So far so good as Dr. Britt, Erickh, and Salim go for the second verse, same as the first, where they muse over the passings of Jessica Walter and Beverly Cleary and finish their reveal of their Top 5 Favorite Movies of the 2010s. In the meantime, they discover the refreshing license for profanity that podcasting affords them, gush over several shared top 5s, apologize to the Producer Matt Damon for running out of time, flex their arrived Hertzfeldt prints, muse over their histories with Doctor Who, and sweat under the wire of getting this episode completed in time for Erickh to rush to work after.
We’ll get this downpat soon enough.
Salim’s Top 150 Movies of the 2010s can be seen here.
Salim’s Top 10 MVPs of 2010s cinema can be seen here.
And Salim and Erickh’s flexed Don Hertzfeldt prints can admired in the picture below. Via 480p Google Hangouts screenshot. Just as Nolan intended.
Way back, when this blog was still started (in fact it was mentioned in the intro post), I shared a radio show in my undergrad alma mater with Britt Rhuart and Erickh Norman by the name of A Night at the Opera promptly ended by our subsequent graduations and my leaving Phoenix, AZ where we had it. We had been talking for the last 4 years about pulling it back up from under the ground and now we’ve taken our shovels and broken the ground. Can we maintain the chemistry we once had in our college years? Do we probably need a new banner image? Can we make this a regular thing despite out conflicting work schedules and different time zones? Tune in for the first few episodes to see if you like me better in print or think I have sexy voice and find out.
In any case, this first episode finds us catching up on a few things that passed us by: the 93rd Oscar nominations, the breaking up of Daft Punk, the bankruptcy filing of Alamo Drafthouse, the passing of Yaphet Kotto, and the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. And of course going through the bottom five of our top ten list, leaving a heartpounding cliffhanger as to what will make our top five (and even if the bottom five of mine has changed in the 6+ months since originally posting, I expect my top five is still easy to predict).
The referred-to Monkey Hu$tle review can be read here.
The referred-to 150 favorite movies of the 2010s list can be read here.
You can call blaxploitation films a lot of things, but one descriptor you don’t hear very often about blaxploitation movies is that they’re “nice”. That’s kind of the inherent fact about exploitation movies – blaxploitation or otherwise – that they gotta be aggressive at the very least with what they’re selling so that it slams on the lap of the viewer, whether it’s sex or violence or anything else that exploitation cinema is all about. And Arthur Marks’ 1976 film The Monkey Hustle (or The Monkey Hu$tle as the marketing referred to it and though I love that spelling, it’ll be too much of a hassle to type that out over and over in this review) isn’t really all that aggressive about anything, barring a few sequences. Its grit is minimal and in the service of realism more than attitude.
That realism being subject to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, because of course a 1970s blaxploitation movie would have to be set in the area most famously populated by Black-Americans (though a not insignificant part of it passes through Downtown Chicago). And the sort of story that writers Odie Hawkins & Charles Eric Johnson weave into the movie is kind of loose – the subject of its unfair negative reception that it still suffers to this day – but of all the colorful personalities in this movie’s vision of South Side, the one we attach ourselves most to is Daddy Foxx (Yaphet Kotto), a fast-talking hard-hustlin’ small time con man who has already taken under his wing the young Baby D (Kirk Calloway) as his protegé when we first meet him and is taking to teaching two other teens Player (Thomas Carter) and Tiny (Donn C. Harper) in his “Monkey Hustle” schooling.
And while I hate to show my hand so early in this review, I did dedicate this review to Kotto to begin with: this is by and large his movie, owning every shot he is in and delivering all his winding lines with a culture crispness and a speed that rivals any door-to-door salesman. Foxx is not just our anchor because the screenplay frames him that way, conflicting with a plot line involving Baby D’s older brother Win (Randy Brooks) coming back to town after a bad attempt at showbiz on the road and suspicious of Foxx as an influence on his sibling. Foxx is our anchor because he just dominates the screen, being performed by the best actor in the varied cast and having a dynamic swagger in how he walks and talks that would explain how easily somebody could be swayed by his charms.
And yet there are other characters. Some even making for worthy foils towards Foxx, like the flamboyant numbers man Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore, cast at the height of his Dolemite fame to the point that he’s billed next to Kotto for a small part and even takes up the front of my DVD cover) or the matriarchal restaurant owner Mama (Rosalind Cash). And they all have their own negative responses to the proposal of an expressway being built over their neighborhood, something that all the local forces band together to rebel against whenever we’re not just watching Foxx and his crew scam shop owners or Win work to regain the affections of his abandoned beau Vi (Debbi Morgan) or the local cop self-proclaimed The Black Knight (Frank Rice) just fucking up everywhere. I can’t help understanding the complaints about how unfocused and half-baked its script is, while also admitting it’s something I don’t care much about.
The manner in which issues are picked and dropped and forgotten is a big part of what gives The Monkey Hu$tle the amiable feeling it has. Goldie plays as something like a semi-antagonist for a brief time, being the employer behind the closest thing to a full-time antagonist this movie has: Win’s drug-dealing rival for Vi’s affections Leon (Frank Barrett). But one second, Goldie is confronting Player and Tiny for jumping Leon, the next he’s renouncing Leon in the view of everyone. Another moment emblematic of this amnesiac conflict-building is how a truck driver that Foxx’s crew rip off will jump into a length car chase with them, but then halt once he’s stopped by some firefighters being sprayed by local kids and jump out not in an angry mood but laughing at the scene along with the children. The troubles are abandoned the moment the chase is over. Even the last few scenes introduce a crisis of conscience for Foxx late in the game regarding Baby D that just gets tossed aside eagerly so we can rush to the credits.
