Caless’ Top 10 Films of 2020

The end of the year is usually a time for reflection, looking back at achievements and milestones, and setting up the new goals to be achieved for the new year. Any other year would be a normal process, but 2020 was not a regular year. A global pandemic, conspiracy theories, a strongly divisive political election, and the loss of notable heroes and figures in the entertainment industry cast a dark cloud akin to the alien ship’s hovering presence in “Independence Day”. This is not me being a Debbie Downer and throwing a pity party because even with the numerous negatives, there is a good bit of happiness and great moments that salvaged some of my sanity and usual positive demeanor. Cinema is always my place to escape the world’s problems and more than ever this year it felt like a personal version of Superman’s “Fortress Of Solitude”.

The pandemic sidelined most of the theaters in the country leading to my bedroom being the stage where new films debuted. It took some time getting used to the usual stranger sitting beside me in a dark theater being exchanged for my two cats and a loving girlfriend who shares my same passion for filmmaking. The experience of watching a film at home is greatly convenient and beats having to pay for a ticket and popcorn; on the other hand, the big screen, trailers, and the grand sound system is sorely missed and I hope that I can see the inside of a theater very soon. For now, these 20 films that made the cut for my best of the year each get a strong “must watch” recommendation for the memorable moments each of them provided me during the storm of this tumultuous year. Welcome to Black Nerd Magic’s Top 20 of 2020!!!!!!


20. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK

19. SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

18. SMALL AXE: EDUCATION

17. TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL

16. MANK

15. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

14. CODED BIAS

13. ONWARD

12. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

11. THE INVISIBLE MAN


10. WOLFWALKERS – A 17th century Irish tale splashed with gorgeous animation, a story that is part coming of age, part action adventure, and part advocate against the debilitating effects of deforestation. Heartwarming for the soul and a delight for the ears due to the stellar voice acting cast/ear-worm musical soundtrack featuring the best of Irish culture staples. The Apple TV Plus streaming service gets a boost in being an option for cord-cutters based off this film as a whole.

 

9. TENET“Don’t try to understand it, just feel it” has become the meme associated with this high-concept action film but the phrase acts as a guide to becoming open to the risks and outside-of-the-box thinking required by Christopher Nolan’s new mind-bending roller coaster. The kind of film that requires more than just one sit down to understand all of the mechanics employed to pay tribute to the spy films of the 1960s and a reconstruction of what audiences are used to looking for in a summer blockbuster. “Challenging” is an apt term for the narrative and concepts but it is a test that I love to undergo to push myself past outdated conventions of what to gather from a piece of entertainment. My hope is that this film will eventually undergo the same legacy face-lift that “Inception” and “Interstellar” now currently enjoy.

 

8. CHARM CITY KINGS – The African-American coming of age story in the same vein of a “Lady Bird” that I have long been praying will become the norm. Thanks to director Angel Manuel Soto, that dream is close enough to realize, especially with the new focus of Hollywood advocating for more diversity. Meek Mill made his name off a successful rap career and looks to transfer that talent and grind into acting with a hell of a supporting performance. Remember this name: Jahi Di’Allo Winston. A young gifted actor whose name is going to receive more spotlight and praise as his career continues to grow in the near future.

 

7. DA 5 BLOODS – Spike Lee is a director who has never minced his message or employed a sugarcoating approach to stories of the African-American condition. A group of Vietnam War veterans travel back through the traumatic battlefield of war to uncover a reserve of gold that is rightfully theirs given the atrocities of their ancestors and the treatment they faced in the country they fought for in the name of honor. Delroy Lindo is a front-runner for Best Actor in a career best performance that has me still floored. This film is Netflix’s knight in shining armor of original content.

 

6. SOUND OF METAL – The journey of one man learning how to live life without his passion of music is sadness personified but the hope of change and the attention displayed on his growing understanding that life doesn’t have to be defined by a disability is a cinematic treasure. The awards season is going to be in love with Riz Amhed and it will be righteous and deserved. Pay attention to the subtle details hidden in the use of sound throughout this film which is able to excel in noise but also the power of comforting silence.

5. SOUL – No surprises when it comes to passing on exemplary praise to the work of Pete Docter as his new film is more of the same representing the best of what Pixar has to offer. This is animation focusing on the existential questions of life with a degree of craftsmanship and goodwill in its message of choosing right now to live life to the best it can be. The depiction of African-American characters and the markings of its unique culture, hairstyles, and musical fortitude that defines them bought nothing but tears and smiles to my face. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is another trophy on the mantle for their celebrated career and I recommend heading straight to your Spotify and giving it a serious listen.

 

4. SMALL AXE: MANGROVE – A courtroom drama that feels tailor-made for the current social justice movement in America. A story that epitomizes the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and gives a lens to the contained disease that is prejudice and discrimination against minorities looking to make a better life than just being second class citizens. Steve McQueen’s tribute to the experiences of West Indian people of color fighting for their civil rights in the late 60s-early 70s in England represents the pinnacle of the wildly acclaimed Small Axe series.

 

3. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – A stunning fireball of dark comedy that is compelling and represents a big middle finger to rape culture, mansplaining, and the continued physical and mental harassment that are faced by women in a patriarchal society. Carey Mulligan dazzles in an enjoyable performance that ranks among the most entertaining to be seen in recent years. Confident writing and direction from newcomer Emerald Fennell cruises down the lane for a cinematic strike without using bumpers or cheap tropes to relay a powerful message of “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”.

