Greetings, all, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! 2020 is (finally) over, but its movie slate is still running until February 26, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) will close the submissions deadline for Oscar consideration, thus effectively closing the book on the movie year from hell. It’s been a truly tough, draining time to be alive for the past 290 days or so (a rough estimate), but we made it out of 2020 together, and while not everything is quite running smoothly again and many have suffered tremendous loss on all fronts, there is finally the tiniest sliver of light at the end of this very, very long tunnel.
A part of that light also comes in the form of awards season movie releases, as the year that would have been in movies begins to come to a close. Some, such as Mank or The Trial of the Chicago 7, have already been released on streaming services, and many others (One Night in Miami, Minari, Nomadland, The Father) have set their theatrical/streaming release dates more firmly in place for the next several weeks. But before we get into all of that, plus the always-exciting end-of-year lists for this site, we have a little house cleaning to do. Here’s the 4th batch of Mini Reviews for the cinematic year of 2020!
Totally Under Control
Without doubt the splashiest documentary of 2020, taking direct aim both at the novel Coronavirus and those who did nothing to prepare for it, Totally Under Control is less a visceral takedown of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidential response to Covid-19 than it is a sort of roadmap to how the virus spread in its earliest days. There is plenty of Trump-bashing, don’t get me wrong (honestly it could have been a lot harsher on that front), but the bulk of the film is more informational, taking us step-by-step through the discovery of the virus, the rapid construction of hospitals in Wuhan, the timing of Covid’s emergence merging with heavy holiday air travel, and pretty much every other element that’s made it such a disaster to deal with. There were absolutely better documentaries this year, but hardly any as educational or essential to the times we live in now. 7.6/10.
I didn’t hate watching this, but I also wouldn’t call it anything except terrible. Going into it, I had ultra-low expectations, and the film delivered on those the best it could, with clunky dialogue, no real characters, some truly bizarre plot structure choices, and a “twist” you see coming before the opening credits start to roll. It’s a terrible movie for sure, but it’s not the worst movie of 2020, and that is definitely saying something. 3.2/10.
One of the first true indies to release post-shutdown, Yellow Rose has a lot of potential that it almost makes good on. The performances, especially from lead Eva Noblezada and supporting actor Dale Watson, are very good (though not quite Oscar-good), and some of the camerawork is beautiful, but the movie itself feels as if it doesn’t really know what sort of point it wants to make. What’s inside the frame is working on a surface level, but it feels devoid of direction or purpose, attempting to include different elements of more meaningful stories inside its own version of A Star Is Born that doesn’t quite gel together all the way. Still, it’s worth seeing – just don’t expect to be very moved. 7.2/10.
Many remakes, like Scarface or The Thing, become classics over time, so much so that many don’t even remember that they are remakes in the first place. Ben Wheatley’s take on Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca, will not be counted among those remakes. Maxim de Winter now feels cold and empty rather than mysterious and tortured (in a truly committed performance from an Armie Hammer who has nothing to do), and all the filmmaking flair Hitchcock brought to the cinematography, the lighting, the pacing, and the direction of his own film is nowhere to be found here. Lily James does what she can, but her range feels limited in this role, and Kristin Scott Thomas (try as she might) can’t make Mrs. Danvers as she’s written here anything more than a vindictive, jealous housemaid, whereas the original rendition was certainly conniving but unmistakably human. In short, everything that made Rebecca (1940) special has been flattened here into something more resembling a factory testing product than any actual vision. 4.6/10.
The Empty Man
I’ll be honest, I’ve forgotten most of what happens in this one, which I could just chalk up to having a not-great memory, but am unable to do so because I do remember how bored I felt most of the time watching it. James Badge Dale is fine in the movie, but the movie itself has no sense of direction or story. The script is so detached from whatever its characters are supposed to be feeling or doing that the movie feels as empty as the man within it. 5.1/10.
The visual presentation of this movie is quite bad (it’s absurdly washed out and flat looking), but its ambitious ideas are really interesting. The first half or so is pretty slow and doesn’t really add up to much, but once Anthony Mackie actually gets to testing this new experimental drug that can take you back in time for a few minutes, the movie picks up quite a bit. It never picks up quite enough to be any sort of underrated masterpiece, or even a very good movie, but it does do enough not to quite be a bad one, and for 2020’s movie slate, being just okay is good enough. 6.2/10.
The first screen movie entirely made from a Zoom call, and very much a movie of the 2020 moment, Rob Savage’s Host makes the absolute most of everything that means. Clocking in at just over an hour, this Shudder exclusive does everything it can think to do in that runtime, using screen freezes, sound drops, muted mics, the specter of Covid-19, and everything in between to maximum horror effect. If the all-screen style of filmmaking isn’t your thing, or even if horror isn’t your thing, you might not find this very entertaining, but for my money, it’s an extremely interesting way to go about making something like this, and the experiment paid off about as well as it ever could have. 8/10.
This is due for a re-watch and/or re-evaluation, but on my initial viewing at least, I just didn’t connect with it as much as I wanted to. That’s not to say that Channing Godfrey People’s summer indie hit is in any way bad, but it’s just not the sort of thing I was very impressed by on a personal level. The performances are good, and the filmmaking feels distinctive, very much of one vision, but the film itself feels meandering, as if it’s waiting to make a salient point but doesn’t have anything to say between introducing the film and making said point. It’s entirely possible I just didn’t really get it, but I can’t help how I felt watching it. 6.8/10.
Holy hell, was this movie fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a YA adaptation with this much energy, and this daring of a script. Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer match up really well as a pair, and the film itself dares to go to some pretty dark places without ever feeling hesitant about how dark those place could potentially get. Sure, it may not make anyone’s top 10 of 2020 list (including my own), but it absolutely made an impression and is definitely one of the most fun watches of the year. 8.2/10.
Shithouse may not have hit all the notes for me that it wanted to, but it’s undeniable that writer, director, and star Cooper Raiff has an extremely bright future ahead of him, especially if he continues to make feature films. His performance next to co-lead Dylan Gelula is only surpassed by how nuanced and honest his script feels, a large chunk of it being set over the course of one night. There’s a vibe here I can only describe as being akin to an early Linklater, singular but also very much universal, and I can’t wait to see what Raiff does next. 7.9/10.
And that’s it for Mini Reviews #4! Did you see any of these films? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.