That’s the way the world of The Monkey Hu$tle feels: nothing particularly personal, everybody is just playing the game and as Foxx puts it “there are many large and small inequities in life that Man must live with…”. And when it comes to actually confronting the man and telling them “no, you’re not stepping in our community” as the climax shows them doing, it’s by that shaggy solidarity that we buy their sincerity and success between the characters’ tension. It’s not a good script, but it tends to amplify the movie’s strengths: letting actors just hang out and be broadly cool. But particularly there is one strength I neglected to address and that’s the loving portrayal of that South Side and Downtown of Chicago that Marks and his crew bring.
It’s not just enough to have a colorful cast, but a grounded environment that is believable for all these characters to live and believe in enough to defend it. And Marks finds a variety of distinct locations to capture like little biomes of one giant world in between Bridgeport and South Shore: empty warehouses and lots, street parties, residential areas, and offices right near the elevated train, all consistent enough to belong to one idea of a Chicago neighborhood that every character feels right at home with.
So a sense of place and a sense of people, neither of which are bad things to have carrying your film. It just tends to show how my sensibilities are different from other filmgoers that I am so easily able to shake off the writing and attach to the liveliness of The Monkey Hu$tle that it ends up one of my favorite blaxploitation movies and thereby a source of optimism and comforting good cheer on the times when I need to watch it and get pulled in by Yaphet Kotto’s silver tongue and cool confidence. I hesitate in calling it Kotto’s best performance (largely because I’ve never watched Homicide: Life on the Street) but when I think of the actor, it’s his giant grin and hanging suit in this movie that pop up first as an image, even before his better-known work in Live and Let Die or Alien or Midnight Run. Just can’t deny why Daddy Foxx gets his way.
I admire everyone who is trying to stay positive and optimistic about the last 9 months of the movie year, but I just don’t see any possible way this wasn’t the all-time worst movie year… possibly ever? Definitely since I’ve been alive. Even beyond the obvious factor of movie theaters (including the fact that AMC’s on the verge of being bought by Disney now that the Paramount decree has been overruled. Thanks a lot, Trump) and video stores closing across the country and film productions having to shut down costing a lot of people in the industry their jobs and livelihoods and Disney’s grip tightening more and more over the conversation around movies, there was no popcorn summer movie season. Most of the prestigious arthouse fare was pushed back to 2021 alongside the big-time popcorn movies that couldn’t yet be thrown into Disney or Warner Bros.’ streaming content power plays. Cannes didn’t occur this year. We are witnessing maybe the least impressive slate of Oscar contenders since 1929 to the point where the best of the most-locked Best Picture movies (One Night in Miami and Minari) are still movies where I am fucking meh about. There was not one fucking movie I gave a five star rating to on letterboxd. Not. One. Especially in comparison to how there were two movies I gave half-star ratings to. And frankly I don’t want to diminish my top ten so soon, but I’m not sure half of them would have made my top 25 of, say, 2019 if they had released then.
Besides which, now that streaming seems to be the full force behind movie-watching, I got to get this off my chest… it is just a downright awful way to watch movies: On a tech basis given how even the best video quality of 4K streaming doesn’t match up with the worst video quality of a blu-ray (oh shit but there goes the video stores), on an industrial basis given how flat and polished movies already look even when they’re not Netflix originals that have this visually windexed aesthetic, and on an experiential level: whether I’m alone in the theater or the theater is packed (in which the experience is shared in a way that makes movie-watching feel so much more community-based than having a water cooler subject of the week), being in a pitch black room with one image glowing above me and hanging in the air like a ghost as the soundtrack surrounds, sinking me further into a movie than sitting in my living room off of a flatscreen tv with a soundbar. It just doesn’t match up in an effective way, whether or not I get to determine the bathroom break. And now it’s threatening to be the only way movies I would have otherwise loved to see in theaters will be available to me. This is not the fault of COVID necessitating we all stay at home and take care of ourselves and being the bare minimum way to incentivize others staying indoors as much as possible, but there’s no fucking way I wouldn’t have enjoyed Soul much more in the movie theaters than I did at home.
So yeah, I am not in the slightest conflicted about saying that 2020 as a movie year was garbage. To say nothing about its experience as a year with actual consequence and exhaustion to every single person in the world (though this is a movie blog and I feel like if you get me started on the state of affairs within 2020 overall, I will never stop) and I’m way happy to wave it goodbye.
Let’s get this wrapped the fuck up, so I can take a step away from it all.
First, a post-mortem…
REST IN PEACE Ennio Morricone Diana Rigg Sean Connery Olivia De Havilland Wilford Brimley Chadwick Boseman James Lipton Max von Sydow Ian Holm Fred Willard
CLOSED-DOWN VIDEO STORES I WILL MISS Odd Obsession Vulcan Video I Luv Video (and I guess Family Video qualified even though that took place January-February)
10. The Lie (Veena Sud, Canada/USA) – This movie got delayed as much as the distributors could before having to hide behind similarly mediocre horror movies, but this one was still a standout of badness.
9. A Fall from Grace (Tyler Perry, USA) – How low do y’all think Tyler Perry can go? Because he is always surprising me.
8. Scoob! (Tony Cervone, USA) – Maybe the worst instance ever of trying to will yourself an unearned cinematic universe.
7. Stardust (Gabriel Range, UK/Canada) – Imagine thinking it’s a good idea to make a David Bowie biopic without his music. Marc Maron without a moustache is an unnerving sight.
6. Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square (Debbie Allen, USA) – The only bad thing Dolly Parton can ever be associated with.
5. The Turning (Floria Sigismondi, USA) – The Turn of the Screw for the hyperactive generation, complete with missing an ending so bad.