 

2. NOMADLAND – Nothing can beat the feeling of seeing humankind in their best element helping others and being compassionate to understand whats it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Frances McDormand proves again to be a treasure, further cementing her name as legendary in the acting profession. Chloé Zhao’s meditative drama centering on a woman traveling from place to place looking for a sense of self after the economic downturn of the late 2000s is lighting in a bottle. Rich screenplay full of memorable lines and a score that soars on cloud nine; there is nothing that this film does on an average level, every piece of the puzzle shines.

 

1. BOYS STATE – Spellbinding documentary that examines the woody swamp of political discourse through the eyes of young men on the precipice of obtaining a position in keeping democracy. No matter the side that anyone chooses on the government level, this is a must watch for educational purposes and for the human moments that transcend past anything conceived in imagination. There is a sense of understanding that won’t be found on the spaces of social media and internet messages boards; hearing clear and mature discussion between kids leaning towards Democrat or Republican is a breath of fresh air and something that should become more the norm in the United States. Another piece of fantastic filmmaking that can been seen on Apple TV Plus.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd. 

Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2020

What. A. Year.

2020 will be remembered as much for the way in which we watched movies as for the movies themselves. In a world shutdown by the COVID-19 virus, theaters closed and kept us indoors more often than not, watching streaming films at an increased rate while seeing major studio tent-pole releases constantly delayed. Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more are locked in a battle to secure our subscriptions, and almost all of my Top 10 can be found on one of these services.

Along with the change in release dates came a change in the awards season. With the Academy Awards pushing back until late April 2021, some films that will be eligible won’t even release until January or February 2021. I’ve made the decision to go ahead and finalize my end of year list without seeing a few of those, though they will be a part of my annual voting as a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. This year, our award timeline was delayed as well, and so I do not have a list of my nominations and our winners to share. Hopefully I can remember to come back and edit links to those in after they are complete.

This year I saw a resurgence in gaming, partially due to the launch of a new seasonal podcast about video games called The Games We Love, partially due to some extra free time while working from home for several months, and partially due to the excitement of welcoming the next generation of consoles into my home. I also watched more series content than in recent years, going through all of “Friday Night Lights” with my best friend and watching a season here and there of countless other shows. As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 166 new films this year, a whopping 29 of which are documentaries. Finding room in my Top 20 (much less my Top 10) for every film that I want to sing the praises of is usually incredibly difficult and this year is no different. There were less films that blew me away this year but the overall quality of what I watched is strong and encompasses a wide range of genres. Since it’s impossible for me to ever just settle on ten best films, you will see some of my favorites of the year in the #11-20 special mention spots, as well as couple of extra highlights. While there are no specific thoughts accompanying the #11-20 films, you can always find my thoughts on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd account, so be sure to follow me there.

With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society. But on Feelin’ Film we focus more on matters of the heart, so my Top 10 films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2020 – those movies that provided me an incredibly emotional or memorable experience of some sort. Another thing that factors strongly into my ranking is rewatchability, so think of this list as my favorites, which to me are the best.

In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I always list my Top 5 Documentaries separately. It feels like every year is a great one for non-fiction filmmaking and 2020 was no different. I still have quite a few highly-acclaimed ones to see and may even come back and edit this accordingly when I do. Regardless, I’ve expended this genre’s list to a Top 10 this year due to there being so many great documentaries that I want to bring attention to.

This has been a relatively long intro and I appreciate you taking the time to read it when you could have just scrolled down to the lists. With that said, I won’t take up any more of your time.


BEST NON-FILM

TED LASSO (Apple TV+) – “Ted Lasso” is simply one of the best pieces of entertainment media (film, series, game) that I have enjoyed in year. This ten episode series is based on an old NBC Sports commercial and follows a college football championship winning coach to England where he takes over a floundering Premiere League soccer team, despite knowing next to nothing about the sport. It’s a recipe that could so easily have led to stupidity but instead this show, which can be binged in less than 5 hours, is utterly hopeful and positive at all times. As Ted navigates learning the sport, dealing with the eccentric and egotistical personalities of the adult players he coaches, and struggles with his own quietly hidden relationship issues, this show manages to always keep you smiling and leave you feeling inspired. Response was so great that before season one had even finished airing, Apple TV ordered seasons two and three, so now is a great time to discover it and experience the uplifting ability this show will have on your life.


THE DOCUMENTARIES

10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)

9. THE DISSIDENT – Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) returns with “The Dissident”, another strong contender that could win him a second statue, about the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and villainy of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is a gripping, immersive, and well-told piece of investigative journalism about the suppression of speech. The film covers a lot of information but its thriller style makes it go down easy. It features a fantastic score, too, and is incredibly urgent as the world becomes more and more fractured into sides who refuse to accept opposing viewpoints.

8. TIME (Amazon Prime Video) – “Success is the best revenge.” repeats Sunil Fox Richardson over and over angrily as she tries to convince herself to stay calm during yet another inhuman and unnecessary delay in the journey toward her husband’s release from prison. The resilience of this family on display is incredible and the way their story is told is both artistically compelling and emotionally evocative. This is an urgently needed piece that looks closely at the toll of injustice in America’s prison system, not from a broad statistics viewpoint but from a ground-level human one. The Richardson’s never once complain about having been arrested. They take full responsibility for their crimes but fight for fairness and changes to a system that, tragically, once it has its claws in you just never will let go. Their determination to make their family whole again and desire to see all justice system wrongs righted is hard to watch because you hate the pain and loss of time they’ve lived with, but ultimately an inspirational reminder that we (all of us) cannot allow this to continue in our world.

