Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! As noted in the last one of these, I am trying desperately to catch up on all the 2020 movies I missed, but because there are so many, I don’t have time to write full reviews for most of them. That’s where Mini Reviews come in. Essentially, they are one paragraph reviews of movies I’ve caught up on over the course of the year, focusing mainly on ones I missed early on, and occasionally including more recent fare. I also do a form of these for Bitesize Breakdown, but everything included here is something I haven’t reviewed for them, so my thoughts on these movies are all previously unpublished in most forms (apart from maybe some Letterboxd thoughts). Hopefully you’ll be encouraged to check some of these films out, or in some cases, saved from having to watch them, based on my own takes. With all that in mind, let’s jump into Mini Reviews #5!
Not to be confused with Blumhouse’s far lesser film, The Curse of La Llorona, this Guatemalan submission to the Oscars’ International Feature category burns with an energy like a stove top slowly getting hotter under the confident direction of Jayro Bustamante. It’s not exactly an instant classic, but there’s a lot to love in this story about a corrupt political leader being haunted by the infamous spirit named La Lorona for things he has done to the country and to its people, if he is in fact being haunted by an actual spirit at all. Easily one of the most underrated movies of the year (and particularly underrated for a horror release), this film rests on the more-than-capable performances of lead María Mercedes Coroy and supporting actor Julio Diaz. If you have a Shudder account (or even if you’re just curious), definitely check this one out. 7.8/10.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
This is yet another indie movie that seemed to be a hit among a lot of critics who saw it, but like Miss Juneteenth, it just didn’t connect with me in the way that I think it wanted to, and it’s possible I would need to re-watch it to remedy that. There’s no denying Jim Cummings has a lot of talent and potential as a filmmaker, but for the most part, I found his lead performance fairly unconvincing. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, but it feels more like the introduction of an interesting career for him than it does an actual step within that career. Still, it’s worth checking out. 6.2/10.
Easily the most stunning-looking documentary of the year, the Joaquin Phoenix-produced Gunda will absolutely bore some people to tears. Fortunately, I wasn’t one of them. As a statement on animal rights, I’m not entirely sure it does the job as effectively as it thinks it does due to its slow pace, but there is no denying writer/director Viktor Kossakovsky’s unparalleled cinematography and patience in the way that statement is made. Here is a form of storytelling in which human beings aren’t part of the actual story, just the guiding hands, and it’s a lot better than this description likely makes it sound. There may not be a narrative here, or a plot of any kind, but there is absolutely a theme, and the final few minutes (while it takes a while to get there) kick that theme right into your chest. 7.9/10.
Over the course of the 2020 shutdown, we lost an opportunity to see many great movies this year that couldn’t justify opening during the worst days of Covid-19’s rampage across the Unites States (days I’m really hoping stay the worst days). But some other movies got a lot more exposure and opportunity to shine than they otherwise might have as well, especially documentaries. That style of filmmaking thrived in 2020, and in few ways is that more evident than Collective, a searing glimpse into the investigation of a preventable tragedy that revealed deep corruption in the Romanian healthcare system. It’s one of those docs you really have to see to believe, and when you do see it, the parallels to the current state of the U.S. (purely in terms of its thematic molding) are striking. Journalism is perhaps the most essential job there is in the world, and Collective not only demonstrates this handily, but uncovers and reckons with some of humanity’s most uncomfortable and skin-crawling impulses, especially where it concerns healthcare corruption. I don’t know if this will land in my Top 10 Movies of 2020, but it’s certainly fought its way into sincere consideration. 9.8/10.
Movies about making movies is a trope Hollywood loves to celebrate, largely because that sort of storytelling usually shines a positive, nostalgic light on the craft, reminding us of the magic we feel when we watch a good movie. Black Bear and a fiery Aubrey Plaza are here to tear down all of that in just over and hour and a half with an unforgettably original story that plays on tropes we’ve seen over and over, showing us the ugly side of what it can be like to make movies. Plaza (as mentioned) is captivating here; you never take your eyes off her for even one second, and every time she exits the frame, the scene feels a little bit lacking because she’s so, so good in this movie. Christopher Abbott, too, turns in a performance always able to match Plaza, but never to outdo her, and Sarah Gadon makes a strong impression with her supporting role as well. I still have no idea what the ending of the film is supposed to mean, but the journey there is as fascinating as any other indie I saw in 2020. 8.6/10.