4. Godmothered (Sharon Maguire, USA) – Disney is death.
3. Cats & Dogs 3: Paws United (Sean McNamara, USA) – It’s a third Cats & Dogs, movie. Why?
2. Fantasy Island (Jeff Wadlow, USA) – I wish I hadn’t seen this.
Dolittle (Stephen Gaughan, USA) – Having Robert Downey Jr.’s career after being cast as Tony Stark is clearly a fate worse than death.
BEST TITLE I’m Thinking of Ending Things
WORST TITLE Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
MOST OBVIOUS TITLE ATTEMPT TO AVOID ABBREVIATION TO WW2 Wonder Woman 1984
EASIEST PAIR OF TITLES TO MIX UP Emma. and Ema
I swear those are two different movies. To be fair, they both star Latin Americans, but one of them stars an Argentinian and a Brazilian and the other one stars a Mexican and a Chilean. OK, actually that doesn’t clear anything up. As the director of one of these gloriously pointed out, the period film is the one with a period at the end. That help?
BEST POSTER Da 5 Bloods
A side effect of barely any movies at the theaters means that there’s hardly any physical posters since there’s no theater to display them at, so I really hoped to pick a theatrically released film to stick it to streaming but there’s just slim pickings. Even then, it’s hard to argue against this poster’s utilisation of protest art – of a beautifully dual-sided anti-war and pro-black protest – aesthetic to present the grab bag of ideas it’s delivering as well as reflecting on the epic and unwieldy nature of the movie.
BEST TEASER POSTER Gretel & Hansel
At least this one can be a theatrical release and it’s just about simple enough to creep one out without even trying, placing Alice Krige’s wonderfully creepy vacant face on one edge of the poster to the point of barely capturing her profile and her hand at the opposite end and makes sure to fill that empty space with just one very wrong thing to tell what kind of movie this is with the sickly yellow hue of it sealing the deal. “A Grim Fairy Tale” is also a very cute pun.
WORST POSTER Mank
I know what it’s trying to imitate but it is imitating it badly. It’s the text placement that is messing it up for me, which would make more sense if they didn’t still shove conventional credits at the bottom. Plus the attempt to take what’s already a plenty expressionist art style and overwhelm it with the warping to imply a drunken haze. Like, nah, this ain’t it.
BEST TRAILER The Green Knight
Ambiguous enough to pull the interest for more information, even as someone who is already familiar with every part of Arthuriana. Eerie and atmospheric to give the psychological sense of fear without acting like a horror movie. David Lowery has generally been a director that I’ve been dubious of but every image and sound that this trailer communicated has me just ready for what he’s about to deliver and it’s even enough to wash the bad taste of David Copperfield out of my mouth.
BEST TRAILER UNDER ITS CIRCUMSTANCES The Batman
Nothing particularly revelatory in this trailer, but one has to admit it’s impressive what they were able to put together just to build early hype especially given how cursed the production was turning out to be. Plus the build up with Nirvana almost makes me forgive how much a Nirvana song showing up in a movie trailer would have Kurt Cobain rolling in his grave.
WORST TRAILER Mank
Same as the Mank poster, it is just so bad at resembling the Citizen Kane era movie preview-isms. It feels like too much of a blur to make any worthwhile impression. Really emblematic of my issues with Mank as a movie, how dedicating it is to imitating a style instead of using it as a launchpad.
BIGGEST PLOT TWIST IN A TRAILER Connected
This loses its punch now that the title has been changed back to The Mitchells vs. the Machines but once upon a time I had absolutely no reason to expect the trailer to suddenly change the movie’s premise halfway through its family road trip picture to a robot action movie. Felt like a Spies in Disguise move.
MOST “SO BAD, IT’S GOOD” TRAILER Hillbilly Elegy
This movie is a bad terminator but the trailer is a so bad, it’s good terminator.
MOST UNORTHODOX NEEDLE DROP IN A MOVIE “The Plan” – Travis Scott in Tenet, which I’m imagining was just Ludwig Goransson lazily inviting Travis Scott to check this cool thing he was working on and Scott deciding he wanted to lay a verse over one of the music cues of the film. At least it’s in the credits, but Travis Scott in a Christopher Nolan movie is wild.
MOST SCENE-BREAKING NEEDLE DROP “Running with the Wolves” – Aurora in Wolfwalkers. I can admire the musicians for trying to rearrange the song to fit more with the wonderful Celtic folk score, but it still sounds just way too poppy in its drums to prevent taking me out of this transportive film as an emotionally critical moment.
BEST LINE “There’s fuckery afoot.” – Rosalind Pearson (Michelle Dockery) giving us word up in The Gentlemen (written by Guy Ritchie)
WORST LINE “Oh, my Barry berries” – Barry the tiger (Ralph Fiennes) after getting punched in the balls in Dolittle (written by Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, & Doug Mand and definitely other ghostwriters but whoever is responsible for this line knows what the fuck he did).
BEST MOMENT The fireworks sequence in Wonder Woman 1984, absolutely hokey and cheesy as it is but feeling just as much a part of the Silver Age optimism of Richard Donner’s Superman with as much dazzling colors and light. If modern superhero movies were more like that scene, I’d probably not be complaining as much about their existence. Almost as iconic as the first movie’s No Man’s Land scene.
WORST MOMENT The very last reveal of Fantasy Island involving a character’s new identity, which had to work incredibly hard to be a low point for a film that just kept getting worse and worse and feels like some miscalculated fan service for the internet generation.
MOST FILM-DESTROYING MOMENT The third act of Promising Young Woman which crashes and burns where a previously perfectly functional anti-rape revenge picture was flying to have really unchecked character nihilism.
MOST INSANE PLOT TWIST Wild Mountain Thyme and I ain’t spoiling a damn thing.
BEST CAMEO Veronica Ngo in Da 5 Bloods
Always a pleasure to see her show up in a picture and her presence as a source of inspiration and disillusion for the characters in the minimal screen time she shows – I have no real reference towards the mimicry of the real-life Hanoi Hannah so I can’t say much on that – is balanced impressively.
