off by its ability to negate many other parts of the film. But that’s another reason I really like it–it uses an old-fashioned Hitchcockian approach to unraveling this chilling mystery.

I will say this though. The Invisible Man was my favorite horror film of 2020, but there’s one scene in “The Rental” that scared me more than any horror film in 2020–and it happens during the end credits.

What can I say? “The Rental” truly grew on me. I liked it before; I love it now. And I look forward to seeing what director Dave Franco does next.

My Favorite Movies – Yes, God, Yes (2020)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

A few months into 2021, there’s a few 2020 films I consider “favorites.” For instance, I’ve already seen I Used to Go Here, The Rental, Bad Education, and The Invisible Man countless times. But there’s one particular film from this past year that I think I’m going to treasure…

I thought it would be “Soul” or even David Byrne’s American Utopia, but actually…it’s Yes, God, Yes. (Kind of an unfortunate title, but read on.)

Based on the short film of the same name, “Yes, God, Yes” is about a devout Catholic teenage girl, named Alice, whose world is changed when she discovers pornography and…self-pleasure, I’ll call it for my most sensitive FB friends.

Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame plays Alice–Dyer is 25 years old and could probably still play these naive-teenage-girl roles when she’s 45!! She absolutely shines in “Yes, God, Yes” as her character goes through a coming-of-age personal journey that never strikes a false note. (I’m surprised that this film didn’t garner any Indie Spirit Award nominations, especially for Dyer’s great performance.)

Alice is curious about sex but totally inexperienced in the subject. She’s also afraid to try experiencing it because her Catholic school teaches that it’s a sin to engage in premarital sex–and even after marriage, sex is strictly for procreation. That’s why when a rumor starts in the halls about her having been intimate with a male classmate, she has no idea what anyone is talking about. (I’d say what sexual act is being questioned in this rumor, but it’s funnier when you hear it yourself.) She didn’t do it, but now she’s being slut-shamed due to the rumor. She also has growing feelings of sexual desire (not helped by a cybersex encounter in a chat room), for which her friend Laura (Francesca Reale) and Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) cause her to feel shame.

Alice thinks if she goes on a school-funded retreat, she’ll get back to the path of righteousness. But there’s a lot on her mind that leaves her more curious to explore her sexuality…including a hunky senior, Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), from whom she craves attention.

One of the things I admire most about “Yes, God, Yes,” written and directed by Karen Maine (who was a co-writer for “Obvious Child,” another challenging film on taboo subjects), is how frank and honest it is about this girl’s story, and it’s never mean-spirited. It’s handled in a sweet, sincere manner. It can even be very funny but never because of cheap, exploitative jokes. We laugh at these moments for the same reasons we feel for Alice throughout the film: because the film feels real.

It’s also a film with a message: how we need to be more open about ourselves and trust each other with honesty and respect, because that’s what Jesus would want us to do. (You could also go to an extent and argue that the message is about how we need to understand our own sins so that we can deal with them better.) Alice learns that just about everyone, including Father Murphy, is hiding something, which confuses her even more. That leads her to a calm discussion with a kindly bar owner (played wonderfully by Susan Blackwell) who assures her that it’s only human to discover where certain developments may lead personally.

In this scene, she basically taught poor Alice in just a few minutes a lesson that no one in that school could in years.

“Yes, God, Yes” ends ambiguously, with no easy answers (at least, that’s how I see it). Where Alice goes from here is anyone’s guess. But I wish her the best. She’s bright and sweet and lovely–she deserves to be happy.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve streamed this wonderfully acted, subtle, gentle comedy-drama on Netflix in the past few months. And the greatest part about it? It’s short–about 77 minutes, including credits! That’s another thing I admire about “Yes, God, Yes”–it’s only as long as it needs to be.

You know, maybe that’s the reason I love it so. It’s a wonderfully-crafted, beautifully-detailed “compact film” (if you will) that wastes no time establishing characters or motivations and yet gives us just enough material to make us understand it all, without ever once wearing out its welcome.

“Yes, God, Yes” is currently streaming on Netflix and available elsewhere on-demand–I can’t recommend it enough. It’s honestly the kind of wonderful, charming little indie comedy that I’d like to see more of.

Spree (2020) – Rent-A-Pal (2020)

1 Mar
Joe Keery, “Spree”

Smith’s Verdicts:

Spree: ***

Rent-A-Pal: ***1/2

This past week, I caught up with three 2020 horror films. One was Freaky. The other two: “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal.”

One film involves one of our favorite “Strange Things” actors as a cyber-serial-killer, and the other involves Wil Wheaton as one of the scariest villains of the past year. (Didn’t think that second one could happen, but here we are.)