7. CONSOLE WARS (CBS All-Access) – Can’t really ask for much more from a 1.5 hour adaptation of a 576-page book. The original is definitely more in-depth and focuses even more heavily on SEGA’s perspective, but this visual version does it justice and is enhanced by the ability to show things such as the commercials and events of the console war era, which at times is much more effective than just imagining or trying to remember them when reading. This is a fantastic overview of this critical period of gaming history.

6. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Netflix) – A filmmaker daughter and her aging father stage his death to help prepare for his eventual passing. I cried gobs and gobs because of course I was thinking about my own mom who passed away in 2014 and also remembering the struggles my grandfather had with Alzheimer’s before his death. But there is such joy in what Kirsten Johnson is doing that it far outweighs the sadness; the humorous stunt work, fantastical Heaven sequences, and enjoyment I had from seeing Seattle on screen helped to never let me wallow in the inevitability of what we’re seeing play out for too long at one time. Pictures and videos immortalize our loved ones in ways that fading memory never can quite match. This is beautiful. This is special. I almost feel guilty for peeking into someone’s intimate life story in this way, but I know that the purpose of these two sharing their passions together before Dick is gone forever and putting it on film for us to see in this intelligent, clever, and poignant manner is very much for themselves first and an inspiration for us second.

5. MISS AMERICANA (Netflix) – Taylor gets very raw and real in this documentary where she comes clean about just how hard celebrity life has been for her, in a way that we can never really understand, and puts into perspective how that can negatively affect someone’s emotional and mental well-being. I loved seeing the songwriting process, too. One of my favorite things about Taylor is her storytelling ability. That’s what makes her special, and it was a joy to watch some of these hits developing in their infancy. I also definitely appreciated her vulnerability about eating disorders, the Kanye stuff (that whole incident just makes me even madder now), disagreements with her parents, the awful experience of going through being sexually assaulted, and her struggle with trying to be the picture of who fans wanted instead of the person she actually is inside. Taylor has come a long way and deserves the right to grow and change and voice her opinions just like any of the rest of us do. I laughed, I smiled, I cried, I was brought back to many memories related to her music, and I came away from this feeling like I respect her and love her as an artist even more, but most importantly as a person who has feelings and thoughts and opinions. We so often think celebrities just exist for our entertainment. That may be their job, but there’s so much more to their lives.

4. BOYS STATE (Apple TV+) – A documentary that follows an annual event in Texas where a thousand 17-year-old boys join together to build a representative government from the ground up. It is cinematic, incredibly entertaining, super insightful, and a huge crowd-pleaser. It’s also eerie how much this serves as a microcosm of big-time American politics, but luckily manages to remind us that there is still some hope, as well.

3. TAYLOR SWIFT – FOLKLORE: THE LONG POND STUDIO SESSIONS (Disney+) – I adored this intimate and personal film that doesn’t just have Taylor playing her incredible songs from the Folklore album but provides a much bigger opportunity for her to discuss the stories behind their meaning and how they came to be written, as well as ruminate on her collaborative efforts with The National and Bon Iver. This is such a perfect companion piece to her Resolution Tour film, one that is full of her energy and showmanship. This shows a very different side of her and that is what makes her so special, the ability to be real in both ways and both places. It is an absolutely perfect music documentary on one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever.

1b. THE LAST DANCE (Netflix/ESPN+) – What really needs to be said? This incredible 10-part documentary captured the attention of every major sports fa  every Sunday night over a month in 2020 as we watched behind the scenes coverage of and relived the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 championship season. Centered around that particular year and the end of a dynasty, the documentary simultaneously serves as a portrait of the career of NBA legend Michael Jordan. It is a riveting piece of work and one of 2020’s best overall cultural moments.

1a. THE HISTORY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS (YouTube) – Since there are two sports documentaries essentially tied for my favorite of the year, I’m going with the more unique one in this top spot. This film (which you can view in chunks or as one 3.5 hour long supercut at the link above) immediately goes on my Mount Rushmore of sports documentaries. It is an incredible, engaging piece of storytelling and statistics that relives the franchise’s history from its highest highs and “what ifs” to the many, many years that have left fans feeling like the team is cursed. It is an ode to a city, a team, its icons and its villains, that manages to be both entertaining and supremely informational while never once losing my attention. Yes, I may be slightly biased because I’m also a fan of the team being covered, but the format is undeniably mesmerizing regardless, and this is a truly complete history of the team we Mariner fans sometimes hate to love. SoDo Mojo!


HONORABLE MENTION

HAMILTON (Disney+) – Hamilton the stage musical is a perfect piece of groundbreaking theater, one of the greatest shows of all-time, from the mind of absolute genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while this filmed version is missing that special energy that makes a live viewing so special, that is more than made up for here with the careful camerawork providing close-ups, unique angles, and tracking shots that allow for a more intimate and detailed experience than the vast majority of viewers would ever be able to have. The show is a masterpiece plain and simple, and I’m glad that they went this route instead of adapting (and lessening) it into a different media form. “Hamilton” the “movie” immediately becomes one of the things I will re-watch the most for the rest of my life. It is simply extraordinary.


