Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hannah, the main character of the short film “Surfacing,” is an athletic college swimmer with temporal lobe epilepsy. In the film’s opening scene, she’s preparing to compete in a latest swim meet when she knows a seizure is coming. She knows she still has some time before it happens, and she’s nervous yet familiar with these feelings at the same time. She swims the laps to get it over with…and then has the seizure almost immediately after she’s out of the water. The next scene shows a new side of Hannah–happier, livelier, more energetic, ready to go out partying for a night on the town with her friends. One of her friends, who I’m assuming hasn’t known Hannah very long, questions this behavior, to which one friend answers: “She’s always like this after a seizure.” In comes another friend, who actually wrote a paper based on Hannah’s condition, to explain (to the friend and to those viewing the film) that it’s a condition known as “Geschwind syndrome.”

I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I had to look up “Geschwind syndrome” for confirmation. I shouldn’t have done that, for two reasons. 1) That kind of confession can mean I didn’t put any faith in the filmmakers behind “Surfacing” having done their homework before making a film about the subject in question. And 2) Even if it wasn’t real (which now I know it is), the film should still make me believe (which it did).

“Surfacing,” which runs at about 30 minutes and was written and directed by Bruce Hutchinson (whose 2014 short drama Sidearoadia I greatly admired), shows Hannah at a dilemma with this condition. She can keep swimming, possibly risking brain damage if she has another seizure too late during another meet, or she can get her illness treated. Her seizure aftereffects are what make her feel truly alive, so she has to decide whether or not she wants to be rid of them for that very reason. But on the other hand, her coach (Pammi Fabert), her sister (FE Mosby), and her best friend (Jennifer Richman) all grow more concerned about her as the seizures seem to be more frequent lately.

Hannah is played with a truly marvelous performance by Kristy Barrington (who, since this short, has gone on to a memorable side role in Mud). It’s a deeply layered portrayal of a suffering yet free-spirited young individual who lives in the now and must consider the future, if not for herself then for her loved ones. The quiet moment in which she feels the entire weight of her world crashing down on her, which comes at around the 25-minute mark, is so moving and convincing and beautifully done. (I’ll even go as far as to say it rivals the best moments of “Sidearoadia,” which Hutchinson made five years after “Surfacing.”)

The skillful direction from writer-director Hutchinson and casually observant cinematography from Chris Churchill help keep “Surfacing” on a grounded level. But Kristy Barrington is this film. She exhibits great screen presence here and makes an already-interesting character even more fascinating.

“Surfacing” can be seen here. I recommend you give it a watch.

My Salinger Year (2021)

6 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Salinger Year,” based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff, is set in 1995, where bookstores took over big cities and big business feared computers and the Internet and people actually read physical printed works in magazines and books–being published back then meant a great deal then than it does now!

In “My Salinger Year,” written and directed by Philippe Felardeau, lead actress Margaret Qualley (Andie McDowall’s daughter, best known for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) shines as aspiring young writer Joanna. Upon leaving Berkeley to pursue writing in New York City, Joanna has a bright optimism that foresees a bright future for her career that she even takes a cheap, crappy apartment because she knows all the best writers started off in cheap, crappy apartments. She also takes a job as an assistant for a tough, no-nonsense literary agent named Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), whose agency represents none other than J.D. Salinger. (Salinger is reclusive, but he still telephones Margaret every now and again. Sometimes, Joanna answers the call–even though Joanna hasn’t even read “The Catcher in the Rye,” she’s still starstruck.)

Joanna isn’t entirely fulfilled as a “secretary,” as she sees the job, but it does have its perks such as reading Salinger’s fan mail…and then there are unpleasantries such as writing back to the fans to bear the bad news that Salinger doesn’t receive his fan mail anymore. (The agency has kept it ever since the Mark David Chapman incident, during which he held a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he was found shortly after assassinating John Lennon.)

Also, as expected, Margaret is not the easiest person to work for–Sigourney Weaver, playing the part, is always great at making everyone feel inferior to her. (But as expected in roles like this, she does have a pivotal scene in which she lets her guard down and lets us see the real person.)

Soon enough, Joanna takes it upon herself to respond to the fan letters personally, because as she sees it, why would anyone want to get a response like “sorry we cannot forward your kind words to Mr. Salinger?” This may anger some, but help others–but at least she’s writing and not dictating. She also manages to strike up somewhat of a friendship with Salinger himself over the telephone. (Salinger is played in both voice and silhouette by Tim Post.)

I love the atmosphere of this 1995 setting–maybe it’s the literary setting and all the books lined up against the walls, but it has a lovely nostalgic feel to it. I also liked the little touches such as Joanna and her novel-writing overly opinionated boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth) washing dishes in the bathtub because THEIR APARTMENT HAS NO SINK–and there’s also these inserts of the fans who wrote the letters, many of whom are not as deranged or weird as we might think, which I thought was a nice touch.

And being a writer myself, I identified with the main character feeling less inspired as she works an unfulfilling job. When Joanna goes for so long without doing her own writing, I feel for her. When she’s given a kind offer to submit work to the New Yorker, I’m happy for her. I want her to get back to work doing what she loves doing!

I mentioned that Margaret Qualley shined in the role of Joanna, and that might be an understatement. As much as I liked her in movies like “The Nice Guys” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I waited for her to truly impress me with a role that gave me a lot to process. But with Joanna in “My Salinger Year,” there are so much power to it that she’s able to deliver in a wonderful performance. I wished Joanna the absolute best in the end, and that’s a tribute to Qualley’s work.

Even though I’m giving “My Salinger Year” 3.5 stars (with only a few nitpicks here or there), I give Margaret Qualley’s performance an even more enthusiastic 4-star rating.

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.

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.