“Spree” is an uneven but intriguing cyber-thriller told from the perspectives of different livestreams, one of which is hosted by a pathetic loner named Kurt (played by Joe Keery). Kurt is obsessed to the point of making it big as a large social-media presence with thousands of followers–he’s tried everything by this point to bring in the views and nothing seems to work for him (even when he tries interfering with the streams of his frenemy Bobby (Josh Ovalle), who’s a mega influencer). But now he has the answer to get everyone’s attention…

As a driver for a rideshare app called Spree, Kurt documents himself picking up passengers…and instead of dropping them off to their destinations, he murders them! At first, no one watching (the numbers aren’t even in the double digits) thinks it’s real; they think it’s an act, causing Kurt to get more extreme with his victims. And of course, all Kurt cares about is gaining more and more followers/viewers, so he does everything he can to up his game (and the body count).

The social commentary is obvious and the film sags in the middle act particularly, but director/co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko uses dark humor and a darkly brilliant leading performance from Joe Keery to keep things interesting. “Spree” has enough clever tricks up its sleeve to keep cyber-savvy viewers invested.

Wil Wheaton in “Rent-A-Pal”–can this “friend” be trusted?

Now…as for “Rent-A-Pal,” I didn’t know anything before streaming it on Hulu recently, aside from Wil Wheaton is in it and some critics have praised it as one of the best thrillers of 2020.

I didn’t realize I was getting into this deeply disturbing, brilliantly crafted, and truly twisted character study of a lonely 40-year-old named David (played very well by Brian Landis Folkins) who…well, I’ll keep it spoiler free, but I’ll just talk about the story’s setup.

The film is set in 1990. David, a bachelor who cares for his Alzheimers-stricken mother, uses a video dating service to try and find a romantic partner, but to no avail. He then buys another videotape called “Rent-A-Pal,” in which its host, a seemingly nice, charismatic guy named Andy (Wil Wheaton), sits in the middle of the frame, talks directly to the viewer, and leaves in pauses to simulate a conversation. It doesn’t do much for David at first, but the lonelier he gets, he more into the tape he becomes. He’s soon able to partake in conversations with Andy, which leads to Andy being his confidant and his best friend.

And…that’s all I’m going to describe for you. The idea of this sad, lonely, depressed man taking comfort in a friendship through someone in a TV screen is interesting enough…but where it goes from there is riveting. I don’t even know who’s creepier here–David, for having this seemingly one-sided relationship with a videotape he watches repeatedly, or Andy, whose friendly demeanor and prerecorded phrases seem to have alternative meanings. I’m going to have to go with Andy as the scarier choice, mostly because we don’t know anything about the person who made the video in the first place, and that itself gets unnerving, the more I think about everything I saw in the film before. (Something else I like about “Rent-A-Pal”–there are no easy answers at work here.)

Both “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal” feature unbalanced main characters seeking purpose and companionship, whether personal or virtual…but of course, they’re both horror movies, so you can expect some nasty business. Both films work as parables of such a concept, and I recommend them both (particularly “Rent-A-Pal”) for giving us unique, original ways of putting us in the heads of each of those disturbing individuals.

The Wretched (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Man, I wish I had seen this in a theater with an audience!

“The Wretched” has all the moments where something scary happens, such as when the Nun pops up in “The Conjuring 2,” and some woman sitting near you exclaims “OH SH*T!!!”

But also, this movie gave me CHILLS!

“The Wretched,” directed by the Pierce Brothers (Brett and Drew), is about a teenage boy, Ben (John-Paul Howard), who notices strange goings-on in the house next door. The more he looks into it, the more convinced he becomes that there is an evil witch taking the form of the neighbor…

The creature itself is a scary creation, and the makeup is truly impressive. But it’s what it can do, and what we learn she can do as the movie progresses, that truly put me on-edge. How many people can the kid save from this thing? How many are going to fall victim? And late in the film, it becomes a one-on-one as the witch becomes all too aware of the kid’s suspicions and manages to make him to be the one to fear. I love stuff like that, especially in horror films, when you don’t know who’s safe and who isn’t. Certainly, this main character, who has enough teen angst that it’s like he’s in a YA novel interrupted by an ’80s horror movie, isn’t safe from pure evil.

This movie also taught me a very valuable lesson–if I hit a deer with my car, I won’t take it home to prepare it for dinner. (I couldn’t do that in an apartment anyways.) Pro tip: hit a deer, just leave it…because there’s a chance there’s a monster living inside of it that will take you over and destroy everyone around you. (Also, the guts might spill out over your driveway.)

