Vancouver International Film Festival 2023 Review Journal

Feelin’ Film is thrilled to be covering the Vancouver International Film Festival for the first time! This page will serve as a running journal, where you can read my thoughts on the films I see as the festival progresses. These early reactions will later be accompanied by more robust podcast reviews. For now, enjoy following along with my journey, see if anything sparks your interest, and be sure to let me know if it does. Thanks for reading. – Aaron White

  • Note: Reviews published in order of most recently seen on top.

THE ROYAL HOTEL (dir. Kitty Green)


Kitty Green is a master at creating subtle, ever-present tension in what feels like mundane situations. This time around, two young women traveling around Australia have run out of money and choose to take a service job at a bar in a remote outback mining town. From the moment they sign up, where they’re warned that it’s going to be a bit rough and misogynistic, Hanna and Liv are faced with escalating incidents that test their willpower.

For almost the entire runtime, this is a pressure cooker, where our real life understanding of the dangers women face in this world keeps us on edge because of what we see. We’re waiting for the shoe to drop at any moment and turn this into a horrific moment that goes beyond verbal abuse and sexual harassment into something these girls can’t come back from. The exploration of gender power dynamics is every bit as engaging and scathing as it Green’s previous film, THE ASSISTANT, and an added layer of two women approaching their situation from different perspectives. They may be friends, but Liv likes to push the limits in pursuit of having fun while Hanna is much more reserved and careful. With Liv, we are constantly wondering just how far she’s willing to go in order to keep the peace. And with Hanna, we’re just wondering when she’s going to reach her breaking point and explode.

As a man, I kept wishing that someone like me would step in and support them. I can’t even imagine how tough and potentially triggering this might be for women to watch, and once again the realization that this is what most if not all experience at times in their lives was deeply troubling. Some have said that the film leans into horror but I think it stays very strictly in thriller territory, never quite going beyond what is plausible.

One thing that is probably controversial to even say is that I also couldn’t stop thinking about the decision-making process. Yes, the primary issue here is the vile behavior and expectations of men. But I hope that this can be seen as a cautionary tale, as well. This is unfortunately the world we live in and sometimes people have to take steps to protect themselves. Reading the signs and getting out of a scary situation before it’s too late is paramount. I’ve also never understood the kind of bar lifestyle that we see here. Alcohol may not make people into assholes, but it certainly brings out the worst traits in full force. Anyway, this is probably better served as part of a more nuanced conversation, but it was something I couldn’t help but think about the whole time. To be clear, nothing that happens is the girls’ fault – but I do think it’s fair to question how far they let it go.

This is a great film and I am buying all the stock in Kitty Green, Julia Garner, and Jessica Henwick. Oh, and this movie definitely is a contender for the best final line of dialogue/scene of the year, which provides a much needed moment chuckle and moment to finally breathe.

THE MISSION (dir. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine)


This is just fantastic documentary filmmaking, plain and simple. Moss and McBaine take a subject that most people have already completely prejudged based on a headline or meme and take the time to allow an audience to get to know the man behind a fatal decision to illegally attempt a solo mission trip on a remote indigenous island. It uses actors reading journal entries and letters from John and his family as well as a slew of insightful interviews and also features some beautiful animated reenactment sequences throughout.

The film is structured with a couple of major frameworks that I really appreciated – one being John Chau’s love of adventure stories and how those have influenced people through the ages to force themselves and their beliefs onto people who have no desire to welcome the modern world, and the other being the reckoning of John’s father with his son’s religious zealotry and justification and the radical evangelistic culture that encouraged his actions.

The filmmakers do a great job of not taking a side. We get to know John as the passionate person he was through family and friend interviews, but we also learn about the affects of his impending mission and historical context from anthropologists and people who’ve experienced it first hand. They deftly show us that <i>”fine line between madness and faith”</i> in a way that invites reflection, contemplation, and hopefully conversation about the way that people on both sides of this issue feel.

I don’t think their goal was ever to take a side, but rather to help us understand the world we live in and the forces that can motivate people to do seemingly inexplicable things. In my opinion, two things can be true – John’s death was a horrible preventable tragedy and his choice to ignore the clear wishes of the Sentinelese was a dangerous, selfish decision by a man whose faith blinded him to reality.

GREEN BORDER (dir. Agnieszka Holland)


Director Agnieszka Holland bravely defies the current political powers in her home country by dramatically showcasing the migrant crisis that exists among the forested border area between Poland and Belarus. The sprawling film follows a refugee group from Syria as they attempt to seek asylum in Poland, having been promised easy passage into the EU and used as geopolitical pawns like so many others by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Along the way their story intertwines with that of an activist who is doing her best to bring attention to the inhumane treatment of the refugees at the risk of her own life and a border guard who questions and is disturbed by the unethical practices of his brainwashed colleagues. Their storylines are easy to latch onto because we want to believe that people like them exist and could eventually turn the tide. This is not an easy watch, but it is an essential one. Holland unflinchingly shows the ping pong border game in its full brutal nature. Human rights atrocities abound on both sides of the razor wire including beatings, starvation, torture, sexual assault, and a general refusal to help which leads to death. Though it does feature fantastic performances and the stark black and white photography looks incredible while accentuating the dour situation, the crisis as we’re shown feels grim and there seems to be no real hope in sight, and that is why this is critical filmmaking that goes beyond entertainment.




Toronto International Film Festival 2023 Review Journal

Feelin’ Film is honored and excited to be covering the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time! This page will serve as a running journal, where you can read my thoughts on the many films I see both in-person in Toronto and via online viewing opportunities as the festival progresses. These early reactions will later be accompanied by more robust podcast reviews. For now, enjoy following along with my journey, see if anything sparks your interest, and be sure to let me know if it does. Thanks for reading. – Aaron White

  • Note: Reviews published in order of most recently seen on top.

NYAD (dir. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)


Annette Bening is on another level as the titular athlete Diana Nyad in this dramatization of her remarkable accomplishment of swimming from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage while in her 60s. The award-winning documentary directing pair responsible for such tension-filled films as FREE SOLO and THE RESCUE create a fantastic energy, propulsive pacing, and include a nifty use of archival footage/audio which gives their first ever narrative feature an added factual flare. Diana’s story is truly spectacular and anyone who enjoys learning about extreme athletes that are built with a different determination is sure to find NYAD riveting. Jodie Foster is also phenomenal as Diana’s best friend/coach in what is sure to be one of this award season’s most rousing and inspirational films, a real life icon who willed herself to achieving the impossible by never giving up on a dream.

HIT MAN (dir. Richard Linklater)


Richard Linklater’s new untraditional rom-com about a philosophizing pretend contract killer is SO. MUCH. FUN. and also extremely smart and clever in its use of roleplay to examine the evolution of identity. Powell, who portrays real-life chameleon Gary Johnson, a local professor that would create different assassin personalities in order to meet with nab potential employers, shows that he is that dude, a real movie star. It’s the best he’s ever been and his chemistry with Adria Arjona (who gives a knockout performance as a client who wants to have her husband killed turned romantic interest) is pure fire. The snappy script (co-written by Linklater and Powell) balances comedy and high-minded ideas about whether or not we can change who we are perfectly, and the easy breezy pacing and pure charisma of the cast make spending time in this world a delightful joy. It’s not quite like anything the director has done before, but easily his best in quite some time, and one of the revelations to come out of the festival this year.

A ROAD TO A VILLAGE (dir. Nabin Subba)


A ROAD TO A VILLAGE is one of the great discoveries of the festival for me. Its premise is quite simple – a rural Nepali family struggles to adapt when a new road connects their once-remote village to the modern world. At times, you’d almost think this was a documentary with the way it is shot, and because of that it is highly effective at realistically conveying the lifestyle and emotions of the villagers. Primarily centered around a father and son pair, the basket-weaving dad finds himself out of work and facing a frustrated wife while trying to please a son who is enamored with the new technology, culture, and comforts that the road provides. Unfortunately, for all the good it brings, it takes something away, as well, and as they fight to maintain a balance that honors their heritage while accepting a new way of life, some deeply dramatic challenges emerge within the family unit itself and among their relationships with fellow villagers. Prasana Rai, who portrays the young boy Bindray, does a phenomenal job depicting a playful, curious child who sometimes doesn’t understand the change happening around him and the film features really lovely cinematography. From the village to the city of Dharan, I really got to know what these places were like, and appreciated experiencing the benefits and the dangers that growth come with a civilization’s growth.

LIMBO (dir. Ivan Sen)


There is a reoccurring scene of a motel room bed seen from down the corridor inside of an old opal mining tunnel and it’s one of the most perfectly constructed shots of the year. Sen, the do-it-all director who also wrote, edited, shot, and composed the music for this feature, really has a brilliant eye behind the camera. Visually, the film is just a stunner. The black and white photography used throughout doesn’t only contribute to the neo-noir mood, but provides strikingly memorable images, creating a beautiful aesthetic for the mostly desolate sandy outback landscapes, dark interior caves, and close-ups of weathered, melancholic faces.

Tonally, LIMBO is definitely an Australian film. The story has minimal dialogue and is a slow-burn mystery about a white detective who comes back to an old outback town hoping to solve the 20-year old murder of an Indigenous girl. From Detective Hurley’s (Simon Baker) look to his drug addiction it’s impossible not to get Breaking Bad vibes, and there is frequent and blunt religious symbolism. Baker’s physical performance is a strength and Sen seems less interested in the murder itself than just observing the remnants of this broken town that is reckoning with the devastation and failure of a justice system. Despite little advancement of the plot, if you can get locked into its strong undercurrent of empathy, that and the dynamite aesthetic make for a satisfying tale.

THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE (dir. Ilker Çatak)


Idealism is rarely the path with the most support. That’s the lesson that new junior high teacher Carla (Leonie Benesch) learns when she catches a glimpse of a school thief on video and attempts to set right a long-running witch hunt that has seen students unfairly accused and discriminated against. The script is incredibly smart in how it shows an entire school ecosystem breaking down. Teachers questioning students, teachers questioning teachers, students questioning students, parents questioning teachers – and of course the biased ways in which these situations can turn even worse. Benesch gives a gripping central performance as a teacher who truly cares about the kids and what is best for them even if they make mistakes. It’s inspiring and reminds us just how much of a difficult and thankless profession she is in. The film has a fantastic slow-building sense of anxiety which ratchets up throughout, creating a constant sense of nerves about where things are going to end up, and is backed by a wonderfully restrained score that adds to the tension without ever overdoing it. THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE at times feels like a naturalistic horror movie as we’re left aching for logic and truth to win out. Highly thought-provoking and also always entertaining, this is definitely one of the better international films of the year.

100 YARDS (dir. Xu Haofeng and Xu Junfeng)


There is an obvious authenticity to the martial arts combat we see portrayed in 100 YARDS. Director Xu Haofeng, who also handled the choreography for the film and is Taoist scholar with much historical knowledge, frames each fight like a dance. Whether using unique and varied weaponry or merely hand-to-hand styles, the almost entirely non-fatal version of conflict resolution we see is a delight to behold. Coupled with wonderfully effective sound design, every weapon and unarmed strike or movement is accompanied by a whoosh or thud, these duels and battles are very satisfying.

The story? Not so much. Set in the 1920s in Tianjin, China, a respected martial arts master dies and a clash erupts between his son and his academy’s most talented student over who will lead the school in his place. The master had been positioning his son for a life outside of the martial arts circle, but the young man stubbornly desires to follow in his father’s footsteps no matter the cost. The dispute escalates consistently and as it does rules of proper resolution are broken as each man tries to gain the upper hand and begins taking their fight from behind closed doors into the city streets. Narratively, it doesn’t get much deeper than that, and the often whimsical and intentionally silly style kept me at a distance. I rarely found its humor funny or its characters interesting, and anything other than one of the thankfully often exciting fight sequences struggled to hold my attention.

Had the writing leaned harder into the dramatics of the power play, what it means to disrupt centuries of tradition, and how the white foreigner influence plays a role in the future of their martial arts circle, instead of merely mentioning these things as background window dressing, or if instead it had leaned harder into the wackiness of its slingshot street gang and melodramatic romantic pursuits and not taken itself seriously at all, a stronger whole could have existed. Instead the resulting film is a sometimes engaging but too frequently boring tonal mix with characters and a story that I did not emotionally connect with at all.

PAIN HUSTLERS (dir. David Yates)


There’s been no shortage of films about America’s opioid crisis in recent years, but rather than focusing on users or law enforcement, David Yates leaves the fantastical Wizarding World to adapt Evan Hughes 2022 narrative non-fiction book The Hard Sell — Pain Hustlers, which follows the rise and fall of a pharmaceutical startup and tracks their contribution to creating addicts everywhere. Emily Blunt is wonderful as always and shows a determined single mother with an incredible charisma and ability to sell. Meanwhile, Chris Evans is also quite fun as a morally bankrupt drug rep who will do anything to get ahead of the competition (and rich). Unfortunately, the film is still just formulaic Netflix fare. Yates is clearly trying to emulate Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET with its crazy high energy but PAIN HUSTLERS is much more sanitized and feels longer than its runtime. Worst of all, though, this story has nothing of value new or important to say about the opioid crisis and its occasional use of black and white photography testimonials from the family of victims doesn’t change that, but rather falls flat and feels tonally out of place. It’s a perfectly fine movie that is an easy watch, just don’t expect anything special whatsoever.

ORIGIN (dir. Ava DuVernay)


Ava Duvernay’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s life feels pretty major to me. The story follows Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a staggering Oscar-worthy performance) as she begins to research the nuances of discrimination and attempts to pinpoint the differences between racism and caste for what will become her New York Times bestselling novel Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The resulting work is a heavy, sweeping exploration about the history of caste worldwide in biopic form, featuring a combination of stylistic elements like voiceover narration from the book itself mixed with dramatized historical events. It’s a lot to take in, process, and talk about, but no one blends emotional and informational storytelling the way that DuVernay does.