MOST BALLSY CAMEOS Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Sturgill Simpson, and Glenn Howerton in The Hunt
I really like how long The Hunt was able to play the long con of who of these recognizable actors is supposed to be the protagonist while dispatching of them bloodily over the first 20-30 minutes.
MOST EGREGIOUS BRAND PLACEMENT Amazon and US Gypsum in Nomadland.
Imagine actually working with two of the main benefactors for the system that causes poverty while making a movie ostensibly about poverty and being actually nostalgic for those benefactors.
MOST INEXPLICABLE PRODUCT PLACEMENT Olive Garden for Sonic the Hedgehog.
MOST UNORTHODOX CAMEO Bill Nye in Mank. I genuinely would like to know the thought process that determined we’d watch Bill Nye chant socialiast ideals in silhouette pretending to be Upton Sinclair for 60 seconds.
MOST UNEXPECTED CAMEO Michael Bay in Bad Boys for Life. So I guess he left the franchise on good enough terms but I can’t tell if he was playing an MC at the wedding or actually a friend of the family’s. The wooden delivery of calling Will Smith “Uncle Mike” blurs those lines.
WORST CAMEO Simon Cowell in Scoob!. Are we still in 2003? The man is basically trying to synergize his brand and apparently dragged his poor son into this as well.
HORROR MOVIES ABOUT MISERABLE HOME SITUATIONS RANKED The Dark and the Wicked Run The Lodge Color Out of Space Come to Daddy Come Play You Should Have Left The Turning
MOVIES ABOUT WEIRD SOUL SWAPS IN OTHER BODIES RANKED Wolfwalkers Ride Your Wave Zombi Child Soul Wonder Woman 1984 Freaky NiNoKuni
(I regret to say I have not yet seen Possessor)
BEST MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE MOVIE The only good thing about 2020 in movies is that we’ve had the best MCU year ever: 0 fucking movies.
Now we’re slated for 4 movies and 6 tv shows in 2021 and already the discussion on WandaVision got me sick of it without even watching an episode.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT Ema
It’s not like Pablo Larrain has never made a movie I disliked, given that The Club exists. But the stylisation gave me much higher hopes that this would exactly be my shit and instead it’s not nearly stylized enough or with a strong enough central performance to function as what it wants to be: a coy character study with an opaque central character.
MOVIES I WAS MOST EXCITED TO SEE IN 2020 THAT I GOTTA WAIT UNTIL 2021 FOR NOW Annette – Not only for being Leos Carax’s new movie since Holy Motors reawakened him but also for being a musical composed by Sparks and starring Marion Cotillard. The French Dispatch – Yes, of course I am excited for a Wes Anderson omnibus. The Green Knight– Even as someone suspicious towards David Lowery, I’m just too much of a sucker for Arthuriana. The Tragedy of MacBeth – Apprehensive about if one Coen brother is as strong as the two of them together but also Denzel playing Shakespeare seems a no brainer. Top Gun: Maverick– I cannot imagine watching this movie anywhere but on a big screen.
MOST OVERRATED Oh my word, it’s slightly early still but the Best Picture Oscar is basically Nomadland’s to lose right now and everybody is eating it up and I will want to crawl under a fucking rug when it happens. Sure, it’s nice to see a woman of color sweep awards but it’s hard for me to root for it without feeling performative when it’s a movie I disliked and morally object to by a director I’ve been unimpressed with.
MOST UNDERRATED Technically this would be the ridiculously over-hated Wonder Woman 1984 or the disappointingly underappreciated Monster Hunter, but those will both have their moment later in this post. Instead, I must give this to Underwater, a movie whose sole crime appears to be a tense and murky deep sea thriller with basically no fat to its escalation to deep sea monster movie. Some people just can’t appreciate the good stuff.
MOST LIKELY TO DEPRECIATE FOR ME OVERTIME Birds of Prey and Fatman
Both of them for similar reasons of feeling like they try a bit too hard, to the point that Fatman has already aged enough for me to go maybe “it’s more the idea of its humor than it actually being funny”. In Birds of Prey’s case, the more I look back on any self-referential winking moment, the more it reminds me of Deadpool’s artificial attempt at bounciness and while Birds of Prey is definitely better than Deadpool and Suicide Squad… that chain isn’t a good thing to be reminded of.
MOST LIKELY TO APPRECIATE FOR ME OVERTIME Greenland and Zombi Child
Again, both of these pretty much already started growing more on me: Zombi Child is the sort of weird thing that just sticks in my brain and never lets go, steadily climbing to my honorable mentions of this year as you will see. Greenland, it’s all about that first act and how much it does with the scope of an apocalyptic movie even while it later devolves into the usual Gerard Butler vehicle trash. Maybe I can just stop the movie 40 minutes in next time and pretend it’s that perfect.
MOVIE I’M MOST PROBABLY GOING TO REWATCH SOON On the Rocks
It’s the same thing as every Sofia Coppola movie, the surfaces are so distracting in awesome ways that I feel the need to go back and scratch further underneath to see what else it is she’s got on her mind. And say what we like about her using the same premise over and over, she always has a lot on her mind.
BEST SURPRISE The Croods: A New Age is probably the 2020 movie that has the least reason to exist at all and yet it justified itself and more by its embracing of color and ridiculous animal designs, disabusing me of the fear Trolls: World Tour gave me that Dreamworks Animation’s unexpected late reign of visual splendour had ended and giving Kelly Marie Tran a role worthy of her talent (she sounds like she’s having more fun here than she did in Raya and the Last Dragon) and Cloris Leachman a hilarious final hurrah.
(For the record, I almost made Trolls: World Tour my Biggest Disappointment for the symmetry of having Dreamworks Animation sequels up in here, but even as someone who really likes the first Trolls, it was worryingly evident in the trailers they already over-smoothed the textures that made the first a visual delight).