THE FEATURE FILMS

20. SOUND OF METAL

19. GREENLAND

18. MONSTER HUNTER

17. ON THE ROCKS

16. GREYHOUND

15. WENDY

14. TENET

13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

12. FIRST COW

11. ONWARD


10. THE INVISIBLE MAN (HBO Max) –  “The Invisible Man” put a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach it, the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan. (Hear our discussion about “The Invisible Man” in Episode 219 here.)

 

9. WOLFWALKERS (Apple TV+) – “Wolfwalkers” has so much symmetry that you’d think Wes Anderson directed it. This technique, and accompanying use of varying geometric shapes to display its 2D art style, result in some of the most visually striking, memorable, and sublime animation I’ve seen in years. The story hits emotional beats aplenty with its fable-like tale of friendship between two girls from different worlds and its single-parent relationship struggles. There’s also the historical setting to take in for those who want to learn about this traumatic period of English control in Ireland’s past. And there are some environmental messages here akin to what Miyazaki tackles in his wonderful film “Princess Mononoke”. The musical score is an absolute delight, too, with its traditional Irish folk sounds perfectly matching the wondrous colorful images. Cartoon Saloon puts out nothing but hits and this is simply next in line.

 

8. THE FATHER – With all due respect to the other leading men of the 2020 awards cycle, Sir Anthony Hopkins has entered the room. In a memorable (ironically) performance that absolutely floored me, he brilliantly transports us into the mind of an elderly man suffering from dementia. He navigates a range of emotions from lovable and harmless to infuriating and heartbreaking with delicate expertise. Combined with focused first-time direction from award-winning playwright Florian Zeller and an expertly adapted script of his own work, the story plays out (pun intended) at times almost like a psychological thriller instead of a straight drama. As his daughter (played lovingly committed yet on the cusp of a breakdown at all times by the wonderful Olivia Colman), and others, enter and exit his world, nothing is certain for character or audience, allowing us to feel the suffocating struggle that loss of memory must have on those who suffer from it, and provoking a level of empathy for them that I’ve previously not experienced.

 

7. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – Stylish, twisted, bitingly mean, deviously funny, and yet confidently firm in what it has to say about rape culture and those who protect it. Like its title, writer/director Emerald Fennell is a promising young woman, too, crafting a multi-tonal thriller that puts a new spin on a familiar revenge story in a way that definitely leaves a mark. It helps that the film is led by Carey Mulligan, in what is at least equal to the best work of her career, and features an expertly curated soundtrack. This is an ambitious and fascinating confrontation of a toxic masculinity culture that needs to disappear and the grief and trauma victims of it face.

 

6. CHARM CITY KINGS (HBO Max) – It’s not often that a film is as fresh to me as “Charm City Kings”. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like the perspective of this coming-of-age story before and I was blown away by the feelings it left me with and the strong character development throughout. It follows a group of young teenagers navigating life in Baltimore while admiring a local biker gang, learning about masculinity and loyalty along the way. Ángel Manuel Soto has created something special and rapper Meek Mill is a revelation in a powerfully emotional supporting role.

 

5. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK (Amazon Prime Video) – This movie is a vibe. Steve McQueen offers a prime example of not padding a story just to hit some arbitrary runtime. This is one night, one party in a West London neighborhood in the 1980s, and the narrative doesn’t need more than that to completely immerse us in the experience of these would-be lovers and others just wanting to dance the night away in carefree bliss. There is no overarching conflict or problem to solve, just a few instances of natural interpersonal drama between party-goers throughout the evening. The aesthetic is incredible with a hazy cinematography as if the camera was shooting through the clouds of marijuana smoke that fill the house, and the music is flat-out incredible, provoking an involuntary response for the viewer’s body to move to the sweet rhythms and lyrical sexiness of Mercury Sound’s reggae jams. In the film’s final moments it captures the hope and feelings of newfound love beautifully and realistically, and leaves us with a smile that will go down as one of 2020’s best film moments for me.

 

4. NOMADLAND – “Nomadland” is a tremendous portrait of the American vagabond uprooted by recession, constantly moving as a means of survival, while simultaneously experiencing the world around her in a way that so few of us ever really do. Chloé Zhao’s use of non-actors again elevates her film, giving it a sort of slightly dramatized documentary feel. Hearing the real-life stories of nomads that Fern meets on the road and watching her learn about their ways was enlightening and humbling, showcasing a segment of humanity that is far less reliant on luxuries than I will likely ever be. Joshua James Richard’s sweeping, majestic Midwestern cinematography captures beautiful landscapes in wide glory but Zhao knows when to have him come in close to show us the incredible emotional tolls on Fern, thanks to what I believe is a career-best performance by the great Frances McDormand. And Ludovico Einaudi’s melancholic and moving score triggered tearful eyes nearly every time it sparingly appeared.

Above all else, “Nomadland” is an inspiration, much in the way that something like “Into the Wild” has always been for me. It offers an awakening to the very real struggles some face in the 21st century, and reminds us that home truly is where the heart is, while no doubt leaving a lingering mark on your soul. Zhao’s storytelling approach is truly something special and combined with her unique cinematic eye and gift in editing this film proves that “The Rider” was no fluke and she is one of the most important voices in American filmmaking right now.