CONCRETE UTOPIA (dir. Um Tae-hwa)


When Seoul is reduced to rubble by a massive earthquake, only one of the numerous giant apartment complexes that populate the city is left standing. Almost immediately, self-survival takes center stage as the residents of the Hwang Gung Apartments begin taking steps to protect the comforts and resources that their building provides, rather than making them available to the many outsiders starving and freezing to death with nowhere to go. With no explanation about why the earthquake has occurred or what is taking place outside of the city, this story is less a traditional disaster movie than it is a story about how class warfare takes hold of humanity even in the darkest of times. The systems created by the apartment dwellers to not only survive but also maintain order are smartly developed and a lurking wolf in sheep’s clothing element adds an intriguing tension that builds throughout. Tonally, CONCRETE UTOPIA veers toward campy to its detriment a little too often but does find its footing enough to land an emotionally affecting ending. It’s a very standard plot, elevated by strong production values and fine performances, resulting in a highly entertaining parable.

NATIONAL ANTHEM (dir. Luke Gilford)


You can really feel it when a director pours themselves into a story that is born out of personal experience, and Luke Gilford’s debut is a moving coming-of-age portrait about a soft-spoken young man discovering himself and finding a supportive community that brings him peace, joy, and acceptance. In intimate fashion, we follow Dylan (Charlie Plummer), a construction worker who is often left taking care of his younger brother while his Mom stays out late partying, as he takes a job on a queer rodeo performers’ ranch and begins to explore their world. He quickly is entranced by and begins to form a deep relationship with the ranch owner’s magnetic partner Sky (Eve Lindley), whose playfulness and openness attracts him in many ways. Some emotional conflict does arise as a sexually rambunctious encounter leads to jealousy issues and romantic commitments being challenged, but the drama is light. Through the vulnerable and tender performance from Charlie Plummer and captivating, magnetic work by Eve Lindley, we experience what it might be like for someone to unearth a part of themselves that they did not even know existed and be appreciated for who they are and how they act regardless of their sexuality or gender.

With Gilford’s background being in photography, it’s no wonder that he found a brilliant cinematographer to collaborate with, as well. Katelin Arizmendi provides gorgeous western landscape work that also features plenty of beautiful close-up shots to accentuate subtle emotions and strong relationship moments, particularly between Dylan and his little brother and Dylan and Sky. And as if he was already a seasoned filmmaker, Gilford’s confident pacing and direction help craft an undeniably emotive mood which enchants and allows plenty of time for introspection.

NEXT GOAL WINS (dir. Taika Waititi)


American Samoa is bad at soccer. Honestly, the worst. The nation’s team made history during 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying when it lost a match to Australia by the record tally of 31-0. This is the backdrop for NEXT GOAL WINS, which sees American Samoa bring on embattled Dutch manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to help turn the team around and accomplish their only objective – to score one single goal in international competition. If you’ve seen one inspirational sports comedy or drama, you’ve mostly seen them all. NEXT GOAL WINS is a typical crowd-pleasing story with the added bonus of wonderful representation which comes by way of a trans player named Jaiyah (Kaimana), who was the first openly trans female athlete to compete in a World Cup qualifying match. While I’ve grown quite tired of the alcoholic coach trope that is used here and frustrated by how Waititi insists on making 90% of the characters in his movie into comedic relief, to exhausting effect at times, it’s mostly very funny and good to see Fassbender back on the big screen for the first time in four years. Kaimana is the real star of this show, though, and gives a breakout performance that should hopefully land her more opportunities in the future.

KNOX GOES AWAY (dir. Michael Keaton)


There is some serious irony when a movie about a character who is  quickly losing memories is one that doesn’t leave a single lasting impression. In Michael Keaton’s second directorial effort, he plays an assassin diagnosed with dementia and the films takes place over about 3 weeks as he tries to get his affairs in order and redeem himself somewhat while simultaneously trying to help his estranged son out of a criminal jam of his own. Sadly, it’s not nearly as exciting or surprising as you’d expect a story like this with a ticking clock to be. Keaton directs it in a very dramatic fashion which creates major pacing issues. There also is an unfortunate lack of details that would help us to empathize more with Knox. It is briefly mentioned that he may only be killing other criminals, but there’s no world-building around why he does what he does. Al Pacino and James Marsden do provide some fun moments and Keaton as a performer is strong. It’s not a terrible film, just very bland, and it’s impossible to recommend when Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO manages a similar type of scenario much better.

THE KING TIDE (dir. Christian Sparkes)


THE KING TIDE has a fascinating premise about a mysterious girl with healing powers washing up on an island that has cut itself off from the world. The town uses the girl, Isla, for their own benefit and though they seem grateful (cultishly reciting “Many thanks to Isla”) any time she performs a miracle, the fact remains that she has very little free will. When the town’s fishing bounty begins to dry up due to Isla’s powers unexpectedly waning, tensions rise as differing opinions on how to handle their crisis emerge. The world-building is extremely interesting and the story explores how an isolated community intent on protecting itself can turn towards dark means to do so. There’s a shocking ending to this one that while entertaining left me feeling disappointed because of the lack of details about Isla herself and the broader impact of how what happened on the island affected the world at large outside of it.

UPROAR (dir. Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett)


A teenage boy named Josh (Julian Dennison) is struggling. His Māori father passed away, his British mother works multiple cleaning jobs just to stay afloat, and his rugby star brother is out of competition with an injury. Josh has grown up loving rugby and thinking it was the only thing that he was supposed to do, despite not being particularly good at the sport. But then by chance two people come into Josh’s life and change everything – one being a teacher named Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby) who encourages Josh to try out drama class and the other being a local Māori girl and her family who are actively protesting Apartheid in South Africa and the discrimination against their own native people there at home. UPROAR then becomes a coming-of-age story about a young man finding his passion in life blended with the nation’s fight for its racial identity. Dennison & Darby make for a charismatic, witty student/teacher pairing and the film’s call to action about using your voice resonates. Plus, every movie is better when it includes a haka. Just a simple fact.

DADDIO (dir. Christy Hall)


A woman (Dakota Johnson) exits the JFK are airport and enters NY city taxi cab, embarking on a ride home after a recent trip out of state. DADDIO isn’t about what happens next, because honestly, very little does, but it’s rather about the way that both she and her cab driver (Sean Penn) are changed from their brief time together. Christy Hall’s confident directorial debut is extremely strong, putting on screen what feels like a very precise vision. As she says, it is her love letter to those drivers and the sometimes rough but also meaningful encounters they can offer. The film is a gorgeously shot (particularly with how it frames the two characters in the rear view mirror from one or the other’s perspective), expertly performed, and an all-around riveting two-hander. The stirring naturalistic progression of their conversation ranges from topics such as tipping, to our relationship with tech, to gender dynamics, sex, and more. This is about reflecting on life, being present in the moment, and realizing that you never know when another person might be a part of changing your life – if only we listen and are honest.

THE HOLDOVERS (dir. Alexander Payne)


There have been no shortage of stories told about the relationship between teacher and student, but Alexander Payne manages to take a familiar, simple formula and create something incredibly heartwarming, charming, and very funny. Mr. Hunham (Paul Giammati) doesn’t want to be left over the Christmas break to babysit a handful of prep school students who already don’t like him because of his traditionally tough educational style, and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) certainly isn’t excited about being left behind for the holidays while his mother and her new husband take off for a sunny honeymoon. The two clash frequently and have many hilarious interactions thanks to fantastic performances and a snappy script, but they ultimately find connection and encouragement in one another in ways they never good have imagined. Da’Vine Joy Randolph also stars and is delightful as the prep school’s cook Ms. Lamb. It’s such an accessible and moving picture, one that understands how everyone has buried pain somewhere in their lives and we could all benefit from being a little more empathetic. From the opening logos to the ending credits, THE HOLDOVERS is lovingly and perfectly made. Rarely can I say that I wouldn’t change a single scene or beat, but I truly have no notes, and enjoyed my time with these rich characters as much as I have with any in cinema this year. And if there is justice in the world, Paul Giamatti will have one heck of a memorable awards season.

KILL (dir. Nikhil Nagesh Bhat)


The director and producer said point blank at a Q&A that with this film they had set out to make THE RAID on a train in India. Well, they succeeded. KILL’s narrative hook is extremely simple and may remind you of another famous film set in a tower. Two Captains in the Indian army, Amrit and Viresh, are on a train with Amrit’s secret love Tulika and her family as they travel to New Delhi for her arranged marriage. Unfortunately, this particular train is soon overtaken by dozens of bandits and sets in motion a rescue mission of the gnarliest kind. The music is loud, the pacing is fast, and the film is rarely more than a series of hyper violent and blood-soaked battles as Amrit fights to take down the gang’s maniacal leader Fani, played with incredible charisma by Raghav Juyal who is the absolute star of the show. Fight choreography in the confined spaces of these train cars is dynamic and the creative use of makeshift weapons makes for many a gasp-worthy scene. Though the narrative is not complex, it is surprisingly emotionally-driven, too, keeping you just invested enough to really enjoy the punishment dished out. But first and foremost this is an exercise in killin’ and the killin’ is gooooooood.



There is a silly scene a little over halfway through DEATH OF A WHISTLEBLOWER where I laughed out loud and muttered “STOP IT” due to the impractical nature of what I saw taking place. Up until this point the film had maintained a fairly grounded and realistic portrayal of an investigative journalist seeking to expose a massive state conspiracy while honoring her murdered colleague who had been hot on this same trail and ultimately killed for it. But then she finds herself engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a mercenary assassin and the result is comical to say the least. It was also at this time, when director Ian Gabriel’s story had finally gained a sense of momentum and seemed to be barreling toward its conclusion, that I realized there were still 40 minutes left of this slog of a tale. But because integrity matters, I wiped my face with a cold cloth and carried on.

For Luyanda Misenda, telling the truth is all that matters. “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want published. Everything else is public relations,” she snaps back at her editor after being initially denied permission to run a story on privatized prison corruption in South Africa. So it’s no surprise really that when her colleague, friend, and lover Stanley offers her an opportunity to join him in uncovering widespread government corruption and specifically something called Project Cursed (a plan to annihilate the black population in the country), it doesn’t take long for her to accept. Unfortunately, Stanley is assassinated right next to her shortly thereafter, and his death’s effect is to steel her nerves and set her on a dedicated path to exposing every layer of wickedness he had a lead on.

What transpires is a mostly slow-paced, dry, and dramatic procedural where Misenda is learning about a convoluted combination of horrors that includes the long-time state-sponsored genocidal program, the prison privatization scheme, chemical weapons trafficking, and a lot more. Every once in a while Gabriel will insert a two-minute scene that plays like a thriller, but these vignettes are infrequent and jarring due to their drastic tonal difference from how the story is primarily being told. Over the course of two hours that feels like four, Misenda teams up with a military corporal and the situation escalates from strictly investigative journalism into something that includes vigilante justice and revenge. While there are certainly the bones of a solid and intriguing story here, and one that reflects on the real life awful history of silenced truth tellers in this nation, the film never coalesces into an easily comprehensible and engaging whole. Noxolo Dlamini does give a strong performance as Misenda, but her work is hampered by the acting surrounding her, a lack of strong supporting characters, and a camera and script that never take advantage of the magnetic personality she flashes from time to time.

It’s a shame that a picture with this strong of a premise turned out to be such a bore. When my primary takeaway after a film ends is that I’m glad I didn’t waste two of my precious hours in Toronto watching it in person, that tells you all that you need to know.

THE BOY AND THE HERON (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)


Thematically, THE BOY AND THE HERON feels like a perfect swan song for Miyazaki, with its story that touches on memory and legacy in a big way. It’s so distinctly personal in the way it approaches passing the torch, in fact, that it almost hits a little bit differently now knowing that it likely won’t be the director’s last work. The story revolves around a boy named Mahito who loses his mother in a hospital fire during World War II. A few years later, he and his father move away from Tokyo to be with his new wife Natsuko, also his late wife’s younger sister. Much to my surprise, despite the obvious strangeness of that situation, it largely is not treated as one in the narrative. While at his new home, Mahito encounters a talking heron that beckons him into a magical world, telling him that he can find his mother there and save her. What follows is some a weirdly creative one-of-a-kind world that only Miyazaki could dream up, that includes knife-wielding human-eating giant parakeets and the details of a system for how souls are born. Though I did not find this to be the most engrossing or emotionally gripping story the director has told, its strong cast of characters both serious and quirky, stunning animation, one of Joe Hisaishi’s best scores, and a thoroughly exciting, energetic adventure make for a wonderful watch that no doubt has a richness begging to be revealed further for those who spend more time with it.

DUMB MONEY (dir. Craig Gillespie)


Gillespie’s energetic and foul-mouthed biopic captures the millennial, perpetually online, meme-heavy essence of the historic GameStop short squeeze stock event perfectly. It’s propulsive, hilarious, and manages to be informational at the same time by simplifying the finance talk in a way that makes sense.  The film never takes itself too seriously, leaning head on into the Reddit community culture that embraced a YouTuber called Roaring Kitty and collectively pulled off a massive Wall Street hedge fund takedown. DUMB MONEY is formulaic in the best way, echoing beloved films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE BIG SHORT, and like those before it Gillespie’s picture is sure to be a crowd-pleasing triumph about a rare win for the little guys.

THE CONVERT (dir. Lee Tamahori)


THE CONVERT is a violent historical epic that shares the truth about Māori tribal traditions and the influence of British colonialism in their lands. Minister Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) arrives at the colony of Epworth with pain from his past and the hope of finding redemption through leading its citizens in their religious routines. When caught in an unexpected attack, he begs for the life of girl Rangimai and becomes increasingly invested in the Māori ways of life and the conflict between two rival factions. Though the film never quite reaches the emotional heights of something like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, it is a rock solid adventure that doubles as a history lesson about a culture many know little of.