BEST POPCORN MOVIE This is technically Tenet but that’s in my top ten and it’s also technically Wonder Woman 1984 but look below on that so I will instead dedicate this space to the awesome popcorn movie power of Monster Hunter, the most successful of Paul WS Anderson’s experiments to translate video game storytelling to real big movie scenarios. On top of its ability to take Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa and star in their own wasteland buddy comedy together. On top of having a pirate chef cat.
BEST Fantasy Island ADAPTATION Wonder Woman 1984, complete with a better Mr. Roarke in the form of Pedro Pascal. Sorry, Michael Peña. (Thank you to Z.G. for making this joke in my view)
MOST UNEXPECTEDLY APT FILM FOR THE PANDEMIC She Dies Tomorrow. Talk about prophetic with the conceptual virus here.
BEST BAD MOVIE You can tell Josh Trank had no intention of wasting his unexpected “second chance” at a career as a filmmaker with Capone and the resultant excess is a gloriously dedicated time. Which is probably to be expected everytime you give Tom Hardy a chance to ham it up, but even in its laughability… this movie is weirdly admirable in its go-for-brokeness.
GUILTIEST PLEASURE A Recipe for Seduction. In the words of Rick Sanchez, I just looked straight into the bleeding jaws of capitalism and said “yes, daddy, please…”. Helps that it’s only 16 minutes long though and that I never have any craving for the world’s worst fried chicken so I am immune to the propaganda. My craving is just for Mario Lopez’s biceps with that moustache.
BEST FESTIVAL WATCH NOT YET RELEASED IN THE US Frank & Zed
BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN 2020 FOR THE FIRST TIME Bridges-Go-Round (1958, Shirley Clarke, USA) A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang, Taiwan) The Cameraman (1928, Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, USA) The Falls (1980, Peter Greenaway, UK) Forty Guns (1957, Samuel Fuller, USA) Glistening Thrills (2013, Jodie Mack, USA) God Told Me To (1976, Larry Cohen, USA) Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989, Tracey Moffatt, Australia) Redline (2009, Koike Takeshi, Japan) Tekkonkinkreet (2006, Michael Arias, Japan) (and One Cut of the Dead and La Flor, though they qualified for 2019)
MOVIES I WISH I HAD SEEN BEFORE MAKING THIS POST BUT DIDN’T WAIT BECAUSE I WANTED TO BEAT THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS AND IT’S MY OWN FAULT THERE’S SO MANY FOR BEING TOO BABY TO KEEP UP WITH NEW RELEASES BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE STREAMING Possessor, Peninsula, The Willoughbys, The Cordillara of Dreams, Graves Without a Name, Joan of Arc, Sunless Shadows, The Painted Bird, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, The Truth, Young Ahmed, Liberté, Kajillionaire, A White White Day, The Roads Not Taken, Vitalina Varela, and Tigertail.
HONORABLE TELEVISION MENTION Small Axe, Primal, and Keep Your Hands Off, Eizouken!
Primal is on its second season of course and there doesn’t seem to be any mistake with Eizouken’s status as miniseries, so I guess Small Axe is the only one that needs explaining. In which case I’ll just point out that save for Mangrove (which definitely feels cinematic in its choice of runtime and structure and aspect ratio), the strengths that make Small Axe (and especially the phenomenal Lovers Rock) one of the best things I’ve watched all year are strengths that take advantage of the limitations and format and even the viewing area (probably your living room) of a television program.
HONORABLE MENTIONS The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA) Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France) Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa, Poland/France) Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA) Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie (Richard Phelan & Will Becher, UK) The Father (Florian Zeller, France/UK) Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, USA) Monster Hunter (Paul WS Anderson, China/Germany/Japan/USA) Nimic (Yorgos Lanthimos, Germany/UK/USA) Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, UK/France/Belgium) Soul (Pete Docter & Kemp Powers, USA) Synchronic (Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, USA) The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, China/France) Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, USA) Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, France)
AND THE TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2020
10. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, USA)
Probably more of a result of having directly binged as much of her expansive short film work (as well as her first feature) as I had access to before watching this one, but there’s just something really satisfying about watching a filmmaker’s development over her career to something as confident as this. Using her characteristic avant-garde stop-motion cutting over textiles, The Grand Bizarre guides us through a wordless globalist musing on how cloth with its colors and textures communicate cultural ideas to us and has its mark all over the world.
9. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Without diverging from his MO of lacking narration or narrative, Wiseman finally went and decided to show his hand as a political filmmaker and the result is his most exciting documentary since National Gallery. Is it the sort of movie where you imprint your own conceptions on the fly-on-the-wall footage, same as his other films? Absolutely, but the arrangement in his cutting here surprisingly brings his personal perspective this hometown city of his and the frustration with bureaucratic slowness that feels stuck between the urgency of each individual constituents’ personal issue and glad-handing idealist speak that politicians use to give the impression that they’ll do something without providing any actual action.
8. The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
Kind of easy to do when it’s a short film, but I promise I haven’t forgotten a single image from this most harrowing of short films. Uses lines and blackness in a way that makes it more solid and urgent as a nightmare and with Mica Levi’s score amplifying the terror that this short is supposed to communicate without relying on anything visceral or grotesque. Just masks and lines and black and bass. So good, rewatching it washes off the bad taste of Strasbourg 1518 from the same year. I don’t know how long we need to wait for Glazer’s next feature, but I can’t wait.
7. Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, UK/USA)
All it needed to do was be well constructed enough and have a cast that has a good enough handle on the material to be a movie I liked. The way that De Wilde and company walked into this production with a contemporary willingness to be mean about its characters and that her crew got to let the colors truly add a rosy irony in its aesthetic to all the nastiness going on beneath the proper prose. It’s always the dopest when filmmakers REALLY get Jane Austen’s viciousness and play into it. Begs for a rewatch double feature with Love & Friendship and I wouldn’t be surprised if I indulge in that soon.