 

3. RIDE YOUR WAVE (Hoopla) – “Ride Your Wave” walloped me emotionally and is my new favorite film from Masaaki Yuasa. It’s a romantic dramedy anime with relatively restrained use of fantasy elements (for Yuasa, at least) and a reoccurring musical theme that gives me strong “La La Land” vibes. It also teaches how to make great coffee, which is a huge bonus! The film is gorgeously animated with a softer style that perfectly fits the tone of its story and has nuanced emotional depth as it deals with love, loss, and what it means to move on. It’s also an extremely accessible anime for mainstream animation fans and nice to see something in the genre that focuses on adults and not teens. Year after year, I continually find myself drawn to romantic stories in anime and while that has mostly been Makoto Shinkai pictures, I’m thrilled to find other directors hitting those same chords that resonate with my heart.

 

2. THE WAY BACK (HBO Max) – “The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels, made even more special when you consider the cathartic personal role it played in Ben Affleck’s own recovery. Director Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as the king of this genre and is now 3 for 3 with sports drama masterworks. (Hear our discussion about “The Way Back” in Episode 260 here.)

 

1. SOUL (Disney+) – At first, you might not think “Soul” is Pixar’s most perfectly entertaining film from start to finish. It definitely feels like some of their heaviest existential drama to date and is less accessible for younger kids, but it all comes together to pay off brilliantly in an absolutely triumphant and moving final act reached through a screenplay that deftly navigates complicated concepts. What personality traits are we born with and how do we choose our passions are among the big questions asked by Pete Docter and crew this time around, and it will certainly get you thinking about your own life, how you got here, and where you’ll go next. The score by Reznor and Ross is my favorite of the year and the film’s vibrant visuals (which look incredibly different when in New York or in the spirit world) are stunningly gorgeous, unsurprisingly making me very sad that I wasn’t able to see this in a theater. Thankfully, for viewers who do find it a bit abstract, the talking cat helps keep it light despite the big ideas and characters dealing with death. Ultimately, “Soul” is a tender film and one that is refreshingly all about hope and realizing just how incredible every day of life is whether we have attained our dreams or not.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd. 

What We Learned This Week: December 7-13

LESSON #1: MILLIONAIRES LIKE TO ARGUE WITH BILLIONAIRES AND VICE VERSA— The wake of the Warner Bros. HBO Max initiative raised all kinds of holy Hollywood hell this past week. You’ve got production houses suing the studio for possible breach of contract. You’ve got agents and guild members from actors to filmmakers calling for a boycott or demanding their same box office-based pay rates. You’ve got film prominent film directors, most notably Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins, and Denis Villeneuve, lambasting the decision and, naturally, you have people in return lambasting the lambasters. Is this the death of cinema or movie theaters? No, it’s a pause and a pivot. Could things have gone smoother for the studio in terms of communication for all involved? Certainly, but I continue to be stunned that anyone is all that shocked and couldn’t see a move like this coming. The business goal at the core for WB is still sound and necessary for the current landscape of the industry, period. Tough decisions were coming, and a media communication company (AT&T) that bought an expensive big studio made one will still propel itself forward to remain sustainable. Also, last time I checked, everyone pissing and moaning is still filthy rich. Gal Gadot still cashed a fat check. No one is going from the penthouse to the outhouse with these changes. The smart and savvy among them will keep on profiting. I said it last week here and I’ll say it again. This is just the beginning. Watch others follow suit in time, and by time I mean 

LESSON #2: DISNEY RUNS THIS MF-ING BLOCK— Warner Bros. moves their whole 2021 theatrical slate to HBO Max and the industry outrage is trumpeted from the mountaintops. By contrast, Disney holds their “Investor Days” presentation (a slick D23 replacement in the time of COVID) that stacks up how Disney+ will become home to 10 Marvel series, 10 Star Wars series, 15 Disney live-action, Disney Animation, and Pixar series and 15 Disney live action, Disney Animation, and Pixar films and everyone cheers. All of WB’s movies are including in the HBO Max subscription price and they still get slammed. At Disney, several titles will have “Premium Access” price tags like Mulan and no one bats an eye. What a telling (and nearly hypocritical, if you ask me) difference! The big-stack-bullying at the poker table of Hollywood is real and Disney is the bull shark. Their execs said it’s about “quality over quantity,” but, hot damn, did that splash the streaming wars pot with an awfully lot of quantity aimed at making a fat quantity in return.

LESSON #3: TOXIC FANS GONNA BE TOXIC— Still, all is never peaceful, even for Disney. Kudos to the success of The Mandalorian stewarded by Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau. They have reinvigorated both the quality and the canon of the Star Wars franchise. However, haters are still gonna hate. There’s a petition going around to remove the sequel trilogy from Star Wars canon. Not liking the trilogy is one thing. I get that, but the entitlement and false sense of ownership from this cross-section of fandom is always off-the-charts and it ruins it for everyone else. Any and all of these things, from prequels and old fan fiction novels to the corporate-controlled new stuff, can be enjoyed just as they are and separately if necessary. The Skywalker Saga sequels are not going away. Let them be. No one is forcing you to watch them if you don’t want to. The entirety of Star Wars isn’t going away either. New creators are going to add and grow the universe as it goes. Just look at all that dropped at Investor Days. Look further than the big screen and discover all the tangential creativity that has been going for over 40 years and beyond.