THE DEAD DON’T HURT (dir. Viggo Mortensen)


Viggo Mortensen’s second directorial effort shows promise behind the camera, but there’s still room for growth. THE DEAD DON’T HURT is a Western immigrant love story and has moments of beautifully captured character interactions, gorgeous landscape scenery, and a captivating performance by Vicky Krieps as a woman who finds a home only to be left alone to defend herself against the evil intentions of a man from town. That’s not enough, however, to overcome a tremendously dull experience that is often robbed of potential momentum by a complicated flashback-heavy structure and a primary plot that doesn’t feel like anything new for the genre. The choice to bounce between about three timelines plus have dream sequences very much in the main offender here and does no favors to an altogether poorly paced affair with a camera that just lingers several beats too long practically every single scene. Make no mistake that the parts of a tender and exciting picture are here, but as constructed it’s just too much of a bore to strongly recommend.

WOMAN OF THE HOUR (dir. Anna Kendrick)


Anna Kendrick does not shy away from a challenge. For her first film in the director’s chair, she tackles the very real story of serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), who posed as a photographer looking for models as a way to lure women into situations where he could sexually assault and ultimately murder them. What makes his life particularly unique is how during Alcala’s crime spree he appeared on television as a contestant in The Dating Game, where he attempted win the affection of Cheryl Bradshaw (played by Kendrick herself).

Zavatto is utterly terrifying, masterfully showing the kind of charisma and improvisational conversational skills that helped him gain the trust of so many victims, but also exhibiting a deeply upsetting, underlying intensity that occasionally betrayed his true violent desires. Be warned that there are some moments of terrible violence against women to be seen and Zavatto truly does get underneath your skin to the point of perhaps giving nightmares. Kendrick brings her signature charm and wit in front of the camera, and shows incredible command behind. She has crafted a tense, funny, and scathingly direct look at the many dangers and constant objectification women face. Details abound in depictions of interactions that women have with men and it’s damning to say the least. What Anna has accomplished here is so impressive. WOMAN OF THE HOUR is a knockout true crime story directorial debut.

DAYS OF HAPPINESS (dir. Chloé Robichaud)


It’s impossible not to draw this conclusion so I’ll get it out of the way right up front – DAYS OF HAPPINESS has an awful lot of similarities to TÁR. Both films are about talented female conductors, both films see the lead in a lesbian relationship that includes a young child, and both films have conducting a Mahler piece as a major part of the story. The biggest difference, however, is that unlike Lydia in TÁR, Emma in DAYS OF HAPPINESS is a protagonist you actually root for.

Making Emma’s life a challenge are her obsession with perfection and inability to conduct emotionally, a toxic relationship with her over-bearing father who also serves as her agent and cares more about her career than he does her mental health, and a girlfriend who is not quite past a recent separation from her child’s father and isn’t ready to commit in the way that Emma would like. The resulting story is a slightly overlong but thoroughly satisfying dramatic character journey that has some delightful humor and plenty of lovely classical music to enjoy. Big time recommend for fans of the orchestra and anyone who likes a good tale of someone overcoming obstacles, in a healthy way, to achieve a dream.

SLEEP (dir. Jason Yu)


You’ll look at your partner differently the next time they mumble in bed after seeing this. SLEEP hooks you instantly with its deceptively simple premise about a husband who talks and walks in his sleep with increasingly disturbing results. Jung Yu-mi and Lee Sun-kyun brilliantly depict a young devoted newlywed couple, pregnant with their first child, and in the meantime happily parenting their beloved Pomeranian Pepper. They live by the motto of “Together We Can Overcome Anything” and try all sorts of interesting and sometimes hilarious solutions to ridding Hyun-Su of his nocturnal affliction. The film is absorbing, tense, and smartly balances science and spirituality to craft a haunting atmosphere that deftly keeps you guessing right up until its anxiety-inducing dramatic climax. At its heart, SLEEP is a marital story about not giving up, and unlike Hollywood’s typical genre fare it foregoes the opportunity to set up a sequel in favor of a perfectly satisfying thematic ending. This is a fantastic debut from Jason Yu and another huge win for South Korean horror cinema.

HOW TO HAVE SEX (dir. Molly Manning Walker)


HOW TO HAVE SEX may not make it obvious, but it’s so much more than just a party movie. Despite a propulsive, high-energy style of filmmaking with a blaring EDM score, Manning Walker’s story which follows three 16-year old British girls on a summer vacation full of partying, drinking, and on a mission to get laid in Greece, has a surprisingly strong and important message. The girls’ experience is all too relatable, from their poor choices to frequently over-indulge to the moments when they drop the facade of being older and show their age, this kind of debaucherous rite of passage is one many, many teenagers worldwide have partaken in. But this kind of unsupervised fun can be dangerous, too, and the film does a brilliant job of showing how subtly situations can go very wrong for young women and how critical it is to have friends that truly have your back with actions and not just words. As Tyra, Mia McKenna-Bru shoulders the most emotional and challenging arc of the three girls and gives an incredible performance that screams future star, and Manning Walker pulls no punches with her script, ending the film in a bold, realistic scenario that is heartbreaking, yet hopeful. Its final scene is powerful and one that I won’t soon forget.

PERFECT DAYS (dir. Wim Wenders)


According to director Wim Wenders, he was visiting Tokyo and found himself mesmerized by the many varied and beautifully designed public toilets added around the city to support the 2020 Summer Olympic. He was surprised at how well-kept and clean they and other public spaces were, specifically as opposed to how trashed the parks in his native Berlin had become, and was inspired to tell a story about Japanese hospitality and care for the common good. The result of that desire is a tender and charming character portrait of a quiet, kind, and respectful man who loves his work and serving others. His days are routine, consisting of things like filled with canned coffee for breakfast, American classic music on cassette tapes during his commute, and occasional photographs of the trees in a park where he takes his lunch. His relationships with a junior toilet cleaner named Takashi and his runaway niece Niko are delightful, and seeing a man who truly takes time to be present in every interaction and revel in the simple pleasures of each day is inspiring. Koji Yakusho is phenomenal as Hirayama and carries a film with perhaps too little story development for such a long and slow runtime. There’s a pleasant sweetness to be had, but it comes in a patient and simple style that can keep many viewers at a distance, and unfortunately left me wanting to know more about the fascinating Hirayama than Wenders is willing to share.

COPA 71 (dir. Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine)


Composed almost entirely of first-hand, insightful, and passionate interviews from the many women who played in the titular soccer event and with plenty of wonderful archival footage to accompany its history lesson, COPA 71 thoroughly tells the story of the beginning of women’s organized play in many countries around the world up to a forgotten (perhaps intentionally buried) international competition that predates the first officially recognized FIFA Women’s World Cup by 20 years. The presentation is energetic and especially exciting due to practically no viewer already knowing the results of the tournament which results in a blended film style that feels like part documentary and part real live sporting event. It’s wonderful to see and hear these former athletes recount their memories with so much emotion – the joy of victories, the pain of defeats, and stories about the unbelievable experiences they had overall, from the parties to sight-seeing as tourists to bonding with other teams. American World Cup champion Brandi Chastain says it best at the opening of the film when she is exposed to this story for the first time, “It makes me happy and infuriated.” COPA 71 relays important history that deserves to be shared and goes beyond just sport as it highlights just how much inequality existed in the world for women not so very long ago.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST (dir. Jonathan Glazer)


A unique and absolutely chilling look at the Holocaust from a German military family’s perspective. Instead of showing us the atrocities committed against the Jewish population by Hitler’s Nazy regime, Glazer instead has us spend time observing every day life at a beautiful house next to Auschwitz, watching as they enjoy amenities such as a swimming pool, greenhouse, and multiple servants all while being separated from the concentration camp by nothing but a greenery-covered wall. The result is a masterful juxtaposition of a life led in indifference and comfort vs. the non-stop off-screen horror, depicted by way of powerful and upsetting sound design. Though this makes up the majority of the film, the story does follow Commandant Höss away from the home as he takes on a larger role. This results in diminishing effectiveness for the film’s impressive structure and I wish that we could have just stayed with the Commandant’s selfish, callous wife instead. As it is, THE ZONE OF INTEREST is still a must-see unforgettable experience. It would have been a masterpiece of a short film, but still nearly perfect as is.

ANATOMY OF A FALL (dir. Justine Triet)


Sandra Hüller’s emotionally complex performance as a novelist (also named Sandra) accused of murdering her husband and courtroom camerawork that brilliant shifts perspective to present a variety of character point of views elevate ANATOMY OF A FALL above your typical serial legal drama. Sandra’s challenging defense reveals the kind of unknown relationship issues that couples face and captures the psychological toll of publicly debating your truth without proof. It also showcases the awful effects of such a trial on her young son Daniel, a visually-impaired young man who has just lost his father and faces losing his mother while simultaneously trying to process details of their marriage that were kept private for good reason. Despite the murder mystery itself being setup well – seriously, the titular fall and questions that emerge about how it could have been either an accident or deliberate allows for some awesome suppositional theorizing – the story is drawn out to its detriment and left me feeling unsatisfied due to a lack of resolution. There can be power in ambiguity, but in this case it unfortunately limited my ability to empathize, and therefore stunted my emotional connection with what Sandra was experiencing. Still, Triet’s picture is a strong recommend as it is exceptionally well-made and one of the better courtroom dramas we’ve had in years.



Sasha may be a vampire, but she doesn’t love it. For years she has fought against family pressure to become a selective killer in the name of self-preservation, instead suppressing her fangs and urges by feeding herself on blood bags and dreaming of what it might be like to eat human food, all the while developing a serious case of PTSD over the whole ordeal.

But then one night teenage Sasha sees teenage Paul atop a building, considering whether or not to jump. As fate would have it, their paths eventually cross during an unexpected meet-cute between boy and girl at a suicidal thoughts support group. Paul is a quiet and often bullied kid who is mesmerized by Sasha’s condition, and in wanting his life to mean something offers himself up as sacrifice. The relationship that follows is an adorably dry humor rom-com between two awkward depressed people as they navigate Paul’s potential dying wishes, find a special connection, and ponder their individual worth in a world that has dealt them each a challenging hand.

A lovely jazzy score helps contribute to the vibe and the cinematography is never showy, but decisions about when to use some stylish color bursts are smartly made and work to tremendous effect in creating a dark indie slice-of-life aesthetic. It’s also worth noting that for a film set entirely at night, the lighting work is top-notch, and unlike many pictures these days you can always clearly see characters and the world around them without ever losing the feeling that it is in fact in the dead of night.

Though the film features very few characters overall and isn’t full of memorable horror moments, spending time with Sasha and Paul is a delight and where the two wind up may encourage some healthy debate even after the credits roll. This is the kind of small budget, independent gem that makes festivals such a treat, and is worth seeking out and fitting into any attendee’s schedule.




2023 Seattle International Film Festival Capsule Reviews

Each year the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) screens hundreds of feature films, documentaries, short films, and more from all around the world. This year the largest and most highly attended festival in the United States will run from May 11-21 in the Seattle area with select streaming encore screenings online from May 22-28. This year’s festival features 264 films from 74 countries/regions around the globe: 92 features, 45 documentaries, 125 short films, and 2 secret films. 23 of these films are world premieres, 30 are North American premieres, and 13 are U.S. premieres. 52% of films are directed by female identifying or nonbinary filmmakers, 69% are from first- or second-time filmmakers, and 73% don’t currently have U.S. distribution. The festival will screen several highly anticipated films such as “Past Lives”, “Theater Camp”, “I Like Movies”, and “Year of the Fox”. Suffice it to say, all 264 films won’t be covered here, but in addition to our podcast coverage of the festival you will find capsule reviews of a wide variety of films across many genres (some of which are re-purposed from previous viewing at earlier film festivals). Check back often for new capsule reviews as we cover the 49th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. (Reviews are in order of film’s earliest showing.)





PAST LIVES (dir. Celine Song)


This is an achingly emotional Korean relationship drama about fate, pursuing dreams, regrets, and finding happiness where you are. The story follows Na Young (Greta Lee) who we meet as a young girl on the verge of immigrating with her parents to America in support of her father’s career in filmmaking. She has a crush on local boy Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) and they manage to spend some meaningful time together before she’s gone. From there, the story jumps forward two different times – once 12 years later where Na, now using the name Nora Moon, and Hae Sung reconnect via Skype and social media, and the other another 12 years down the road when Nora is now married to fellow artist Arthur (John Magero). The delicate handling of Nora’s relationships with (and feelings for) the two men, as well as theirs towards hers and Arthur’s toward Hae Sung, allows for the audience to really sink into this challenging dynamic. It’s a stunning debut from director/writer Celine Song that may be slow and quiet but is deeply complex, with three exceptionally patient and nuanced performances from Lee, Teo, and Magaro. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 11 (Paramount Theater) – Opening Night Gala

[Get Tickets]

THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS (dir. Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch)


Pietro and Bruno, two 12 year-old boys who meet merely by chance. Bruno lives in the Alpine village of Grana and is the only child left after most of its inhabitants (including Bruno’s father) abandoned the mountain life for more lucrative work near larger towns. Pietro is on a summer getaway with his mother from their usual lives in the bustling city. Perhaps out of necessity, perhaps because they are truly two souls meant to discover one another, the two young boys instantly connect and set off on adventures together. They grow closer and closer as summer visits pass, but eventually things change.

Over the course of 2.5 hours, directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, accompanied by one of the most perfectly fitting soundtracks that I’ve ever heard from Daniel Norgren, tell us the moving story of these two men. Of their individual struggles with their fathers and legacy, of their romantic relationships, of their dreams, of their success and failures, of the bigness and smallness of their lives, and most of all of how their worlds remain inseparable ever since that initial summer meeting. Being set in the mountains makes this instantly a visually stunning feature, too, with some of the most beautiful photography you’ll ever see in a narrative film. The valleys, the lakes, the waterfalls, and of course the snowy peaks – the immensity of it all mixed with the simplicity and peace it can bring are explored to both heartbreaking and heartwarming effect.