Also, this horror movie has a real good twist!…I just wanted to bring that up because so many horror movies lately lack a real good twist!

I truly dug the hell out of “The Wretched.”

Happiest Season (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a sappy, sugary holiday romcom exclusively on Hulu called “Happiest Season”…and I guess I have a soft spot for certain B-movies of this sweet, innocent sort because this one definitely worked for me.

Or maybe I just love the actors. Whatever the case, “Happiest Season” is a seasonal treat.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play Abby and Harper, a lesbian couple happily in love–so much so that Abby decides it’s time to pop the question after getting Harper’s father’s blessing first…but there’s a problem with that: Harper is still in the closet. It’s not until they’re en route to a holiday get-together with Harper’s conservative family that Harper drops the bomb to Abby that she never came out to her parents.

Annnnnnnd the mother (Mary Steenburgen) is this super uptight, extremely passive-aggressive type, and also the father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and ALSO Harper told everyone that Abby is her roommate (and an “orphan,” which practically translates to everyone as “alien from another planet”–I’m not joking; they keep referring to Abby as an orphan constantly).

So…hijinks ensue!

“Happiest Season” is as formulaic as you can get–I have to wonder if director/co-writer Clea DuVall (who I know has made it big as a character actor but I’m always going to remember her as Stokely in “The Faculty”) is a big fan of Hallmark Christmas movies. There’s a lot of misunderstanding. There’s a lot of coverups. There’s even a stereotypical helpful-gay-best-friend-with-no-life-of-his-own character (played by Daniel Levy). (I guess in order for this film to give us these two realistic LGBT characters for this formula, plus a dignified supporting role played by Aubrey Plaza, they had to give us one stereotype.) And then of course, there’s the big emotional resolution in which everyone’s secrets are revealed for better or worse.

I think you can guess the ending. You can guess so much of this movie. But I don’t care–because it works. It’s just a likable, pleasant comedy for my Christmas stocking and I recommend it because the actors are giving it their all (especially Steenburgen, who’s a riot as the mother), a lot of it made me laugh, and I did feel something for both Abby and Harper when things inevitably get tougher for them.

There are going to be 40something Hallmark holiday movies every year–not to be too judgmental of the subgenre (because I liked this one so much), but I recommend you use this as the standard.

“Happiest Season” is available exclusively on Hulu.

Run (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From the guys who previously made the brilliant cyberthriller Searching (director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian), “Run” is about a wheelchair-bound teenage girl named Chloe (Kiera Allen) who has been homeschooled and sheltered by her overprotective mother (Sarah Paulson). After discovering a suspicious new pill as part of her medication, Chloe starts to suspect that there’s something her mother isn’t telling her…

“Run” is a slow burn with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as the paralyzed but super-smart Chloe is forced to use her wits to go behind her mother’s back in order to get clarification as to what’s going on. It helps that both key roles here are portrayed wonderfully. Sarah Paulson, one of the best character actors working today, deserves credit for playing a motherly figure we’re not quite sure about. And Kiera Allen (who actually uses a wheelchair in real life) is excellent as Chloe–it’s a role that’s physically demanding to say the least, and she’s both up to the challenge and wonderful to watch at the same time.

When the answers are revealed late in the film, it’s disappointing because I saw the twist coming miles away. It’s important for a psychological thriller to always be ahead of their audience, and I was hoping that the guys behind “Searching,” which had me guessing all throughout, would give me something I didn’t expect. However, I still recommend “Run” for its two leading performances, its effective simplicity in telling the story, and Chaganty’s ability to keep me invested even after the inevitable reveal.

“Run” is available exclusively on Hulu, and I give it 3 stars out of 4. (Maybe my rating will change after a second viewing. There’s too much good in this film for me to complain about the twist being predictable.)

Horse Girl (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve seen this film three times on Netflix–I’m still not entirely sure I “get” it, but I am still intrigued by it.

“Horse Girl” is a strange……STRANGE film about a person who…is strange.

Alison Brie, who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay with director Jeff Baena, stars as Sarah. Sarah is sweet, polite, sensitive, and smart–she’s also socially awkward and tends to make those around her somewhat uncomfortable. Wonder if it has anything to do with these weird dreams that feel all too real. Or the lapses in her memory. Or the constant nosebleeds. Whatever the case, Sarah’s not doing so great right now. What could be the problem? Well, as Sarah digs deeper into her own issues and her family’s mental health history, she starts to suspect there may be something otherworldly happening all around her…

It’s right about here where a low-key indie character study of a disturbed awkward misfit takes a turn for the weirder. For example, what if Sarah’s dreams about possible alien abduction are accurate? If that’s true, who can she truly trust? She goes from a little off to REALLY disturbed as neither she (nor we) knows what’s going on here!!