LESSON #4: SOME MERGERS MAKE PERFECT SENSE IF THEY WOULD JUST PULL THE TRIGGER— When Disney bought out Fox a few years ago, they gained controlling majority ownership of Hulu and planned to buy Comcast out of the rest. They acquired that property right around the time they were already in development of their planned Disney+ platform. The smart play then would have had Disney+ slide right into the existing functions of Hulu Plus, but Disney wanted their own family-minded brand identity separate from Hulu’s adult-skewing content. They went with the “why not both” GIF instead of combining strength in numbers. Now, nearly two years later, that merger may finally happen according to sources on Collider. If it finally comes to pass, it would be a smart play and one I predicted in this column last week with the ongoing streaming wars. Hulu gives Disney a mature arm to finally get some use out of their not-so-family-friendly Fox acquisitions. It would be damn nice to see Alien or Predator in some streaming 4K instead of being locked in a radiation vault at the Mouse House. In other purchases and acquisitions news, you have to love Sony buying anime streamer Crunchyroll. That’s an apt match as well, hopefully giving anime a higher profile. Oh, and who got that $1.175 billion from Sony? AT&T, the parent company of Warner Bros. and HBO Max. The rich get richer.

LESSON #5: MANK IS A SPRINGBOARD TO EXPANDED LEARNING— Love or hate the newest David Fincher film (feelings are certainly mixed here at Feelin’ Film), the legend surrounding Citizen Kane has filled cinema history now for nearly 80 years. If Mank stupefied you a little or if it inspired you to learn more about Orson Welles, movies studios, and more, then it worked as the fable and springboard it sought out to be. Now, if you don’t know where to start, check out this excellent piece from Chicago-based writer/critic Nick Allen writing for Vulture. His comprehensive article outlines what to watch, read, and listen to after Mank, and the curated selections range from feature films and documentaries to books and podcasts. Enjoy a deep dive in Golden Era Hollywood history.

LESSON #6: SURPRISE, SURPRISE, THE OSCARS DON’T UNDERSTAND PRESENT LANDSCAPES— Speaking of golden things, while the hiring of the dextrous and cinema believer filmmaker Steven Soderbergh counts a modern and inspired choice to produce the Oscar, the Academy still can’t read the room or, in this case, the who damn country. Word around the campfire is they are still insisting on doing an in-person awards show. Imagining that scenario begs a couple of superficial questions. Does Hugo Boss design masks for tuxedos? Can Cartier affix gemstones to masks to match gowns? What would the Dolby Theatre look like with socially distant seating? Then there’s the serious question. Who in their right mind is going to encourage a fan-less crowd and red carpet just to celebrate themselves with some awards in an asterisk year? Soderbergh loves to shoot movies lately on iPhones. Maybe he can get Zoom to sponsor the shindig and leave everyone at home. 

LESSON #7: IF YOU THINK AMERICANS ARE SENSITIVE, GO CHECK ON CHINA— This country just finished a very combative presidential election that culminated years of snowflake-y and facist-ish labels slung by both political slides. Public relations teams for any missteps tended to outrun the #cancel culture, where Twitter kept on churning and nothing really got shelved or banned. If you think we’re harsh, go look at China. One off-color reference in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter and an entire country shuts the movie out after its premiere. That’s a level of strict conservatism and backlash that we’re not even close to here in the U.S. Thank your lucky stars-and-stripes you live here.

LESSON #8: EDUCATE YOURSELVES ON FILM NUDITY— In the closing recommendation slot this week, I’ll shuck the prudent content massively filling holiday time airwaves right now to talk about some hot and sexy bodies instead. Amazon Prime has a new expansive two-hour-plus documentary entitled Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies. It’s a fascinating look at that aspect of entertainment and art. Ian Simmons, a YouTube and podcast colleague of mine who hosts Kicking the Seat, gave the doc a spin and came out with high appreciation. Shoo away the censors, call off the morality police, and learn something about movies while you Netflix-and-chill your way from Christmas snuggling to melted snow.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later), Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#149)

What We Learned This Week: November 30-December 6

LESSON #1: #TRANSISBEAUTIFUL IS ALIVE AND WELL— First and foremost, bravo to Elliot Page and his future in Hollywood. May his story inspire others and fulfill those who live under undue fears. Page stands tall as a worthy figure to celebrate and deservedly so. I was happy to update the history of my Every Movie Has a Lesson website content to make the proper name and pronoun changes. There will be no deadnaming there or here. Educate yourself and add that responsibility to your own social media and conversation practices.

LESSON #2: THE THEATER-TO-HOME WINDOW IS JUST ABOUT DEAD— I have long cited in this column the shrinking amount of time between a movie’s theatrical release and its availability on home media. Back in the day, it used to be six months to a year. Somewhere in the advent of streaming platforms and VOD, it shrunk to 90 days and sometimes less. In huge industry news, Warner Bros. just made their own window zero days. For all of their planned upcoming 2021 film releases (not just Wonder Woman 1984 to end 2020), the studio will make them available in theaters and on their coveted HBO Max streaming platform on the same day. That’s a monumental shift in business, something definitely spurred by the present COVID-related circumstances where theaters are strapped, empty, dying, and immediately pissed by this move. Just like Disney+’s goal a year ago when it debuted, watch this bring a huge surge of new subscriber business to HBO Max when you’re promising chances to see the likes of Dune, The Batman, and more from the comfort of their own home. 