It’s rare that I watch such a lengthy drama and come away feeling like I could have spent longer in its world, but such was the case with THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS. The characters are so rich, the environments so soothing and awe-inspiring… I didn’t want it to end. I’m not sure if those without a love for the outdoors will come away quite as spellbound as those of us mesmerized by what some of the earth’s highest places have to offer, but I find it difficult to think that anyone could get to know Bruno and Pietro as deeply as we do and not find themselves responding emotionally to this tender yet painful true story of a loving male friendship. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 12 (Shoreline Community College, May 13 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian)

[Get Tickets]

20 DAYS IN MARIUPOL (dir. Mstyslav Chernov)


War is hell, especially when you didn’t ask for it and it comes not on a battlefield but directly into your city. The crisp, no frills, day-to-day accounting here of Russian atrocities committed against Ukraine is so gut-wrenching. Journalism is vitally important and I’m grateful we live in a time when brave reporters like those here can provide proof of historical events so that they may not be rewritten by those who would wish to twist the truth. The exhausted and heartbroken tone of the narration really got me, too. I cannot imagine witnessing such massive agony and devastation first-hand. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 12 (SIFF Cinema Uptown), May 19 (Ark Lodge Cinemas), May 22-28 (SIFF Streaming)

[Get Tickets]

SCRAPPER (dir. Charlotte Regan)


Lovely relationship and performances between Lola Campbell and Harris Dickinson. As a Dad-girl, I can’t help but be drawn to stories about fathers and daughters. I could have done completely without the directorial visual touches, honestly. The drama was plenty for me. It’s a simple bittersweet story told beautifully and often quite funny. Quite a charmer. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 12 (Ark Lodge Cinemas), May 15 (SIFF Cinema Uptown)

[Get Tickets]



It had to be awfully tempting for director Peter Nicks to just go the traditional sports biography route of making an extended highlight reel, cutting frequently to well-known basketball talent who would wax poetic about Steph’s incredible skill, backed by montages of endless difficult three-pointers and layups. His subject is arguably the greatest shooter in the history of the sport, after all. But Nicks wisely avoids that route, and with some brilliant editing choices by J.D. Marlow, he and his filmmaking team crafted a heartfelt, honest journey beginning with Steph’s unlikely rise despite his physical attributes and going through his playing career (thus far) and his decision to fulfill a promise he made to his mother about finishing his college degree, pointing out the triumphs and challenges of all three.

Of course, it is full of outstanding archival footage that shows his immense talent, but there’s quite a bit of unflattering plays shown as well, reminding us that you don’t achieve the level of success that Curry has without a lot of work, support, and determination. Two things that have always mattered most to Steph, family and team, are centered, and we see frequently how important they are in making him the man and player he is today. It’s not just about him, though – he truly believes in showering those around him with the credit, too.

In what is probably one of the best aspects of the documentary, the final act parallels the amazing Curry-led Elite Eight run by Davidson in 2008 and Curry’s fourth world title with the Golden State Warriors in 2022. It’s exceptionally well-crafted and riveting, even when you know the results already, and it further shows how much Steph has overcome being overlooked and doubted for his entire life. This is an earnest, energetic, crisply shot, expertly edited, scored, and directed character piece that is one of the better sports documentaries I’ve ever seen. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 13 (SIFF Cinema Uptown), May 14 (Shoreline Community College)

[Get Tickets]

MY ANIMAL (dir. Jacqueline Castel)


I didn’t mind that MY ANIMAL keeps its horror light and uses the werewolf staging less as an ongoing threat and more of a unique personal circumstance to be navigated for an already extreme outsider. I loved the slow-burn vibe and how it always felt like we were building to the point when Heather would inevitably snap. The dark, snowy isolation of its setting adds to the judgment and hatred that someone like Heather must deal with for being different, too. Castel’s confident, dreamy debut prefers to highlight its queer romance drama (including some sexy chemistry between the two women) and rely on the exceptional ambiance created by McCashin’s intoxicating camerawork and Miller’s synth score. Less bloody, but Carpenter-esque. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 13 (Ark Lodge Cinemas), May 17 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian)

[Get Tickets]

YEAR OF THE FOX (dir. Megan Griffiths)


A weirdly dark coming-of-age story about a teenage biracial adopted girl who is dealing with the divorce of her parents. Mom is going to Seattle to start anew while rich cheater Dad continues to live it up in Colorado. Ivy is caught between these two worlds, trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants out of her life. It starts off as a poor man’s version of a John Green YA novel adaptation and then takes a wild pivot into an EYES WIDE SHUT sort of situation where the Aspen elite are into all kinds of unruly behavior. The story handles this “shocking” transition so poorly and the entire film has constant insufferable narration from Ivy, explaining every single possible thought in her head in the most melodramatic way possible. There’s no enjoyable soundtrack throughout or filmmaker flourish, and all of the performances are somewhere between terrible and serviceable at best. I hate to be this hard on a Seattle-area director debuting her film at the local fest, but this is one of the most frustratingly aimless, bland, and unaffecting movies that I have ever seen in this genre and I’m very disappointed.

Showtimes: May 13 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian), May 14 (SIFF Cinema Uptown)

[Get Tickets]

PASSAGES (dir. Ira Sachs)


As character pieces about messy shitheads go, this is one of the more slight examples that I can remember. Franz Rogowski gives a tremendous performance as someone so completely selfish and blind to what love actually is. I was actively rooting against him and hoping that his toxic behavior would eventually be shunned by his former husband played by a very, very sad Ben Whishaw and the stunning goddess of a school teacher next door Adèle Exarchopoulos. There’s actually not a lot of sex and of the two major scenes they aren’t particularly explicit as far as nudity goes, but they are steamy and to their credit feel about as natural and un-Hollywood as you’ll see. What I do wish we got more of, though, was an understanding of who these people were outside of the relationship back and forth drama. There are bits and pieces that define them, but the story is so hyper-focused on the main plot – i.e. who will Tomas settle down with – that the other characters at times feel like just pawns. I guess thinking about it as I type, that’s pretty accurate to how he treats them, it just didn’t make for quite as connective of an experience as I might have had. Really loved the ending, too. Made a lot of the frustrating character actions we sit through feel worth it. Oh and the cinematography is lovely btw! (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 14 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian), May 18 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian)

[Get Tickets]

PUNDERNEATH IT ALL (dir. Abby Hagan)


Quite a delightful look at an eclectic and charming community of people who bond through pun contests and a shared love of wordplay. Highly focused on a Seattle-based host and her experience in bringing this to the local area, but travels around showing how various pun events have different rules structures and unique crowds in a few other cities. Even at a brisk 76 minutes, it gets repetitive and probably would’ve worked better as a tightly edited short film. I did enjoy the independent filmmaking smallness of the production, however. Anything more fancy wouldn’t have felt nearly as authentic or had the same appreciation for the subject matter.

Showtimes: May 16 (AMC Pacific Place), May 17 (Ark Lodge Cinemas), May 22-28 (SIFF Streaming)

[Get Tickets]

JAMOJAYA (dir. Justin Chon)


There’s a strong and touching father/son drama about grieving a shared loss and naturally growing apart inside of JAMOJAYA, but Justin Chon inserts awkward dream sequences and escalates his story into supremely ridiculous melodrama to the point that it loses its emotional impact. Yayu A.W. Unru is wonderful as the father until his character becomes a parody. It’s such a shame because I was feeling very much on the film’s wavelength at first and if it had just stayed a little more traditional and not tried to get artistically fancy, it could have been offered something special. (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 14 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian), May 18 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian)

[Get Tickets]

THE GRAB (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


An enraging, wild investigative journalism documentary that shows how land grabs should give us cause to worry about food and water security globally. So that’s awesome! But not really – when private investors and countries are secretly buying up (and stealing) land around the world to control supply and using mercenaries to do so at times, it’s actually really depressing and scary for future generations.

We should never under-appreciate the risk people like Nathan Halverson and his team put themselves in to expose truth to the public. This begins with someone asking a single question and then following the trail of information to bigger and bigger mind-blowing discoveries. It feels extremely authentic and sometimes even plays like a thriller where you truly are worried for the journalists at work. Gets a bit repetitive at one point when the “wow” reveals stop coming, but that’s the biggest complaint I’ve got and it doesn’t lessen the importance of this one bit.

Showtimes: May 19 (Shoreline Community College), May 20 (AMC Pacific Place)

[Get Tickets]

THEATER CAMP (dir. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman)


Experiencing something made by people in a specific industry, with so much joy for its subject matter, especially when it is something you share, is wonderful. The film is a mockumentary love letter to theater performers and musical fans with almost pitch-perfect comedy and plenty of famous songs to briefly sing-along with. The story kicks off when beloved low-cost theater camp owner Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma during a rousing performance of “Honestly Sincere” from BYE BYE BIRDIE, and I was instantly hooked. From there, her very much *not* a theater kid son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) must run the camp over the summer and stave off a hostile takeover from a neighboring rich kids’ camp while Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) write and compose a musical to teach the diverse group of talented kids. The pacing is breezy and it touches on (a.k.a. makes fun of) most elements of production and the array of personality types you typically find among artists. It’s also an easy Best Ensemble contender with Molly Gordon’s hilariously touching performance being a standout and Noah Galvin absolutely knocking my socks off. The finale performance is INCREDIBLE and had me happy-crying throughout. As rewatchable as a film can be, I’ve seen it three times and am anxious to do so again. Musicals rule! (Screened in January 2023 during Sundance Film Festival)

Showtimes: May 20 (SIFF Cinema Uptown)

[Get Tickets]

I LIKE MOVIES (dir. Chandler Levack)


<i>“It moved me, emotionally. Which I think is the highest compliment you can give to any filmmaker.”</i>

Director/Writer Chandler Levack’s debut feature film is a nostalgic blast to the past for nerdy cinephiles who grew up in the late 90s/early 00s. Following PTA super-fan and wannabe filmmaker Lawrence, we watch a boy struggle with maturation, having responsibility, and handling rejection, all while he lives out one dream of working in a local video store and chases another of attending NYU film school. The era details are pitch-perfect from the music references to lunch at Subway to obsession with SNL and more. Lawrence isn’t always a likable character, but like any good coming-of-age story the joy is in watching a young person go through this critical process of change that we can all relate to. An aces cast working with a wonderfully witty and touching script delivers Levack’s outpouring of passion for the time period and cinema. For those that love movies, I LIKE MOVIES is for you.

Showtimes: May 21 (SIFF Cinema Egyptian) – Closing Night Film

[Get Tickets]

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.


Sundance Film Festival 2023 Review Journal

Feelin’ Film is excited to be covering the iconic Sundance Film Festival for the first time! This page will serve as a running journal of sorts, where you can read my thoughts on the many films I see both on the ground in Park City and online once back at home as the festival progresses. These reviews will later be accompanied by more robust podcast conversations to be had with several guests who also attended the fest. For now, enjoy following along with my journey, see if anything sparks your interest, and be sure to let me know if it does. Thanks for reading. – Aaron White

RADICAL (dir. Christopher Zella)


RADICAL tells the true story of Sergio Juarez and his unorthodox but effective teaching methods to a failing 6th grade class in the poor Mexican border town of Matamoros. What Juarez brings instead is a student-centered approach that is built around finding out what the kids are interested in learning and building a curriculum around that. The kids almost all face some kind of challenge to their learning environment, though, and the script is devastatingly honest about how poverty, family obligations, and local crime can derail a young person’s life. The film also shows how corruption, archaic educational systems, and self-centered teaching techniques based on heavy discipline and a questionable focus on standardized testing can prevent students from ever reaching their potential. While the story is set in Mexico, it is very relatable to what many American families face, as well.

Euginio Derbez, known mostly for his comic persona, gives a powerfully affecting performance, full of humor and grace, that beautifully captures Juarez’s idealistic beliefs about education. Three child actors who play characters at the heart of the story – a young budding scientific genius named Paloma who works with her father selling junk, a girl who takes an interest in philosophy that is forced to take care of multiple younger siblings named Lupita, and the brother of a street gang member named Nico who is also a bit of a class clown with a romantic interest in Paloma – all deliver impactful performances that deeply tug on the heart strings, as well. Though the story is earnest and often full of fun, it is not without tragedy. But the reality of the situation simply needed to be shown and it makes the hopeful tone all the more moving in the end. It’s an easy mark to compare this to CODA (and they do share the wonderful Derbez), but fans of that film will most likely find themselves swept up in this story, too. For my first ever in-person film at a Sundance Film Festival – I really hit the jackpot. (Watched at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City – January 19, 2023)

THE POD GENERATION (dir. Sophie Barthes)


Plenty of science fiction stories have taken aim at the human race’s growing reliance on and obsession with technologies, but THE POD GENERATION does so through satire to mixed results. At the center of the tale is Rachel (Emilia Clarke), an AI developer who is climbing the corporate ladder and bringing home the majority of the family’s income while her nature-loving botanist and technology averse husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) maintains an in-home greenery and tries to convince his Biology class students that real things still matter. Rachel and Alvy ultimately end up deciding to have a baby through this future world’s new pod system, where large sums of money are paid in order to have conception and gestation of a child take place inside of an artificial womb and everything from feeding the baby to playing it music takes place via an app. Director/writer Sophie Barthes said that some of the film came from her own crazy nightmares during pregnancy and her script is extremely thorough in showing as many different potential experiences that a couple can have as possible.