The Dark and the Wicked
With a title like this, Bryan Bertino’s latest horror offering sounds like it should be some sort of underrated VOD horror masterpiece; instead, it just feels like one third of its own movie and two thirds of poorly-paced, surface-level jump-scares that don’t actually make one jump or get scared. The performances are fine (though that’s up for debate where Michael Abbott Jr. is concerned), if unmemorable, and the filmmaking is never outright bad, but there’s nothing elevating one moment above the next, or differentiating certain scenes from others until there’s only about 20 minutes left, and that’s before we get to the fact that the plot is so vague it borders on nonsensical. It’s not an unwatchable movie by any stretch, but it all just feels like someone trying to make the next Hereditary without actually having understood the point of that movie or its thematic underpinnings. 6.2/10.
A small, intimate drama that echoes notes of Kogonada’s Columbus, this story of an unlikely friendship between a young child and next-door senior neighbor, who was a Korean War veteran, is one of the most subtlely brilliant and quietly moving films of the year. First released at the Berlin Film Festival in October 2019, its U.S. release was on-demand at the start of the summer. All of the performances are fantastic, with Brian Dennehy handily stealing the show in one of his final roles. His chemistry with Lucas Jaye is unmistakable; I wanted to spend more time with them together after the film was over, and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in small-scale dramas to spend some time watching them as well. 8.8/10
Filmed during the earliest days of Covid-19’s emergence, as Wuhan, China was locked down for the allotted time in the title, 76 Days is a sometimes uncomfortably intimate look at what it took for Wuhan to emerge from the other side of this dire crisis. We see the frontline healthcare workers prep to fill beds before their hospitals run over capacity, care for people until they’re cleared to leave, communicate with loved ones outside the hospital walls, deal with irritated or worsening patients, and at the end of it all, the unspeakable toll of the fallen still rings the bells throughout the city. It’s often harrowing, always engaging, and an essential document to witness if you truly want to know what things were like in the first days of Covid-19. There’s no particular story or thru-line to follow here, but the raw footage captured, and the cost of capturing it, are unparalleled by any other Covid-centered documentary yet released in 2020. 8.6/10.
I saw Martin Eden on many “Best of” towards the end of the year proper, so I was curious what this was all about. What I discovered in watching it (apart from Luca Marinelli’s truly magnificent performance as the title character) was a distinct visual style, sound, and Italian spirit, the like of which I hadn’t seen so boldly pronounced in filmmaking since at least The Godfather Part II. The film grain within the frame gives it the appearance of a film captured in the height of 70’s auteur stardom, and the brilliant score by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci captures a distinctly Italian spirit that fits the film perfectly. I’m not entirely sure I understood all of the socio-political contexts and conversations held within the film, but it’s so stunning to watch and listen to that I nonetheless found myself transfixed. It won’t be for everyone, but it most certainly was for me. 9.1/10.
One wouldn’t think upon hearing about a 4 ½ hour documentary focusing on Boston’s city government that it would be one of the most stunningly well-paced films of the year, but one would be dead wrong. Sure, it can feel a little long in parts, but this nearly total overview of that subject matter makes the city of Boston feel like a character in a narrative feature – that’s how good the documentary filmmaking is here. Frederick Wiseman’s epic chronicle across the city’s endless different departments, their meetings with constituents, with citizens, with blue collar workers and higher-ups within the city’s elected offices (including frequent appearances by mayor Marty Walsh) is a stunning portrait of one of America’s most essential and complex cities, so much so that the runtime really feels closer to 3 hours than it does to 4 ½. One feels, strangely, that one has gotten to know the city of Boston, with many of its ultra-specific quirks and idiosyncrasies without ever actually having been there, which is not an easy thing to do at all. Much like Collective, I don’t know if this will make my personal Top 10 Movies of 2020, but it’s definitely in the running. 9.7/10.
And that’s it for Mini Reviews #5! Have you seen any of these films? What did you think about them? Are you gonna commit 4 ½ hours to watching a documentary about Boston city government? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.