I still don’t know for sure–was that real? was it all in her head? It’s a fascinatingly abstract, surreal look into this person’s life made even more fascinating by the way Brie presents the character. This story was inspired by Brie’s real-life family’s history of mental health issues and her own experiences with depression. The more I think about what Brie was intending to accomplish with her co-writer/director Jeff Baena, the more intrigued I am by their film. I haven’t really been a fan of director Baena’s work–I didn’t like “Life After Beth,” though “The Little Hours” is growing on me a bit. “Horse Girl” is his most accomplished work. It’s also Alison Brie’s most accomplished work as an actress–I loved her in shows like “Community” and movies like The Disaster Artist and The Rental; this is the role she’s been working towards.

Whatever you believe is real or not in “Horse Girl,” just keep telling yourself…well, at least Sarah believes it’s real.

I know, this isn’t much of an analysis–maybe in the future, however, I’ll try my best with a spoiler review.

Freaky (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s time once again for director Christopher Landon to put a satirical horror spin on popular cinematic comedy! He did it before with the time-loop concept of Groundhog Day to make the fun, clever Happy Death Day movies–this time, he takes the body-swap concept of “Freaky Friday,” adds doses of Friday the 13th, and gives us “Freaky Friday the 13th”…or just “Freaky.” Thus results in a body-swap comedy with a moderate-to-high body count and a fresh take on the subgenre that entertained me throughout the 100-minute running time.

Vince Vaughn may not have played a convincing Norman Bates (as evidenced in the unfortunate 1998 “Psycho” remake), but “Freaky” makes a compelling case that he could make for a terrifying Jason Voorhees. In the bitingly satirical cold open of the film, Vaughn is totally convincing as a silent small-town serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (who even has a mask that looks very similar to Jason’s traditional hockey mask), who slaughters horny, stoned, drunken, idiotic teenagers in spectacularly gruesome fashion.

(Btw, unlike the PG-13-ified “Happy Death Day” movies, director Landon is given both an R rating and free reign to give us some truly graphic kills–this is not for the faint of heart; a lot of this material is for horror buffs.)

From that murder spree, the killer obtains a mystical cursed Aztec dagger (known as “Le Dola”). We’re uncertain of what its powers are until the Butcher advances towards his next would-be victim: a shy, wallflower high-school girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton). The Butcher uses the Dola to stab Millie, which results in a supernatural switching of minds and bodies. So, as Millie, having barely escaped the killer’s attack, awakens the following morning (which happens to be Friday the 13th, naturally), she discovers that she now looks exactly like the Blissfield Butcher. And vice versa, as the Butcher awakens in Millie’s body and decides to go to school and do some unsuspected killing!

Millie is able to convince her best friends, Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), that this 6’5″ hulking middle-aged man who looks like a killer is actually their bestie in this body (though not without some wacky hijinks in the funniest scene of the movie), and together, they realize they have to reverse the process before midnight or else the change will be permanent. So now they have to retrieve the dagger from police evidence storage and stop the Butcher (in Millie’s body) from killing more people before it’s too late.

Of course, you know people are going to die anyway–as fun as the general concept of this story is, it is fun to go back to the old-fashioned horror-movie trope that among the bodies waiting to be piled up are those who are just asking for it, such as the idiot teens in the opening, some rapey misogynistic jocks, and probably the worst teacher you could have in high school (played by Alan Ruck, Cameron from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). The way many of these people are killed are almost too good for them. (As a side-note, it’s also funny that this determined killer now has to put up with a petite, weaker new body.)

“Freaky” has a lot of fun with its horror and comedy, but it also has a heart to it as well. In particular, there’s a moving scene in which Millie, in this new body, finds a way to really talk to her troubled mother (Katie Finneran). And that’s not even the best scene in the film–that comes later, when Millie’s crush, a nice football jock named Booker (Uriah Shelton), understands that even as Millie has a new body, her mind is still intact. Whether this was the intent or not, “Freaky” was able to be a new modern movie that commented subtly on concepts such as gender identity.

Director Christopher Landon clearly has fun mixing genres, and I’m curious to see what else he has up his sleeve. (Maybe he could make a horror version of “Anchorman” or “The Hangover” next.) With a talented cast (including Vaughn and Newton each having fun with their dual roles) and every rule in the horror-movie handbook as well as a clever script co-written by Landon and Michael Kennedy, “Freaky” doesn’t break a lot of new ground in either the horror genre or the body-swap subgenre but it is still a hell of a fun time.

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.