The film tries to balance comedic and dramatic tones but doesn’t always manage to do so well. There are stretches where the story begins to feel repetitive and even drawn out. While there’s a lot to laugh at – like how this world uses AI eyeball devices to do everything from pick out the clothes they wear each day to serving as therapists – the commentary felt very surface-level, as if it was just pointing things out without trying to examine them on a deeper level that might result in revelations of some kind. The ending, which sees Rachel and Alvy making some choices that feel like they would’ve had a lot more serious consequences than they do, is also a bit of an abrupt letdown. The highlight for me, however, was by far Ejiofor’s performance. His initial reluctance to the idea and eventual change of heart was played with great dramatic nuance and also incredible comedic timing. He really stole the show along with some striking world-design and solid sound work. There’s definitely some interesting ideas and depictions here of what it might be like if we lived in a world consumed by artificial convenience, but nothing hard enough to make you think too much beyond the theater parking lot. (Watched at Eccles Theatre in Park City – January 19, 2023)

FAIRYLAND (dir. Andrew Durham)


Based on her own memoir, FAIRYLAND dramatizes the childhood experiences of Alysia Abbott (Nessa Dougherty/Emilia Jones) as she grew up with her single gay widowed father in San Francisco throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While father/daughter stories have been told before, it is the unusual situation of Alysia being exposed to a free love, LGBTQ-inclusive, and heavy drug usage community at a very young age which offers a perspective worth examining. Though her Dad, Steve Abbott (Scoot McNairy), is well-intended, his parenting choices over the years include some questionable decisions, often leading Alysia’s maternal grandmother Munca (Geena Davis) to try and coax the girl back to the east coast to live with her mother’s extended family. I appreciated the screenplay not being entirely critical of this, but rather showing that there were multiple people in the child’s life who wanted the best for her, despite having a difference of opinion on how to achieve it. Over the course of her life, the support from both father and grandparents contribute to the young woman Alysia becomes.

The picture is beautifully shot by Greta Zozula and uses a different film style to distinguish each decade – grainy for the 70s and much more crisp and bright when Alysia enters her High School and college years. The other biggest highlight is the emotionally evocative performances by both Scoot McNairy and Emilia Jones. McNairy is heartbreaking as a man coming to terms with his sexuality and passion for poetry while Jones is easily relatable as someone wrestling with how his choices affected her upbringing. I found the script to go in directions that left me frustrated because of the parenting methods it defends and also much too drawn out in its third act, but the moving characters did keep me invested and appreciative of this rarely depicted family makeup and the unique ways they make the best of such a tragic loss. (Watched at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City – January 20, 2023)

STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE (dir. Davis Guggenheim)


“I’m a tough sonofabitch,” Fox says at one point in an interview segment with director Davis Guggenheim, and as we learn throughout this personal journey across the beloved actor’s childhood, career, family life, and battle with Parkinson’s, that attitude never wavers. Fox’s willingness to be our guide, be that via answering direct questions or reading sections from his memoir to serve as narration for a vast amount of wonderful archival footage, creates a very connected experience for the audience – one where we feel personally closer to him the longer it goes. It is clear that despite the challenges of his physical condition, like his fighting spirit, Fox’s charismatic goofball persona and desire to make people smile and laugh has never changed. Also quite apparent is Fox’s admiration for his wife, Tracy. He dotes on her and expresses his gratitude for her frequently, and the love and support he has from his entire family is beautiful to see.

Guggenheim’s visual presentation for the documentary is an engaging blend of multimedia content that is a perfect match for Michael J. Fox’s infectious energy. We don’t just learn about his crazy experience of getting a role in Family Ties but actually hear his auditions and later as he is discussing work performed once diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Guggenheim overlays clips where you can see Fox struggling with shaking before anyone even knew he had the disease. While any documentary told from the subject’s point of view must acknowledge a measure of bias is present, Fox presents himself as a staunch believer in telling the truth and it does not feel like he has anything to hide. His story is an inspirational one, of a man who had it all, lost it, and has remained a beacon of light to anyone he comes in contact with regardless of his circumstances. Bring the tissues, though, because the tears are sure to flow. (Watched at The Park Avenue Theatre in Park City – January 20, 2023)

BLUEBACK (dir. Robert Connolly)


A coming-of-age story about protecting our oceans, BLUEBACK unfolds in alternating time periods where in the present an adult marine biologist Abby is rushing to her childhood home to see her ailing elderly mother Dora who has just had a stroke. In the past, a young Abby, first shown as a child and then for most of the film as a teenager, is growing up in a cozy coastal Australian fishing community learning from her passionate activist Mom (played excellently with strength and determination by Radha Mitchell) all about how much the waters and bay need to be protected. The story is told in a very slow manner, gently moving through some of Abby’s most memorable and formative experiences, most of which reflect back on the time spent with her mother. The environmental messages are forefront and inform every aspect of the story. They come bluntly and often, though there are brief times when characters take a moment to just enjoy one another’s company and the lovely bond of their community is highlighted. These were among my favorite scenes and included every precious second of Eric Bana’s screen time, where his fully gray-bearded pearl diver/fisherman infuses the monotony of the picture with a glowing smile and boisterous charisma.

The film, based on a novel of the same name by author Tim Winton, takes its title from the beautiful large reef-dwelling blue groper that Abby meets, befriends, and names as a child. She then interacts with the fish a few times at different points in her life and it becomes a critical part of the family’s attempt to stave off greedy land developers. Though the occasional scenes of the two together are clearly meant to inspire a sense of awe and oceanic beauty through the young girl’s connection to nature, which the musical score works overtime to ensure the audience is feeling, I found them to be quite silly looking and hard to take seriously. Also, what time is spent underwater is merely serviceable from a photography standpoint and no match for the wealth of high-definition documentary footage that has been readily accessible for years. BLUEBACK is a wholesome story with an important message and watchable for patient viewers, no doubt, but it’s so quiet, meandering, simple, and devoid of any memorable drama that it is unlikely to leave much of a lasting impact. (Watched Online – January 21, 2023)

THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS (dir. Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch)


Pietro and Bruno, two 12 year-old boys who meet merely by chance. Bruno lives in the Alpine village of Grana and is the only child left after most of its inhabitants (including Bruno’s father) abandoned the mountain life for more lucrative work near larger towns. Pietro is on a summer getaway with his mother from their usual lives in the bustling city. Perhaps out of necessity, perhaps because they are truly two souls meant to discover one another, the two young boys instantly connect and set off on adventures together. They grow closer and closer as summer visits pass, but eventually things change.

Over the course of 2.5 hours, directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, accompanied by one of the most perfectly fitting soundtracks that I’ve ever heard from Daniel Norgren, tell us the moving story of these two men. Of their individual struggles with their fathers and legacy, of their romantic relationships, of their dreams, of their success and failures, of the bigness and smallness of their lives, and most of all of how their worlds remain inseparable ever since that initial summer meeting. Being set in the mountains makes this instantly a visually stunning feature, too, with some of the most beautiful photography you’ll ever see in a narrative film. The valleys, the lakes, the waterfalls, and of course the snowy peaks – the immensity of it all mixed with the simplicity and peace it can bring are explored to both heartbreaking and heartwarming effect.

It’s rare that I watch such a lengthy drama and come away feeling like I could have spent longer in its world, but such was the case with THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS. The characters are so rich, the environments so soothing and awe-inspiring… I didn’t want it to end. I’m not sure if those without a love for the outdoors will come away quite as spellbound as those of us mesmerized by what some of the earth’s highest places have to offer, but I find it difficult to think that anyone could get to know Bruno and Pietro as deeply as we do and not find themselves responding emotionally to this tender yet painful true story of a loving male friendship. (Watched at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City – January 20, 2023)

FAIR PLAY (dir. Chloe Domont)


It’s all hot sex in the bathroom until your lover/co-worker gets that promotion you wanted. Phoebe Dyenvor is spellbinding as Emily, one half of an increasingly toxic financial industry couple, in Chloe Domont’s thrilling feature debut. Emily’s partner Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) initially seems supportive and even proud of her, but as her status rises and his begins to come into question, a fragile male ego emerges. Ehrenreich is a wonderful match for Dynevor’s powerful screen presence, using his charming smile as a mask for the seething jealousy that grows within. What begins as the subtle signs of someone merely frustrated with being passed over, slowly boils into the depiction of a completely unhinged animal who simply cannot accept not getting what he wants. This is a slickly shot piece of cinema that has strong tension throughout, and its biting examination of power and gender dynamics in the workplace and relationships sheds a bright light on the kind of abusive behavior that making large sums of money tends to excuse. It’s also more psychosexual than erotic, and full of sharply comedic moments. Laughing at assholes who deserve to get their comeuppance never gets old. (Watched at The Park Avenue Theatre in Park City – January 21, 2023)

MAGAZINE DREAMS (dir. Elijah Bynum)


Jonathan Majors gives a titanic performance as Killian Maddox and completely transforms into a shy, obsessive bodybuilder, full of rage from a lifetime of trauma. He takes us on a dark and intense journey that can weigh heavy on the soul, but it’s also one that evokes empathy and offers hope. The film is not an easy one to watch, putting the viewer in a near-constant state of anxiety. As each new event in Maddox’s life takes place, we feel him teeter on the edge, the beast within seeming right on the verge of exploding in a way that devastates Maddox (and possibly others) forever. The impressive filmmaking includes a couple of incredible one-take shots, immersive sound design, plenty of great needle drops, and a visual style that utilizes lens flare and strobe lighting to great effect at times. Make no mistake about it, though, the character study here is not easy to sit through, but similarities to the characters and tone of such films as TAXI DRIVER and Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER will at least help set your expectations accordingly. Challenging films fascinate me and I haven’t stopped thinking about this one for hours now. What it may lack due to occasional editing issues and an embarrassingly wasted Taylor Paige scene is far overshadowed by the gutsy, thoroughly engrossing storytelling. And again, if you didn’t believe it before, you cannot see this film and not come away *knowing* that Jonathan Majors is an absolute star. (Watched at The Park Avenue Theatre in Park City – January 21, 2023)

CAT PERSON (dir. Susanna Fogel)


What starts out as a meet cute eventually turns intensely complicated in this adaptation of the famous short story by Kristen Roupenian that was posted in The New Yorker. Emilia Jones as Margot and Nicholas Braun as Robert have perfect, awkwardly adorable chemistry as a couple who meet at a movie theater and start up a new relationship via text message. Since the story is between two movie lovers, the script is full of fun film references, including a brilliant deconstructing look at Harrison Ford as a romantic idol. Also enjoyable is the way in which the film balances multiple tones. At times it feels like a traditional rom-com, at others a psychological horror when we see Margot’s constant fear of death being visualized, and eventually a terrifying confrontation puts you on the edge of your seat. Through their relationship the story examines how we handle honesty in dating and the ramifications of how we create a persona to present to others. It also does an outstanding job of capturing the female worry that is always present when meeting someone unknown, and of highlighting the dangers of presuming things about others. There are definitely moments when I was completely stressed out and worried for both of them and that is because there are layers to the characterizations that should reward multiple viewings. I can’t say how well this adapts the short story since I haven’t read it, and I’m pretty certain that the entire third act is a new addition, but it all worked very well for me and I hope it’s a film that can push the conversation about how we engage in modern dating forward. (Watched at Eccles Theatre in Park City – January 21, 2023)

IRON BUTTERFLIES (dir. Roman Liubyi)


On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine, tragically killing all 298 people on board. This attack by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system, which those involved frequently denied while evidence and worldwide support mounted to prove otherwise, is explored in Liubyi’s documentary. The title of the film refers to the shape taken by pieces of shrapnel found in the pilot’s bodies, which only come from the aforementioned rockets. From setting up for the viewer the ongoing war in Donbas to providing history on the creation of the Buk to the attack on MH17 and ultimately to interviews with surviving family members of those who died, the film traces the story of how and why this awful incident occurred, as well as the aftermath of it.

Liubyi chooses not to have his story narrated, but instead presents a collection of vignettes from various multimedia sources that unfortunately make following this as a connective narrative difficult at times. It is not very friendly to audiences who aren’t super familiar with the geopolitical state of the area and I was often confused about who was speaking or responsible for what was being shown. It also has an artistic style to it, but the frequent jumping between interviews, cell phone camera footage, radio reports during the time of the attack, artistically presented dramatizations, and news coverage without any informative story to connect each section together can be jarring. I found some of the parts incredibly powerful and even hunting such as when soldiers are shown taking gleeful selfies amid the flight’s wreckage on the ground, but others were just noisy or confusing and stunted my emotional investment rather than helping it grow. Exploring the reasons behind such an atrocity as this is worthy of admiration, and those responsible for the murder of everyone MH17 should be held to justice, but as a film Liubyi’s well-meaning documentary comes up short, and is far less impactful than it could have been due to his chosen style for delivering the wealth of information and sources at his disposal. (Watched Online – January 22, 2023)

EILEEN (dir. William Oldroyd)


Whatever EILEEN is trying to be – it does not succeed. The story revolves around a young secretary at a boys’ prison named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie). The only real details of her personality that we are presented with are that she suppresses her sexual desires, eats too much candy, is painfully shy, and has a retired Police Chief and alcoholic for a father. In other words, her life is unfulfilling and unexciting. Then new psychologist Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway) comes onboard and begins to show an interest in her. From there the two end up out on the town one evening and things pretty quickly progress to blend the potential budding relationship of these two women with Saint John’s desire to understand why a local boy committed a particularly heinous crime. The film wants to evoke romance, even eroticism, and mystery, but it isn’t shocking enough to make its twists feel earned or interesting nor sultry enough to really show the two women’s supposed attraction go anywhere. I can’t knock the wonderful performances from two of my favorite actresses, though; they’re still delightful. It’s just unfortunate that it barely has a story, what does exist is devoid of proper motivation, and then the whole thing just ends abruptly and is massively underwhelming. (Watched at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City – January 22, 2023)

PAST LIVES (dir. Celine Song)


This is an achingly emotional Korean relationship drama about fate, pursuing dreams, regrets, and finding happiness where you are. The story follows Na Young (Greta Lee) who we meet as a young girl on the verge of immigrating with her parents to America in support of her father’s career in filmmaking. She has a crush on local boy Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) and they manage to spend some meaningful time together before she’s gone. From there, the story jumps forward two different times – once 12 years later where Na, now using the name Nora Moon, and Hae Sung reconnect via Skype and social media, and the other another 12 years down the road when Nora is now married to fellow artist Arthur (John Magero). The delicate handling of Nora’s relationships with (and feelings for) the two men, as well as theirs towards hers and Arthur’s toward Hae Sung, allows for the audience to really sink into this challenging dynamic. It’s a stunning debut from director/writer Celine Song that may be slow and quiet but is deeply complex, with three exceptionally patient and nuanced performances from Lee, Teo, and Magaro. (Watched at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City – January 22, 2023)