6. Tenet (Christopher Nolan, UK/USA)
It is just a huge breath of fresh air to have Christopher Nolan finally tell us the only things he really cares about with his movies: visual sleekness, pounding momentum, and structure. That’s it: story and characters are at the mercy of the writer (which is him. Oops!) and the cast (which play with 2D spy movie stock types incredibly well – Washington and Pattinson with their personality, Branagh with his hamminess). So all that’s left is to just rocket through the creative big-time action set pieces with enough spy movie tension in between so that we don’t get a chance to catch our breath even when stuff isn’t going backwards on-screen, in Nolan’s lovely feature-length tribute to the oldest of cinematic visual effects: running the film backwards. Really, I feel the chilliness this movie received is based on a misconception that its convolutions and flatness as a story are a puzzle to be solved rather than just a ride to be rode. And I really enjoyed the ride.
5. The Wolf House (Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña, Chile)
If The Fall was harrowing as a fantastical concept delivered in less than 10 minutes, The Wolf House was like slowly discovering your spine has been shivering for the past 75 minutes. From its impressive meta-gambit to the grotesque look of its animation style as though watching characters painfully melt and reconstruct over and over, The Wolf House was already plenty horrifying enough on a fundamental manner of its creeping dark aesthetic even without the context of the real-life horrors this movie is trying to contextualize under its skin. Have something ready to cheer you up after watching this for sure.
4. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
The argument can of course be made that it’s Yuasa’s second shot at the same concepts as Lu Over the Wall, but Ride Your Wave takes the similar ingredients while having its own visual identity – its sunbright pink and blue animated lighting, the singular pop song as an emotional anchor of Ride Your Wave are easy to distinguish from the Fleischer dance animations, the cool green, and the bouncy music of Lu Over the Wall. And while I love Lu with all my heart, Ride Your Wave sweeps the floor with it: it has a much more down-to-Earth (for a fantasy about resurrection) story about making your own life while dealing with love and loss as things that the human soul is going to have to push through, however hard it gets. Sneaking in emotional gut punches while still having the sense of humor that something as cartoonish as a Yuasa film should have, I’m honestly disappointed with how little it’s been making waves on the Animated Feature awards circuit while being surprised there were at least two animated films that surpassed this year.
3. World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
It took me a minute to get used to the sudden shift of focus and mood that the third film in Don Hertzfeldt’s ongoing existential future series of short films threw us into, and I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got my footing on it (but I am confident I’ll have it by Episode 4). But the presence of the wonderful Emily Prime of the first two seemed to have brought us to forget how dark and cynical Hertzfeldt was capable of being in between his insightful humanity as a storyteller. Either way, each World of Tomorrow entry has proven to be Hertzfeldt’s most visually ambitious work to date and Episode 3 did not fail on that: it plays with the z-axis to give physical depth to these stick figures. It also adds a new fatalist visual layer for gags on top of bringing more clutter and detail to the world-building. If nothing else, this entry really put the World in World of Tomorrow in a way I didn’t even realize it needed.
2. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart, Ireland/Luxembourg/USA/UK/France)
Cartoon Saloon already pretty much nailed the use of two-dimensional shapes resembling Celtic art aesthetic with The Secret of Kells and based on their subsequent lovely but unrevelatory features, I was starting to feel they had hit a stop on where to develop the style from there. Wolfwalkers was beyond my dreams of what they were capable of. Moore and Stewart and the other animators transform folk art into something actually malleable to code the dichotomies in its story at war: placing blocky shapes against relaxed round elements in order to visually compliment its unexpectedly rich screenplay basically at its core about resistance as independent feminine nature vs. masculine violent urbanisation in the form of two girls’ friendship within a hostile world (with the threading of the complex discommunication between father and daughter). By the time we got to our first instance of seeing the pencil sketch lines remaining on certain character designs and point of view shots (adding a roughness that gave the visuals further amiable character), I was convinced that Cartoon Saloon was the best animation studio working today.
1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
And from one period piece that uses its own portrayal of a developing society to comment on the world as it is now to another. And there’s really nothing within First Cow that Reichardt hasn’t been exploring all throughout her career – what with its central oddball friendship to muse on where quiet tenderness has its place in masculinity and its quiet implication of capital and class as a source of hierarchical exploitation of both people and nature – but it’s done with a silent confidence that gets to have its shagginess without feeling lazily put together by Reichardt. It’s ambling and patient stuff that only yielded more depth the deeper it sinks into its time and place as an ambling state of mind and earns the emotions of its unexpected final beats without stressing it in the slightest. I know I said nothing I saw all year earned five stars from me, but maybe on a rewatch this movie and the two runner-ups (Wolfwalkers and World of Tomorrow Episode 3) would creep up to that.
Alright, that’s it. I’m done. Let’s move on to our next shitty year.
It has been 32 years and I don’t think cinema has ever produced something as incendiary as Do the Right Thing since its 1989 premiere at Cannes. Definitely nothing in the mainstream American cinema, sadly nothing writer-director Spike Lee has made since (even with the ambition he threw 3 years later behind Malcolm X), and the closest analogues I can think of – Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables – are sadly written off as “French Do the Right Things”. The fact is that the fire lit by the Do the Right Thing is still burning enough to keep us heated all these decades later and honestly given the state of American society as it is today, it is sad but true that that fire has to keep burning. And the brightness of that fire has of course scared a-plenty of viewers at the time of its release fearing that the movie was genuinely dangerous and was going to cause race riots on the streets from its content, a modern-day Rites of Spring. And even when that fear was unfounded, the movie’s lack of interest in providing a straightforward answer regarding the issues it casually depicts apparently struck enough of a nerve with viewers to engage less in the conversation that Do the Right Thing was inviting and more in a desire to validate their own pre-existing notions.