LESSON #3: THIS IS A PIVOT AND PIVOTS ARE NOT PERMANENT— Call this big business move what it really is: a pivot, and one certainly necessary considering societal circumstances. Mark me in the group that wonders why it took this long for some large entity with their own streaming service to pull this trigger. Disney dipped its toe with Hamilton, Mulan, and Soul, but to say ALL for an entire year like WB is commitment to the pivot. Expect more moves to follow. Watch Universal put their stuff on their Peacock subsidiary. Maybe WB lets HBO Max absorb their DC Network and put everything under one service. Maybe Disney does more. Maybe Disney uses their controlling ownership of Hulu Plus to be the “adult” place for all the non-family-friendly content and the entire Fox library they bought. In any case, pivots are reversible. When theaters are viable again, business can pivot back to include them better. They are still the #1 place to make billions. When people can return to them, business will return to them too. They’ll be back. They just won’t be, and can’t afford to be, the same.

LESSON #4: MARK YOUR CALENDARS FOR AUGUST 2022— I’ve called it all year and I’m going to keep calling it now. If this pandemic keeps going longer, people stay away, and studios pivot to streaming, the large theater distributors are going to die off. As I’ve noted often in this column, they already are shutting down or circling bankruptcy. Theaters as we know them are not going to come back the same. What will they look like? Well, I think you need to mark your calendars for August 2022. With the old Paramount Decrees rescinded as of August 2020, studios can open and run their own theaters after a two-year sunset period. That’s August 2022. The WBs and Disneys of the block can pivot to streaming, sit back, and watch the AMCs, Cinemarks, and Regals bleed to death. They can buy them at their lowest point and rebrand them as their own with no old rules. They will look triumphant in 2022 when it’s the studios that “bring theaters back” with their own labels.  Best of all for them, they buy out or shove away the middle-man profit sharing they’ve tried to squash for decades. Every dollar goes back to them. This column may not be here in August 2022, but, mark my words. If the landscape is able to re-open, this scenario is happening.

LESSON #5: INVEST A LITTLE MORE INTO YOUR HOME SETUP— In the recommendation closing slot this week, I’m going to turn to the home and not the watch lists. With all of this time spent now at home, improving your home theater setup is something you probably should have been doing since March. Add all the new streaming opportunities coming and now is the time to upgrade, even if you just missed the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. You don’t have to go full Magnolia quality, but there are many little DIY and piecemeal things you can do on the cheap.  I currently have a 1080p projector that cost about $800 at the time. It gives me over 100 inches of screen size and has lasted longer than any physical monitor I’ve ever had. Projection is an awesome effect, and I’ll never buy another actual TV again. Even those new 4K-capable projectors in the $1200-1500 range will give you just as great of visuals as a TV of the same price and likely double the screen size. I know the prices of high quality TVs haven’t been better, but spring for the projector. You won’t regret it. After that, choose an accent wall and use flat paints with less sheen instead of buying a projector screen. A good affordable soundbar with HDMI input can blow plenty of sound versus the old expensive multi-channel towers, receivers, and setups. Use Monoprice to buy longer wholesale cables and learn how to hide the sea of wires. The DIY furniture setups ideas are endless. From palettes to pillows, you can make a little paradise den and not break the bank.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later), Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#148)

What We Learned This Week: November 9-15

LESSON #1: PEER PRESSURE CAN BE EFFECTIVE— With George Lucas long-retired and until James Cameron finally releases that next Avatar epic, the reigning King of Cinematic Hubris remains Christopher Nolan. His ardent activism for physical film will always be commendable, but he is not the “savior” the trades (and himself) tout him to be. Not if he can’t even properly tune his own films and has to hear about it from his peers and contemporaries. More than fans, fellow filmmakers have contacted Nolan about his messy sound mix from Tenet. To me, that’s when you know it’s bad, if you have buddies calling you it. Peer pressure is an effective motivator. Let’s see how it shifts the chip on the king’s shoulder below his self-made crown.

LESSON #2: WISE PEOPLE IN THIS BUSINESS CUT LONG-TERM DEALS— Back in the day, everyone from actors to filmmakers were on studio-exclusive contracts. If Paramount wanted to use a talent controlled by Warner Bros., they had to pay handsomely and vice versa. For the studios, it was winning bidding wars to secure top talent for multiple projects. For the actors, it was securing guaranteed work in an era before they made ungodly money. Somewhere along the way, the movies turned into looser free agency like you see today in baseball where everyone is a mercenary chasing paychecks. 

To see David Fincher sign a four-year deal with Netflix feels old school and a win-win, joining Patty Jenkins on the squad. Netflix nabs a big name for their digital marquees. The Mank filmmaker gets a shingle that pushes for Oscars, far more creative freedom on set, and more guaranteed upfront money than he would chasing box office receipts, especially during a pandemic choking the industry. Don’t believe me or Fincher? Just ask Martin Scorsese. No one else, and I mean no one, in town was going to give him $200+ million to make the geriatric steak buffet that was The Irishman. That epic may not have netted Oscars, but it brought in new subscribers and that’s Netflix’s bottom line.

Netflix is not alone in getting out their checkbook to sign top-shelf creators. Apple TV+ has first-look deals with Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Alfonso Cuaron. Even if most of those are for TV projects, those are names worth marketing and bragging about for the up-and-coming streaming platform. Is this the death of cinema? No. This is job preservation and squeezing for artistic carte blanche that you normally can’t get.