FLORA AND SON (dir. John Carney)


John Carney has made a living off of crafting emotionally resonant, comedic, and romantic pictures that revolve around the characters’ love of music. FLORA AND SON is no different, but it is the first time that he has centered a story around a family and set things in modern Dublin. Flora (Eve Hewson) is a single mother of teenage delinquent Max (Orén Kinlan) and is trying to move on from ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor). She works small jobs like doing babysitting and isn’t above stealing a few bucks or dumpster diving to find the right birthday present. She genuinely wants to be a good parent, but Max makes it hard by constantly getting himself arrested for theft and lashing out her disrespectfully. Eventually, she decides to learn the guitar and meets Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an L.A,-based virtual teacher, and begins to form a relationship that slowly brightens her life in more ways than one. The film has quite a few wonderful songs, but they’re more the kind that fit perfectly in a film for story than they are ones that I expect would be playing on repeat while I’m driving down the road. They’re all enjoyable, moving and/or fun, though, especially the finale which really takes you out on a major high. Ultimately Carney’s latest feels like a celebration of messy mothers and it offers an optimistic view on how we can still genuinely connect through screens. Eve Hewson is a revelation. JGL oozes charm. Reynor is a hoot, and Kinlan holds his own playing against the veteran adults. All in all, it’s a total crowd-pleaser! (Watched at The Ray Theatre in Park City – January 22, 2023)

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS (dir. Nicole Holofcener)


Nicole Holofcener’s latest is a slight family dramedy without much of a plot. In fact, it actually takes almost half of the runtime before the main event listed in the movie’s synopsis occurs, and it doesn’t really change the commentary too much because it’s already been happening since the very start. This big turning point occurs when Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) secretly overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) confiding to her brother-in-law that he does not actually enjoy the new fiction book she is currently finalizing, despite showing her support and always telling her he thinks that it’s great. This is the primary conflict that takes us through the film to the end, but each character and different combinations of them have unique challenges with the same specific issue. Holofcener’s script is bitingly funny and it wonderfully pokes at the reasons we lie to spare the feelings of others while also encouraging reflection. The entire cast is so excellent that more depth wasn’t even really needed. I laughed out loud non-stop and find this to be a very charming film that I can eagerly recommend to most everyone that I know. (Watched at Eccles Theatre in Park City – January 22, 2023)



SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT DYING depicts life working in a mundane office environment and the introvert struggle to connect with others well. Trust me, I’m a lifelong admin professional and largely head down when at work, so I speak from experience. Daisy Ridley gives a very patient and controlled performance that effectively shows us a person unable to find joy in her day to day life and those around her. Dave Merheje plays a new co-worker who she strikes up a sweet friendship with. He shares his love of movies with her and attempts to break her out of her shell. Unfortunately, this is a short film concept with maybe 45 minutes of strong story that is stretched to double that. I enjoyed its artful presentation of the titular visions, where it could have leaned into silly and camp but instead made them feel more like framed paintings, and the characters do have some moments of sweetness that I enjoyed; it’s just way too dull to widely recommend. (Watched Online – January 23, 2023)

THEATER CAMP (dir. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman)


I am 100% certain that THEATER CAMP is the Sundance film I will re-watch the most. Experiencing something made by people in a specific industry, with so much joy for its subject matter, especially when it is something you share, is wonderful. The film is a mockumentary love letter to theater performers and musical fans with almost pitch-perfect comedy and plenty of famous songs to briefly sing-along with. The story kicks off when beloved low-cost theater camp owner Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma during a rousing performance of “Honestly Sincere” from BYE BYE BIRDIE, and I was instantly hooked. From there, her very much *not* a theater kid son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) must run the camp over the summer and stave off a hostile takeover from a neighboring rich kids’ camp while Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) write and compose a musical to teach the diverse group of talented kids. The pacing is breezy and it touches on (a.k.a. makes fun of) most elements of production and the array of personality types you typically find among artists. It’s also an easy Best Ensemble contender with Molly Gordon’s hilariously touching performance being a standout and Noah Galvin absolutely knocking my socks off. The finale performance is INCREDIBLE and had my happy-crying throughout. I already cannot wait to see it again. Musicals rule! (Watched Online – January 23, 2023)

THE AMAZING MAURICE (dir. Toby Genkel and Florian Westermann)


Based on the children’s fantasy novel written by beloved author Sir Terry Pratchett, THE AMAZING MAURICE is a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale of The Pied Piper. It mostly follows Maurice, a ginger cat of questionable morals voiced by Hugh Laurie, as he hooks up with a crew of rats and young piper named Keith to swindle villages out of money by having the rats fake a plague and then Keith miraculously save them. Eventually they run into Malicia Grimm (voiced with plenty of sass by Emilia Clarke), sister of Eviscera Grimm (an obvious play on the famous Brothers), who alternatively narrates the story and teams up with Keith to help the rats when they run into a hairy situation in one of the towns they visit.

The adventure is fun at times, but leans into some darker material that may not be appropriate for the audience this seems to be marketed at. Death looms large over the story (both figuratively and literally) and there is one very difficult sequence with a dog and group of rats that might terrify those of a younger age. Luckily the film doesn’t show anything too nasty, but much is implied. The voice cast is impressive, additionally including David Thewlis as The Rat King, Himesh Patel as the aforementioned Keith, and Gemma Arterton as one of the rats named Peaches. The animation isn’t particularly striking but is pleasant enough to look at and does have some stand out moments like the formation of The Rat King.

As re-imaginings of well-known stories go, THE AMAZING MAURICE is… fine. Its characters and story are unmemorable and the film pales in comparison to the recent release of PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH, which uses a similar conceit to much greater emotional effect. Its biggest fault is the narration choice which has Malicia being extremely self-aware and making frequent fourth-wall breaks that are completely unnecessary and frustratingly unfunny. But for adults and older kids who might enjoy a bleaker take on this old tale, the spirited voicework, a couple of exciting action sequences, and sweet animal friendships are just enough to hold the attention throughout its brisk 90-minute runtime. (Watched Online – January 23, 2023)

RYE LANE (dir. Raine Allen-Miller)


This directorial debut from director Raine Allen-Miller is a delightful British rom-com for modern times. Our story follows Dom (David Jonssen), who we first see crying in a bathroom stall over a still painful breakup, and Yas (Vivian Oparah), a mysterious but clever and snappy young woman who is intrigued by Dom’s apparent distress. After some witty banter and further mingling at their friends art show, the two set out on what is mostly a one-crazy-night style experience. Over the course of a day and night, Yas tries to help Dom move on and the two grow increasingly close, while hijinks ensue. Both performances are very charming and the London setting makes this really fresh (for American audiences at least). The energy and style of the film, along with its constantly clever writing, make it an easy watch. It may stay a little surface level with its characterizations, but it still works because Dom and Yas are such an easy couple to root for and it’s just so much damn fun. Also has a big awesome cameo that fits perfectly! (Watched Online – January 23, 2023)



It had to be awfully tempting for director Peter Nicks to just go the traditional sports biography route of making an extended highlight reel, cutting frequently to well-known basketball talent who would wax poetic about Steph’s incredible skill, backed by montages of endless difficult three-pointers and layups. His subject is arguably the greatest shooter in the history of the sport, after all. But Nicks wisely avoids that route, and with some brilliant editing choices by J.D. Marlow, he and his filmmaking team crafted a heartfelt, honest journey beginning with Steph’s unlikely rise despite his physical attributes and going through his playing career (thus far) and his decision to fulfill a promise he made to his mother about finishing his college degree, pointing out the triumphs and challenges of all three.

Of course, it is full of outstanding archival footage that shows his immense talent, but there’s quite a bit of unflattering plays shown as well, reminding us that you don’t achieve the level of success that Curry has without a lot of work, support, and determination. Two things that have always mattered most to Steph, family and team, are centered, and we see frequently how important they are in making him the man and player he is today. It’s not just about him, though – he truly believes in showering those around him with the credit, too.

In what is probably one of the best aspects of the documentary, the final act parallels the amazing Curry-led Elite Eight run by Davidson in 2008 and Curry’s fourth world title with the Golden State Warriors in 2022. It’s exceptionally well-crafted and riveting, even when you know the results already, and it further shows how much Steph has overcome being overlooked and doubted for his entire life. This is an earnest, energetic, crisply shot, expertly edited, scored, and directed character piece that is one of the better sports documentaries I’ve ever seen. (Watched at Eccles Theatre in Park City – January 23, 2023)


Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2022

It all comes to this. As usual, I don’t believe in weak movie years. There may be genres that have weaker output some years, but overall there will always exist a plethora of amazing films to discover. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder and seek them out. I hope that my work throughout the year in reviewing new releases has helped you do just that at some point and will continue in the future, too.

This year I did a lot of video gaming (favorites: Elden Ring, Triangle Strategy, Vampire Survivors) and co-hosted The Games We Love Podcast for a few months. I also watched quite a bit of TV and other serial content (favorites: Andor, The Terminal List, Tokyo Vice). These other hobbies impacted my overall film viewing total but I still saw 185 new releases in the 2022 SFCS Awards Cycle. It’s important for me to mention that to get ahead of any “where is ???? movie on your list” questions. I’ve seen A LOT. Just because a movie doesn’t show up in my lists here doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worthy of attention. Last year, I decided not to limit myself to a Top Ten or to rank that final list, but rather to share about my favorites no matter how many there were and to only call-out my overall #1. Even when releasing my podcast episode about my favorites last week, I had intended to do the same again. But after some reflection, I really just don’t feel good about not ranking my list. The thing is – none of this matters. Are some of these choices incredibly difficult? Sure. Does it mean that I don’t love my #3 movie as much as my #2 movie? No. All of this is just a subjective exercise in showcasing ten of the best I saw in a given year, so back to ranking them we go. This collection reflects my taste, what I appreciate in filmmaking for any number of reasons, and is full of movies that I believe are worth seeing and likely enjoying yourself. I’ve also shared some of my favorites in certain award categories as a little bonus. Hopefully you find some new films to check out by reading this article, that give a very happy start to 2023.


* Streaming service is noted in parentheses next to each film where applicable. 

  • BARBARIAN (HBO Max) – surprisingly hilarious, twisty, and sometimes campy horror thriller
  • DECISION TO LEAVE (Mubi) – swoon-worthy cinematic murder mystery that morphs into an unexpected, challenging love story
  • EMERGENCY (Amazon Prime Video) – atypical buddy comedy that is an increasingly tense and serious look at being a minority in America
  • ESCAPE FROM KABUL (HBO Max) – riveting and shocking documentary that recounts the harrowing 2021 evacuation of Afghan citizens & U.S. troops from Kabul
  • EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (Showtime) – creative original alternate universe story with touching family relationships
  • THE FALLOUT (HBO Max) – tackles the traumatic aftermath of a school shooting from the students’ perspective with careful restraint
  • GOOD NIGHT OPPY (Amazon Prime Video) – inspiring documentary about the incredible human inventiveness, determination, passion, and love that goes into space exploration
  • HUSTLE (Netflix) – underdog sports story about a struggling NBA agent finding the next big phenom overseas
  • MARRY ME (Amazon Prime Video) – a modern rom-com that is charming and endearing with subtle humor that feels completely unforced and tender chemistry between mismatched leads
  • NAVALNY (HBO Max) – documentary that turns into a real-life spy thriller when its subject faces an assassination attempt by poisoning while filming it
  • PREY (Hulu) – propulsive, action-packed, and bloody sequel that pits a Predator against a Comanche heroine
  • PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH – vibrantly animated, clever and exciting fantastical blending of nursery rhymes and fairy tales that smartly handles themes of companionship, fear of trusting others, mortality, childhood trauma, and more while also having slick action
  • RRR (Netflix) – energetic, electric, and utterly engaging tale that is pure action spectacle of tremendous production value with a beautiful bromance, some historical epic drama, and a few wildly entertaining musical numbers
  • THE SEA BEAST (Netflix) – gorgeously animated, epic work of high seas adventure where human and monster form a bond that challenges societal norms
  • SHE SAID – critical dramatization of the amazing journalism work by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor that exposed decades of abuse by Harvey Weinstein
  • SOMETHING IN THE DIRT – faux found footage documentary of mysterious investigation that feels like PRIMER meets PARANORMAL ACTIVITY meets X-FILES
  • STRANGE WORLD (Disney Plus) – exciting original adventure story with super creative creatures and world design, beautifully animated environments, hilarious fun of exploring a new place with a diverse group of people, and a heartfelt story about legacies and fatherhood
  • THE TERRITORY (Disney Plus) – gripping, educational documentary about an indigenous people in danger of genocide who are fighting to retain their land and way of life as the world literally closes in around them
  • TÁR – fascinating, expertly crafted character piece about a fictional abuser in position of high power due to her artistic genius
  • WILDCAT (Amazon Prime Video) – powerful documentary about wildlife rescue of a baby ocelot, forest conservation, and mental health
  • THE WOMAN KING – roaring, powerful, emotional, and somewhat revisionist historical action-drama with an incredible ensemble cast and brutally entertaining fight choreography that is reminiscent of classic Hollywood epics


The below lists are an example of how I may have voted in this year’s Seattle Film Critics Society awards. There are always way more worthy contenders than can be captured in a few nomination slots, but these are some of my favorites this year in a handful of the biggest categories. Perhaps this will serve as some extra encouragement to seek out these particular films.