Maybe it’s simply the charged energy of the picture that truly took audiences aback before the fiery climax even occurred, since Do the Right Thing opens on one of my favorite opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen – bombastically providing what looks like a studio-set version of a Brooklyn brownstone set with black shadows between green and red lighting and dynamic cutting for one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez dancing with aggression to the angry declarations of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”. One could absolutely see how a movie providing such bold imagery and rhythm from its very first frame, not even giving us a breather, could intimidate an audience and get them outside of ease before Lee begins weaving us through the variety of charged stories that take place in Do the Right Thing‘s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy for short.
The film famously portrays a day and change in Bed-Stuy, except it has a particular distinction of being the hottest day of the summer. Insofar as the movie has a protagonist, it would be Mookie (Lee himself) as he starts another day at his job delivering pizzas from Sal’s (Danny Aiello) restaurant, a cornerstone of that neighborhood for a very long time. And as Mookie heads on down his deliveries to his leisure (occasionally one leading him to his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their infant son Hector), we meet and hang with several different characters on that street: the local drunk Da Mayor as he occasionally disputes with the matriarchal Mother Sister (played by real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee respectively) being one of the more important strands for us to pay attention to, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who alienates everyone with the large boom box he carries around blasting the same Public Enemy song from that opening credits being another, but mostly doing its relaxed best to sift through Bed-Stuy as a place of diversity that’s not entirely welcome: the tension between Korean shopkeepers, West Indian immigrants, and Puerto Rican folk among all the born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn Black Americans already brings about a nervousness to the energy this movie starts with without adding in the Italian-Americans and police presence intruding on a neighborhood that the movie takes care to note are not from there. While Do the Right Thing is about watching that tension just continuing boiling in a pot over and over under the hot sun above before the pressure just blows the lid right off, the fact is that most of the racial antagonism was there from the start and the movie wants us to know it: one of the first incidents is a low-scale explosion where Da Mayor – one of the film’s most lived-in and agreeable characters – blows up on the Korean family and delivers some racial remarks simply for not having his brand of beer.
If there is any real inciting incident to the picture, it’s the moment where one of Mookie’s friends – the outspoken Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito – there was a time where this movie and Breaking Bad were my only conscious exposures to Esposito and it was outright impossible to reconcile Buggin’ Out and Gustavo Fring were played by the same actor) – dares to challenge the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria and how it only has Italian-Americans and no black people on it. And yet it escalates from the temperaments of both Sal and Buggin’ Out so quickly that shortly after Sal steps out from behind the counter with a baseball bat simply from Buggin’ Out’s loaded question and has to be held back by his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) as opposed to his more black-friendly son Vito (Richard Edson). And that sort volatility is revealed before the halfway point of a two hour film: so what we see is just characters letting the heat get them soured enough to spit invective in any which direction and it seems like the only character who has not a single antagonist hostile bone in his body is the DJ who occasionally describes the state of affairs before his giant window in his air-conditioned radio booth, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), to the point that he personally interrupts a centerpiece sequence of four different characters spitting the most venomous racial remarks in direct address with an accelerated wide-to-close-up dolly that really grinds our nose in that hate. Everything that happens by the explosive end of Do the Right Thing was a brewing a long time in the hearts of the characters, even while it all comes as a mixture of shock and disappointment and Spike delivers it all with a rage that shakes the viewer violently.
Anyway, the thing about Do the Right Thing – at least the takeaway I’ve had in the 12 years since I first saw it – is that it is a movie about NOT knowing everything, even and especially when you’re under duress both environmental and social. And more particularly an attempt to subvert the camera eye as something so omniscient towards its subjects but providing a story that has absolutely no easy answers and even impishly gives conflicting attitudes about its own things: it ends with two contradictory quotes by the late civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, characters whose dichotomy we are constantly reminded of by the disabled character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and his attempts to sell pictures of their handshake to people who just aren’t interested. Do the Right Thing is a very cinematic picture with its choice of camera movements by the great Ernest Dickerson such as those afore-mentioned direct address dollys or the placement of the actors in the grand space of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in a way that plays well with how often Dickerson seems to decide one type of scale per shot is not enough (the Radio Raheem “Love-Hate” monologue swaps from profile to its own direct address and then back to profile; a long-take boombox battle between Raheem and the Puerto Ricans switches back and forth in tight close-ups before visually announcing the victor with a grand rise of the crane; another interior medium pulls out into an exterior crane late in the film). It’s also just as cinematic the rapid way Barry Alexander Brown switches between tangeants like a continuous thought to the point that some scenes cut in the middle of a character’s last word, sometimes in association like when a delivery from Mookie to Señor Love Daddy leads to a needledrop that catches the attention of the Puerto Rican boys leading to their conflict with Raheem. And it’s of course most intense when it comes to actual heated conflicts: the climactic ones between Raheem and Sal are shot in bizarre canted angles that look like medium shots with the direct focus of close-ups so the intensity of Sal and Raheem within the frame gives the sense of big emotions with physical smallness.
And that’s just in regards to what Do the Right Thing does with its visual ambition to communicate the sense that we are looking all over the people of Bed-Stuy in a novelesque way. There’s another function to the movie-ness of it all: because Do the Right Thing has to feel real fucking hot and just cramping up interiors with fans or drenching the actors with screen sweat won’t just cut it, Dickerson and the color editors have seen fit to favor the reds and oranges that remind us of that hot sun above (and I don’t remember if there’s even a close-up of the sun, meaning that it’s through that color that we are meant to live in the heat with the characters) while in the meantime, the lights seem positioned specifically to favor the brightest white spots on the heads of the actors like a negative chiaroscuro so that we understand exactly what that temperature is falling on. The walls of the neighborhood and the costumes fill in as much white and blue as they can while still playing along with that color temperature serving as the visual translation of the REAL temperature.