LESSON #3: DON’T BEAT LIVE HORSES ANYMORE THAN DEAD HORSES— Speaking of David Fincher, he has a long-standing reputation of over-filming many scenes in his directorial career. He’ll go after 50 or more takes in some scenes, the polar opposite of Clint Eastwood being good after one or two. It’s a personal philosophy Fincher has gone on record to explain. Word from the set of Mank, by way of Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman, was that the director went for as many as 200 takes on a scene, something that supposedly “cracked” the latter Oscar winner. There is meticulousness and fastidiousness, and then there is exhausting punishment. Dude, I love you, David Fincher. It’s been too long since Gone Girl,but have some workplace efficiency and empathetic professionalism. 

LESSON #4: NOW IS THE TIME TO SEE CITIZEN KANE— Speaking of Mank which is releasing into limited theaters today before debuting on Netflix on December 4th, this week’s final lesson in the usual go-home recommendation slot promotes just a single movie and quite possibly the greatest movie of all-time. To fully absorb and appreciate Fincher’s new movie, you must see Citizen Kane before it, period. If you’ve been putting it off because of its stature or the silly fact it’s old or in black-and-white, swallow hard, pick a day, and get through it. If you call yourself any level of film buff, connossieur, or fan, Orson Welles’ 1941 tour-de-force is required viewing as a cornerstone of visual filmmaking and storytelling techniques that would become the exemplars for decades. Citizen Kane is available now (thank you, JustWatch app) as part of HBO Max or can be rented for $3-4 on most streaming storefronts. If you want to do one better, straight up buy it or borrow any disc version of it from your local library. Seek out the late Roger Ebert’s audio commentary track. That will educate you more on film greatness in two hours than any self-made YouTube ranter or snarky podcast. Rented or bought, the movie is worth every penny and you will thank me for it.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later), Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#145)

What We Learned This Week: November 2-8

LESSON #1: WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO— By this point of any movie year with the calendar crossing into November, we would have film festival buzz from around the world announcing new films emerging for Oscars. We would have one or two big-studio early Oscar contenders like Joker, A Star is Born, The Departed, or Argo that dropped in October to beat the pack in a weak month of mostly horror offerings. The first weekend in November has delivered Marvel and James Bond movies over the years. We would be weeks away from a Disney/Pixar Thanksgiving tentpole with December not far behind for both prestige and blockbusters. 

But this is 2020. None of that feels present or possible. A parade of top-flight movies like No Time to Die and others continue to flee to 2021. Wonder Woman 1984 appears to be the only one left and one has to think it’s a matter of time before it blinks too. Folks, that’s the reality and it’s a meager one. We (and investors) are going to have to continue to be sustained by digital and VOD events and small indies, even if they are lesser than what we hoped. We’re at a “something is better than nothing” point with 2020.

LESSON #2: HOW MANY HAVE YOU SEEN?— If the box office year ended today, the box office champion of 2020 would be Bad Boys for Life with a $204 million domestic total. Inflation set aside, that would be the lowest annual champ since 1995 when Batman Forever was king with $184 million. By a large margin, 2020 is the lowest earning industry year since 1981. Removing the 2019 carryovers, the rest of the 2020 top 10 would include Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, Dolitte, The Invisible Man, The Call of the Wild, Tenet, The Gentleman, Fantasy Island, The New Mutants, and Like a Boss. How many have you seen? If you dive to the digital charts, the most-watched movie is Hamilton, followed by Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, My Spy, Extraction, Phineas & Ferb the Movie, and Mulan. How many of those have you seen? If those fingers from the second list outnumber the first, that will tell you how bad of a year it’s been.

LESSON #3: THERE IS NO BAILOUT COMING— On the heels of theater chains circling the drain (AMC) or completely going under (Regal), some folks are hoping for government rescue. Keep dreaming. If regular citizens can’t get better than a one-time check that barely equates a month’s livelihood, frivolous non-essential businesses like movies aren’t a priority. Unlike massive economy drivers and bigger special interests like the auto industry, the film industry is fluff. There’s no money in it for the government to bail theaters out, no matter who wins this as-yet-undeclared Presidential election. Rescue is going to have to come from someplace else.

LESSON #4: MOVIE PRESIDENTS > REAL-LIFE PRESIDENTS— I don’t know about you, but when I watch a good fictional movie President of the United States, I daydream what it would be like to have that character actually be the Commander-in-Chief in normal life. I see Michael Douglas in The American President, Bill Pullman in Independence Day, Kevin Kline in Dave, Harrison Ford in Air Force One, Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, and many others and get lost in those dreamy thoughts compared to the times of today. I want that kind of real President, unfleshed out policy backgrounds be damned (because we know movies don’t actually cover all that). Even with that specificity of imaginative wonder, good characters like those are part of the escapism of movies. Coming out of this election year, go ahead and indulge in a President that will throw a man off his plane. Who’s your favorite movie President?

LESSON #5: FIND MOVIES THAT BRING JOY— The first three lessons of this column have been rough. The COVID-19 virus is experiencing a second surge. The Presidential Election has set off its hostile tizzies on both sides. Man, we just need a lift. We need movies that punch with joy. In the recommendation slot of WWLTW, I present this video submission from the Film Positivity channel on YouTube (give them a like and a subscribe). Their ten choices of Cinematic Joy are excellent. What would be yours?

 

 


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#144)