Best Director

  • Joseph Kosinski (TOP GUN: MAVERICK)
  • S. S. Rajamouli (RRR)
  • Park Chan-wook (DECISION TO LEAVE)
  • Charlotte Wells (AFTERSUN)
  • James Cameron (AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER)

Best Actor

  • Tom Cruise (TOP GUN: MAVERICK)
  • Paul Mescal (AFTERSUN)
  • Brendan Fraser (THE WHALE)
  • Austin Butler (ELVIS)
  • Park Hae-il (DECISION TO LEAVE)

Best Actress

  • Cate Blanchett (TÁR)
  • Ana de Armas (BLONDE)
  • Park Ji-min (RETURN TO SEOUL)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Daryl McCormack (GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE)
  • Colin Farrell (THE BATMAN)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (AMBULANCE)
  • Ralph Fiennes (THE MENU)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Dakota Johnson (CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH)
  • Lashana Lynch (THE WOMAN KING)

Best Cinematography

  • TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Claudio Miranda)
  • DECISION TO LEAVE (Kim Ji-yong)
  • THE BATMAN (Greig Fraser)
  • AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (Russell Carpenter)
  • RRR (K. K. Senthil Kumar)

Best Original Score

  • THE BATMAN (Michael Giacchino)
  • GOOD NIGHT OPPY (Blake Neely)
  • BABYLON (Justin Hurwitz)
  • TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga, and Hans Zimmer)
  • AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (Simon Franglen)

Best Animated


Best Documentary


Best International

  • RRR


* Streaming service is noted in parentheses next to each film where applicable. 

#10 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (Netflix) – As much as I enjoyed the structure and ensemble in KNIVES OUT, it was a bit slow and stuffy for me, and the mystery wasn’t all that interesting. GLASS ONION improves upon it substantially and provided me with one of the most start-to-finish entertaining theater experiences of the year. Rian Johnson’s follow-up case for Beoit Blanc to solve is a riotous, twisty good time that has a high energy, brightness, and modernity about it that I loved. Each performance is so great that it’s genuinely hard to pick a favorite. Its mystery is a layered puzzle box of a tale that keeps you guessing as new details are revealed and Johnson’s script strikes a brilliant balance between clever, smart, and outright hilarious, and I enjoyed the roasting of several extreme personality types. I didn’t even mind some old genre tropes that help make the surprises possible because I enjoyed seeing the way the story was structured so much. It’s a film that would make Agatha Christie proud and like the best the genre has to offer It is exceptionally fun to watch a second time when you know what is happening. I hope that Johnson just keeps making more of these. (Hear our discussion about GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY in Episode 352 here.)


#9 BLONDE (Netflix) – I am one of the film’s few but strong supporters and have no reservations about that whatsoever. I fully understand why many did not enjoy watching it, and I can’t blame them for reacting that way because I’ve had my fair share of that this year as well (TRIANGLE OF SADNESS and BABYLON come to mind as movies that I can see strong work in but hated watching). That being said, I find BLONDE to be masterful, mesmerizing, heavy, and deeply challenging filmmaking by Andrew Dominik with a bravura performance from Ana de Armas as the famous icon. It’s unlike any biopic I’ve ever seen; part fantasy and part biography. It’s an intimate and at times poetic portrait of a fatherless, abused, and broken woman that isn’t at all about celebration of its subject matter’s achievements but rather a flat-out tragedy that should make you examine how you (and the world) view the idea of a Hollywood sex symbol and celebrity in general. I think if you’re viewing this through any other lens or letting yourself get angry because you think the movie is ruining Marilyn’s legacy then you are entirely missing the point. I can’t say it’s an easy watch and there are ton of trigger warnings that apply, but sometimes the most divisive films are the best ones because they provoke actual conversation and force self-reflection. Dominik has definitely done something unique here that I respect overall even if I don’t think it’s quite perfect.


#8 AMBULANCE (Amazon Prime Video) – What a rush! I’ve always loved Bayhem and seeing him execute this adrenaline-fueled heist and chase epic on a budget of “only” $40 million was like watching an exceptional athlete learn a new skill and be just as dominant. This is pure action cinema pornography to me, full of classic swirling 360 degree hero shots, super low angles, and plenty of vehicular carnage. The way that Bay also incorporates drone footage into his filming repertoire makes for some of the sickest camera shots in the film. The characters and plot are deeper than you might expect for a movie that is 90% vehicle chase and the performances are all excellent with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Eiza Gonzalez managing to achieve some heavy emotional nuance and Jake Gyllenhaal being batshit insane in the best way possible. The movie is pure energy with one of the best musical scores of the year just rattling your body with its powerful base. It feels like an EMT shocking you constantly with defibrillator paddles. Even re-watching it at home multiple times, I caught myself not even breathing because the intensity level is kept so high for so long. In a good way, of course. I love that Bay cuts out much of the silly comedy in favor of keeping this situation deadly serious and it’s a formula that results in one of my favorite action films in years. (Hear our discussion about AMBULANCE in Episode 317 here.)


#7 FIRE OF LOVE (Disney Plus) – Much like Sundance, it seems every year that National Geographic puts out one or more of my favorite films of the year. FIRE OF LOVE is the first of two documentaries in this list and the best among a super strong group overall. Artistry, reverence, and an abundance of astonishing archival footage come together brilliantly in this captivating documentary that tells a one-of-a-kind love story. It’s a beautiful, poetic, and passionate relationship that volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft together share – both for each other and collectively for the destructive but incredible natural wonders that they spent their lives dedicated to studying. Narrated softly by Miranda July, this is an expertly edited piece that is presented in a manner which captures the love and quirkiness of their relationship as well as the awe-inspiring work they did. It is also quite educational along the way, and what makes a documentary stand out most to me is when it can both provide me new information while also making me feel something emotionally.


#6 AFTERSUN – I watch so many movies. Plenty of them are entertaining and plenty of them are full of technical strengths. But every once in a while you get one of those special experiences. The kind that impacts you in a way you never saw coming. Charlotte Wells feature film directorial debut lets us spend one memorable summer vacation with young teen Sophie and her father Calum. He’s clearly depressed and trying to hide it; she’s coming of age. It’s eventually known that this is a sort of reflection for Sophie of what this time in her life was like and what she might have missed. The story is melancholic but filled with so much love. As a girl-Dad myself, I was walloped by the presentation of their relationship. This is one of the movies that I have thought about the most after it ended.


#5 CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH (Apple TV+) – There always seems to be some indie picture out of Sundance that makes me swoon. Last year it was CODA and this year it’s CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH. I really adore Cooper Raiff’s whole awkwardly charming, tender, incredibly earnest filmmaking style. This has some modern rom-com/coming-of-age vibes to it with its aimless depiction of finding your way through young adulthood with all the yearning and bitterness in relationships that come with that, and it has a wonderfully sincere depiction of an unexpected and wholesome friendship. I’ll admit that having a crush on Dakota Johnson is super relatable, as well, but the fact that this movie doesn’t lean into any sort of vulgarity and still respects the importance of commitment meant a lot to me. It also has a fantastic soundtrack and all-around tremendous performances by the primary trio of Raiff, Johnson, and Burghardt. It’s a movie that, also like CODA, left me feeling warm inside. (Hear our discussion about CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH in Episode 329 here.)


#4 AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER – Everything in the story feels authentic, with multiple interesting characters who have their own arc of emotional growth, and yet its staggeringly, technically marvelous and has plenty of spectacular action. There’s something masterful about what James Cameron can do and it is so incredibly refreshing to have this storytelling taking place outside of a long-lived IP where everything that happens is on its third or fourth recycling of the same plotlines. THE WAY OF WATER was worth every bit of the wait and has me seeing a bland and boring world which makes me yearn to be back in Pandora. It is no surprise, but this is astonishing work by Cameron once again, who proves that he is in a league of his own when it comes to original blockbuster storytelling. (Hear our discussion about AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER in Episode 351 here.)


#3 THE BATMAN (HBO Max) – I’m a Batman guy. He’s my favorite DC superhero by a longshot and has been since as long as I can remember. Even being a fan of every casting choice and Matt Reeves, I had my doubts that we were ready for yet another iteration on the character, and it took me two viewings to really appreciate fully. But I’m there now and think this is just a masterful depiction of a moody young Batman in a dark and gritty Gotham City dealing with a truly nefarious, unhinged villain that Paul Dano scarily brings to life. The chemistry between Pattinson and Kravitz works for me, Farrell is astonishing as Penguin, Giacchino’s ominous score is one of the best of the year, and I particularly love that the combat and focus on detective work feel straight out of the Arkham series of video games. It all comes together for me in an exquisite marriage of storytelling and production that continues the trend of outstanding different takes on the caped crusader. I’m so glad that I don’t have to choose a favorite version of Batman and can just enjoy them all for their strengths. (Hear our discussion about THE BATMAN in Episode 313 here.)


#2 MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON -This is the purest distillation of charming, wholesome storytelling that I’ve seen in some time and my favorite animated film of the year by a large margin. The character of Marcel’s boundless curiosity and creativity, and his infectious love of life and community, result in a beautiful, exceptionally tender and hilarious journey told via outstanding stop-motion animation. It’s truly incredible what they were able to accomplish over the many years it took to bring this mix of live-action and stop-motion animation to life, and when I learned about some of their processes in behind the scenes featurettes, I was so impressed. Jenny Slate’s vocal performance as the titular shell is one of the best I’ve ever heard – a wonderful marriage to the endearing on-screen animation of little Marcel and a pitch-perfect mockumentary script. This film (and GLASS ONION) made me laugh more than I have any other time in a theater this year, and cry several times over. He is a character that inspires so many of the best qualities in us. He warms the heart and he will not soon be forgotten. (Hear our discussion about MARCL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON in Episode 343 here.)


#1 TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Paramount Plus) – Legacy sequels are a scary thing. I’m of the belief that many are made for no other reason than to capitalize on a bankable IP, and not because there is a burning continuation of a story to be told. For me, this was a sequel to one of my Top 5 favorite movies of all-time, so I’ll freely admit that despite my faith in Tom Cruise and my general love for Kosinski’s filmmaking – I was very, very nervous. But it didn’t take long for that worry to disappear and thankfully what replaced it was pure joy. MAVERICK just works. Every single bit of it. Because of attention to detail and the actors actually flying, the aerial action is unmatched, and the character progression for Pete Mitchell makes perfect sense. Cruise performs the role of an aging aviator with a sensational balance of his youthful arrogance with a veteran’s seasoned maturity. The entire supporting cast is on top of their game and Kosinski doles out scenes of tension and excitement with emotional relationship beats and brief comedic moments of levity with perfect pacing. The high that I felt when leaving the theater is unrivaled and I’ve felt it every time since when watching the movie at home, too. I felt so many things in this movie, which is what I love most about this medium of storytelling in the first place, and I’m just so grateful to be given a new chapter in this series that I didn’t even know I needed until it was here. (Hear our discussion about TOP GUN: MAVERICK in Episode 324 here.)

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. 

Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2021

2021 – we got back into the theater, y’all! For me, this year was a strong rebound from the roller coaster ride that was 2020. There were still some film delays to endure, but also a return of blockbusters to the big screen, and several studios experimented with a same day theater plus streaming release strategy which was fascinating to see play out. As was the case last year, Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more continue to battle for our subscription, and also like last year, something from each of them can be found in my list of favorites.

This year I watched more TV content than I have in a long time, including all of “Yellowstone” through Season 4 (a new all-time favorite show for me), five seasons (!?) of Marvel content, and a handful of limited or miniseries (the best of which in 2021 was probably “Midnight Mass” and my favorite overall was “Looking For Alaska”). As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 200 new releases in this SFCS awards cycle (February-December), 24 of which are documentaries and 27 that are animated. I’ve seen so many amazing films and since it is always difficult for me to settle on a top ten, twenty, etc., I’ve decided to go against the norm and do things a little differently.

For this year, I am going to list my Top 12 because that is the group of films I feel strongest about. I am not going to rank them, but I will share which is my #1 film of the year. They instead will be presented in alphabetical order, as will my additional picks in the honorable mention section. Where possible, the film titles will all be linked to a corresponding Letterboxd entry and I will note where a film can be viewed if available on a streaming service. Honestly, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the struggle of ranking and making lists for years now. It can be fun to do and argue about, but the reality is that picking just ten movies to highlight gives me anxiety sometimes and comes down to nitpicking and debating minor flaws in pieces of art that I absolutely love. I think all lists are about personal resonance, and in keeping it on brand, mine is a group of movies that made me feel the most and debating what is “better or worse” than something else on the list doesn’t bring me joy. This collection reflects my taste, what I appreciate in filmmaking for any number of reasons, and is full of movies that I think are worth seeing and probably enjoying yourself.

Oh, and I’ve also decided not to separate documentaries and feature films as I have in past years. So let’s get to it, shall we?


(Film titles linked to Letterboxd entry where one exists)


CODA (Apple TV Plus) – The big winner at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, the grand jury and audience got this right. I’m admittedly a mark for a great family-focused heartwarming high school coming-of-age story. Throw in a little romance, music, and a very genuinely depicted and unique conflict due to deafness – I WAS HOOKED. The film’s relationships are beautiful and every performance feels authentic. It may follow a predictable formula but that doesn’t detract one bit from how powerful and special its message is. And the final 10 minutes, where I’m just overwhelmed with emotion and happy tears, comes as a result of incredible storytelling and character work up to that point. It’s my favorite single part of a film in 2021. You’re either moved by it, or dead inside. No in-between.  ❤️ (Hear our discussion about “CODA” in Episode 290 here.)


DEAR EVAN HANSEN – This musical means a lot to me. The stage production has long been a favorite of mine and this adaptation does it justice. The casting of Ben Platt, who is clearly older than his character now, doesn’t bother me at all. Evan is Ben, and Ben is Evan. He understands this character in such a deep way that no one else really ever could. I’ve seen much criticism over the way his social anxiety and depression are depicted, yet multiple HS teacher friends have expressed just how realistic this portrayal is. Kids do act this way and things become stereotypes because they are common. Platt may look awkward when mumbling and fidgeting his way throughout the perfromance, but it perfectly captures the way so many people just don’t feel comfortable with themselves, especially around others. When it comes to emoting and singing, he absolutely cannot be beat and delivers the exceptional vocals as only he can.