It’s of course to be expected that someone like Spike Lee – whose open film scholar-ness isn’t discussed on the same level of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but absolutely reaches their levels – would be happy to engage with the extent to which he and the crew can move the camera around to the sweet jazz score of Bill Lee and watch these characters bake in the summer. Him pouring his love for the movies (lest we forget that Raheem’s “Love-Hate” monologue is pretty much an appropriation of a similar monologue in The Night of the Hunter amongst other cinematic quotings sprinkled throughout) is just one of several areas that makes Do the Right Thing an obviously personal film: it’s practically a family affair on the level of The Godfather with Bill Lee being Spike’s father (who was also responsible for Davis and Dee getting cast) and Spike’s sister Joie playing Mookie’s exasperated sister Jade, Spike being a longtime native to Bed-Stuy and portraying the neighborhood with the sort of loving intimacy only someone so close to that place could have (to the point that even the constructed pizzeria and Korean shop feel well integrated), and even inching in an anti-Celtics joke with a cameo by John Savage. It’s basically indulgent in the ways that somebody pouring their heart into a depiction of a place and an issue that matters deeply to them would have to be, casual enough to be a pleasant watch but not to undercut the urgency of the climactic violent moments that probably most horrified viewers of all sorts.
And it feels hard to discuss Do the Right Thing without discussing the ending, which I’m trying not to do for anyone who might want to run to see this movie immediately after reading this (and you should have been running to it yesterday) but basically SPOILER ALERT: that climax is where Spike as a writer lays all his sucker punches while portraying how easily the thread can snap for people and a combustion can be catalyzed. It’s not all that much a surprise to the right viewers that Sal turns out to be a racist just the same as Vito is, but we did spend an hour and 40 minutes in his company watching him happily chat up Jade or Da Mayor or letting the kids in after hours to have one more slice before he leaves for the night (the fact that those same kids are behind Sal when Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront him during closing time and then turn around in shock when Sal throws out the n-word is indicative of how well embedded he was in Bed-Stuy as a community and how easy it was for him to betray that). And it’s not just Sal who has a rapid shift, Mookie is relatively placid during the movie when Buggin’ Out is causing a scene with Sal (though that may just be Lee’s… lack of acting ability. It works though!) and yet once he sees Raheem dead on the ground is when he recognizes action must be taken and throws that garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria in another long take. Or the manner in which a community that frequently mocked or confronted with Raheem and respected Sal throughout the movie is willing to put all that aside in solidarity against Sal in recognition that he caused Raheem’s death at the hands of the police (who characteristically leave scot-free). Or simply the fact that ML (Paul Benjamin) – after holding a verbal grudge against the Korean grocers (Steve Park & Ginny Yang) – is inches away from invoking his own violent wrath on their store in the heat of the riot receives clarity at the last second and leaves them be. In any case, the chaos of that climax is where Do the Right Thing pulls the curtains back on what all the characters were truly feeling and lets it sprawl on the streets like a wildfire.
And if Spike decided to just leave us in that emotional sprawl, maybe I’d get why audiences were scared of this movie to the degree that the Oscars ran all the way in the other direction that year to award Best Picture to the cravenly placating Driving Miss Daisy (a move I’m certain Lee considers a personal insult with all the critical acclaim and discussion Do the Right Thing was getting that awards season). But this is a movie about a place he loves and that we can assume he doesn’t want to see torn down and it’s telling that the next morning’s final sequence is not just the character recognizing they’re still standing but Mookie and Sal specifically still standing and at a mutual recognition with each other. It starts hot – a shot-reverse shot that involves Mookie and Sal’s heightened emotions regarding Mookie’s pay and what happened to Sal’s pizzeria – but it ends by the end of it with the wide two-shot that could only come once the two of them got it all out of their systems and walk away not friends but not at each other’s throats either. That Lee saw fit to allow Sal that dignity as opposed to any other character in the film is telling, a mood of restoration that is essential if Mookie or Sal or the rest of Bed-Stuy is gonna be able to survive last night with the memory of Radio Raheem strongly surrounding it, a memory invoked by the last spoken line of the film by that one calm, cool, collected voice of reason Señor Love Daddy.
Anyway, none of that final cool down stopped audiences from feeling that this movie was dangerous and I agree that it’s dangerous. Just not dangerous in the same way that people realize. It’s the last dangerous picture, not no Joker that has nothing social to really say or agitprop films that try way too hard to deliver THE POINT. Do the Right Thing is dangerous because it’s ostensibly about people just living in one spot for 24 hours and it just builds up in an organic way to the violence it depicts: a violence that indicts systemic imbalances and horrors that remain relevant and grave to this very day and age, a violence that comes with a righteous rage that was on 11 from frame one, and a violence that interrupts an otherwise survivable but hot day in a very vibrant and colorful place lived-in by vibrant and colorful people whom we don’t have room to hate (outside of the police and Pino). It’s a movie full of humanity that ends up casualty to that violence, constructed and depicted as a realistic place amplified by the movie’s craft. And that craft may be the subject of Spike’s indulgent and compromised perspective on Bed-Stuy in an ostensibly “Day in the Life” overview of the characters, but somehow all that indulgence and compromise and inconsistency just piles into the humanity of Do the Right Thing to make it not only that dangerous movie that people feared but an unexpectedly perfect object – arguably the only PERFECT movie of a filmmaker who is not interested in perfection and never pursues – and in turn the greatest American movie of the 1980s. In my humble opinion you see, for if there’s one thing Do the Right Thing teaches me, it’s that I don’t know everything.