I adore the fact that this story tackles teenage anxiety, depression, the need to be seen and feel like your voice matters. Is it a morally challenging tale? Absolutely! Evan’s actions aren’t something to be endorsed, but how the film handles this is beautiful. There are consequences for his actions and his positive impact on others cannot be denied and should not be dismissed. The film differs a bit from the musical and shows us that Evan, who made some huge mistakes, is worthy of forgiveness, redemption, happiness, and love. Most people in this world don’t live life in only black or white, and for an extremely sad and struggling character like Evan to go through this and come out on the other side better for it is a triumph. The additions to the end of the story and Connor’s beautiful new song are perfect.

The film also treats suicide realistically, with not everyone instantly being torn to pieces but sometimes wondering why they should be sad about losing someone who was terrible to them. We usually only see overwhelming sadness, but the tragedy of suicide can evoke a lot more varied reactions from people close to a lost one. And then there’s Evan’s relationship with his Mom and the underlying effects of his absent Dad that weigh heavy on his decision-making, too. All of these things are presented together so well, in my opinion, to make an entertaining yet touching movie that isn’t so morose it loses the audience completely and ruins its opportunity to provoke empathy (for everyone).

The music is simply amazing and a big part of why the original production is so beloved. Pasek and Paul write simple lyrics that are so relatable and their melodies are either poppy and catchy or just incredibly soulful and beautiful. With an excellent supporting cast and wonderful direction, I was swept away by Stephen Chbosky’s lovely adaptation that is every bit as good as I’d hoped for. (Hear our discussion about “Dear Evan Hansen” in Episode 293 here.)


DUNE – “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Every bit the epic feeling and faithful adaptation that I was hoping for from this. “Dune” is a story that may have its focus mostly hitched onto the character of Paul but it is universal in nature. Its scope is so large, dealing with politics and religion and mysticism and economics all within a fascinating futuristic setting. Denis Villeneuve understands this and tells the story the only way that can work in such a short runtime, with incredible visual design and a perfectly accenting Zimmer score helping to drive the emotion and support a lack of character exposition. The film only adapts half of the book but still has to cover a whole lot of ground and it does this with expertly refined character development and a quickened pace. The awe-inducing nature of the production was awesome as we moved from one major event to another, with just the right amount of detail given to always provide context, depth, and hints at what may be to come. The cast is made up of A-listers and it absolutely shows. Even smaller parts are elevated by considerable talent and I loved every single performance so much. There’s action, heart, intrigue, and a whole lot of mystery. I was breathless when it ended and dying to see the culminating part two immediately! This is the kind of science fiction that I deeply love and an example of why we go to the movies, to be transported and fully immersed into worlds that are not our own. “Dune” went above my already lofty expectations and is one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the past few years. (Hear our discussion about “Dune” in Episode 296 here.)


FLEE – “Flee” is a staggering, harrowing, one-of-a-kind work. When you break it down, it’s a rather simple retelling of one man’s life as an Afghan refugee fleeing his war-torn country while simultaneously coming to terms with his own homosexuality, all relayed through personal interviews. But the unique presentation of this material is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Using a blend of powerful archival footage and absolutely beautiful mixture of animation styles which visualize Amin’s life events and feelings, this documentary is able to emotionally convey his terrifying, tragic, and oh so difficult experiences as he fully opens himself up for the first time and comes to terms with his own history and present. It never feels sensationalized either and yet really hammers home the horrors that so many people must endure simply because of where and/or how they’re born. I couldn’t help but immediately begin to reflect on my own blessings, something I think myself and many others do not think of nearly enough. I’m so grateful for the incredible filmmaking team who used their gifts to shine a light on this story in such a respectful, tender, and masterfully cinematic way. And I’m especially thankful to Amin, for bearing his soul and sharing himself with all of us, so that we may better understand and perhaps even influence the world for the better because of it.


THE MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS (Amazon Prime Video) – Time loops and young adult romance. It’s basically “you had me at hello”. This is full of intelligent, witty, snappy dialogue, tropes I love, and extremely enjoyable and authentic chemistry between two leads who aren’t quite stars yet and thus can disappear into these roles easily. I had a blast watching the characters try to figure out what makes the perfect day, explore the math and science of their situation, and then make the best of it by forming a connection with another person that helps break them out of a feeling of isolation. The filmmaking doesn’t get in its own way, keeping it simple with no special effects to speak of and strong focus on Mark and Margaret instead of trying to introduce side characters and subplots. The titular map ends up being sickly sweet, and I am 100% moved by emotional gestures like it and love the reminder message for us to enjoy the little things and moments of our lives that we tend to pass over without giving a thought. This is the kind of rom-com that I’m always hoping to find and I’ll be championing it for years to come so that people don’t let it slip under the radar and miss out.


THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (Netflix) – This movie is the passion project of first-time director Mike Rianda and it shows. The film, following in the footsteps of producers Lord & Miller’s own previous animated work, is a visual blast and has grown on me with each subsequent viewing throughout the year. It’s a joyful watch full of action and hilarity. I fell for its short film within a film sections, the lively, vibrant, colorful animation and art style, and most importantly how the emotional core of the story (the family’s relationship and how they fix what’s broken) affected me. Having my own daughter who has just left the home for college as Katie is doing in the movie definitely made this hit a little bit harder, too. The story isn’t overly complicated, features some fun pop culture references, and serves as a commentary on our culture’s obsession with technology and gadgets. This one is fun for the entire family and my favorite Western animated film of the year, beating out numerous strong competitors from Disney and Pixar. (Hear our discussion about “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” in Episode 299 here.)


NINE DAYS – This is the kind of movie that leaves you at a loss for words. There is something so transcendent about this high-concept fantasy drama that is very much like the live-action companion piece to Pixar’s “Soul” (my #1 film from 2020). I was moved in a way that I have not often felt and challenged to appreciate the awe-inspiring reality of life more deeply on a moment to moment basis than most of us ever do. Slow down. Stop aiming for perfection. Let go of a need to have all the answers. Find the value in everyone and every point of view. Life isn’t this or that. Life is everything.

Edson Oda has crafted such a profound and imaginative debut feature film full of detail that begs exploration of during future viewings. It announces his talent to the world and instantly cements any future projects he does with “must-watch” status. Winston Duke gives a magical, mysterious, spiritual, and utterly transformative performance as a “formerly alive person” who now tests young souls and decides which will have the opportunity to be born and which will not. He is extraordinary and an immaculate recital of a Walt Whitman poem near the end of the film is a career-defining moment for him. The entire cast – Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and more are every bit his equal, all of them capturing the important essence of their character personalities perfectly. And all of this is presented to us in gorgeous minimalistic nature backed by a beautiful, emotional score by composer Antonio Pinto. Stunning is an understatement for the kind of experience that “Nine Days” is. It’s truly the type of film that I watch hundreds of new movies every year just hoping to discover. The kind that leaves you with nothing to do but just shake your head in wonder and admiration and say “Wow”.


THE RESCUE (Disney Plus) – It’s truly incredible what the human race can do when people come together with optimism and relentless determination to put the well-being of others above their own. “The Rescue” tells a story that is every bit as thrilling as the most suspenseful natural disaster movie, but is in fact one that is ripped straight from the 2018 headlines. I certainly thought that I knew what happened going into this completely enthralling doc, but it turns out that I had no idea at all.

The amount of obstacles faced by a collection of Thai Navy SEALS, their government, American military advisors, deep cave divers, medical specialists, thousands of volunteers, and more is staggering. But once again, filmmaking duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture the events that unfolded in gripping fashion, while never losing touch of the humanity of it all and the poignant nature of the mental and emotional struggles faced along the way in addition to the physical and environmental ones. This doc is a mix of archival cave diving footage brilliantly merged with recreations to the point that you often don’t even know the difference, plenty of on-location planning footage, and interviews with divers and others involved in the rescue. Make no mistake about it, though, this is a “popcorn documentary” that is more about evoking a sense of wonder at the accomplishment than anything else. The film lacks interviews from the boys or their parents and is fully approached from the perspective of the rescue diving team. That didn’t bother me one bit because the rescue itself is just so cinematic and unbelievable. I was all in on this intense journey from start to finish and a complete wreck throughout. Despite knowing the eventual outcome, I found myself near tears, gnawing my fingernails, and even yelling “Are you effing kidding me!?” at various times. Real life heroism will always have my full attention and seeing such a captivating story shared, complete with the positive outcome and heartwarming sacrifices made to achieve it, was a special experience.


SCHUMACHER (Netflix) – I was floored by this stunning documentary about one of the greatest racing drivers of all-time. Being a newer fan of F1, I sadly missed the Michael Shumacher era of dominance and only knew about him in context of all the records he holds and how Lewis Hamilton has been breaking them.The filmmakers who are telling Michael’s story here truly love and respect him, as clearly everyone that ever came into his life does, and it makes walking through his career a true joy. Packed with the best thing any sports documentary can have, archival footage, we get to see Michael racing as a child, a ton of F1 racing content, old interviews, and even a wealth of family photos and videos that show a fuller picture of Michael. He wasn’t just a great F1 driver, he was a great son, brother, husband, father, and friend, too.

I’d always just assumed that Michael won his 7 championships all in a row and with one team, but learning about how he burst onto the scene with Benetton, won twice, and then willingly stepped into a worse car and situation because he desired the challenge of bringing Ferrari back to glory made my respect for him grow immensely. This was a man who grew up doing everything the hard way and who was never afraid. He also was hard-headed sometimes to a fault and found it impossible to see and admit any wrongdoing for much of his career (I see so many shades of Max Verstappen in young Schumi). But most of the athletic greats have similar traits. They are driven and focused in a way their peers often are not, and it’s what makes them special, or to use a modern term “built different”. What Michael accomplished in the sport is simply amazing and thanks to this thorough documentary I now can say that having seen how with my own eyes.


SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME – Tom Holland is back as Spider-Man to wrap-up his (first?) trilogy and this time Marvel really swings for the fences in how it introduces the multiverse into the MCU while telling a personal story with big stakes and emotional outcomes. The integration of Spidey’s old villains from previous universes was handled brilliantly, with most of them being given the opportunity for character growth, and even redemption There is a lot to balance in this film but I was so impressed by the way it handled exciting action, the humor we expect and love from the MCU, painfully serious tragedy, and inspiring heroic actions and heart. Seeing this in a crowded theater full of fans on opening night was one of the best experiences I have had… ever. The room was electric and full of oohs and ahs and squealing at the film’s many surprises. Peter’s journey in this film is deeply affecting and memorable, anchored by Holland’s best performance as the character yet. And I loved how this end of MCU Spider-Man’s arc sets up the future of Peter Parker in this universe. Sure, it’s packed with nostalgia, but nothing here was done without careful thought and it is so much more than just fan service. Spidey finally has another film worthy of his superhero status as a fan favorite and I imagine this will be one the films I re-watch the most from 2021. (Hear our discussion about “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in Episode 303 here.)


THE SUMMIT OF THE GODS (Netflix) – “The Summit of the Gods” is a French anime style adaptation of a Japanese manga that itself is an adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s 1998 historical adventure novel. The plot is fictitious, following a reporter/photojournalist named Fukamachi Makoto who comes in contact with a mysterious climber named Habu Jôji who claims to have the lost camera of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, a real pair of climbers who actually perished on Mount Everest in the 1920’s. Sir Edmund Hillary is famous for being the first to officially summit Everest in 1953, but there have always been questions as to whether Mallory and Irvine maybe did it first. In this tale, the camera in question may have proof that this is the case, and after losing his trace early on Fukamachi spends much of the film trying to piece together Habu’s past and gain access to the camera.

Fukamachi reminds me a lot of Jon Krakauer in that he’s clearly interested in understanding what drives people to risk everything trying to achieve these great heights. His story is partially like solving a mystery but includes loss and personal growth along the way. It was very moving. Ultimately, he ends up going on an ascent of Everest himself and it is one of the most non-stop breathtakingly spectacular pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. The filmmakers took great care to make this very realistic and capture the detail, danger, and beauty in alpine mountaineering. This is also a fairly patient and quiet film. I appreciated how poetic it feels and how focused it is on only a few characters. The score is marvelous, too, setting a melancholy or thrilling tone at different times in the story.

I personally can’t get enough of climbing documentaries and though this is a work of fiction, its ties to reality make it almost feel like a documentary at times. It is full of splendor and depicts views we rarely will ever see in such a magnificent way. Sometimes a movie just feels made for you. This is one of those times I get to experience that, and I wish so badly that I could have seen this in a movie theater.


#1 THE GREEN KNIGHT“Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” David Lowery has already proven himself to be one of the best working directors, but this wholly personal interpretation of the famous Arthurian poem is his most incredible film yet. This captivating journey of medieval not-a-knight Gawain plays out like a slow-burning dark fantasy video game, complete with side quests to test the mettle of the flawed character, teaching lessons along the way before putting in his path an end boss of immeasurable challenge that will require a life-altering choice. The story is told differently than you may know, but like the poem itself this adaptation revels in ambiguity, leaning into visually delightful mystical symbolism to get its point across enough that the tale can be followed while also encouraging its audience to question the very nature (heh) of the chivalric code that its character claims to value so dearly.

Understanding all of the film’s references may take several viewings and a healthy dose of director commentary, but I was beguiled by every frame and after a pulse-raising knockout of an ending, I was left wanting nothing more than to read/watch others interpretations, think deeply on it, and quickly go as fast I could to see it again. This is genuinely the work of a master craftsman, each and every technical element and performances working flawlessly to create a story that begs to live inside your head. I often don’t connect with surreal storytelling methods but something about this (as with “A Ghost Story”) proves Lowery is able to weave that dreamlike quality into a mostly grounded overall structure to a stunning result. (Hear our discussion about “The Green Knight” in Episode 304 here.)

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. 

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!!!!!!





16. MANK






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.


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.



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!


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.












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 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)