Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2020

What. A. Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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


BEST NON-FILM

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


THE DOCUMENTARIES

10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HONORABLE MENTION

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


THE FEATURE FILMS

20. SOUND OF METAL

19. GREENLAND

18. MONSTER HUNTER

17. ON THE ROCKS

16. GREYHOUND

15. WENDY

14. TENET

13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

12. FIRST COW

11. ONWARD


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

MOVIE REVIEW: Made in Italy

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 33 minutes

The story in James D’Arcy’s directorial debut is a familiar one. A character estranged from someone they love learns the truth about why their relationship has fractured and finds reconciliation while spending time together away from their normal lives with a focus on reminiscing about the past. In this particular telling, Jack (Micheál Richardson) is facing an impending divorce and seeks his father’s help to fix up their old house in Tuscany, Italy in order to sell it so that Jack can purchase a London art gallery from his soon to be ex-wife’s family. The villa is in rough shape, requiring much more effort than Jack was expecting, thus increasing the amount of time he and his bohemian artist father Robert (played by Richardson’s real-life Dad, Liam Neeson) must spend together. They argue often about the prospects of selling the family home and a general air of frustration looms due to the inability of the two men to discuss the circumstances of Jack’s dead mother, who died in Italy while he was a young boy, and why his father has been so removed from his life since then. While in Italy, Jack also meets beautiful local chef, restaurant owner, and single mother Natalia (Valeria Bilello), who further complicates his feelings about the future.

With very little imagination, you can likely figure out where this story goes. It is predictable in the most obvious of ways, despite the occasional surprise reveal about Robert and Jack’s past. And yet, the emotional journey “Made in Italy” takes the viewer on goes through so many feelings. It’s got a fair share of sadness and anger but plenty of happiness and hope, as well. Though the characters aren’t deeply developed, Neeson and Richardson (a first-time leading man) pair well together on screen and deliver an extremely believable portrait of these two men and their strained, yet clearly loving, relationship. The film’s mostly a drama with some hilarious natural comedy, but its romantic subplots are also genuinely sweet, handled with respect, and don’t overwhelm the narrative.
Visually, “Made in Italy” is a lovely film to look at. Mike Eley’s cinematography is effective in close-ups of characters and interior locations but really shines when capturing the beauty of the Italian landscape. There is, however, a lack of magic that many associate with Tuscany. Despite showing a few local meals and one particularly wonderful scene where the town comes together to watch an outdoor movie, it felt oddly like a side character when the setting should have been a star. Alex Belcher’s score is one other highlight to note, bringing in just the right soothing sounds to match the emotional beats of the film, and complemented well by a solid soundtrack.

“Made in Italy” is unlikely to be a film that turns heads as it does nothing flashy at all, but it is the kind of movie we simply don’t see much of anymore. There is no sex, there are no drugs, there is no violence, and its characters deal with their very realistic and human problems with maturity, kindness, and understanding, leading to a sweet depiction of relationship restoration that parallels the restoring of the house. I unexpectedly found myself swept up in its uplifting charm and find it to be some good hearty medicine during a difficult time in world history.

Rating:


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 writes 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.

Episode 238: Greyhound

This week we cover the Tom Hanks penned and led intensely focused WW II Naval war film based on 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester.

Greyhound Spoiler Review – 0:09:29

The Connecting Point – 0:50:05

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MOVIE REVIEW: Greyhound

Rating: PG-13 / Runtime: 1 hour and 31 minutes

“Greyhound” is a fictional wartime Naval drama set over a 5-day period early in 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic and is based on the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester. Like the novel it is adapted from, director Aaron Schneider’s film tells the story of Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) as he experiences his first wartime action while leading an international convoy of 35+ merchant ships and Naval vessels across a dangerous section of the Atlantic dubbed the “Black Pit”, where ships were out of range and unable to rely on tactical air support. Schneider chooses to drop us directly into the action almost immediately and the film’s runtime of barely over 90 minutes is a gripping, intense sequence of cat and mouse played by the Navy destroyer and handful of dangerous German U-boats hunting the convoy. Unlike many wartime epics that rely on dramatic backstory and character building of the crew and enemy, “Greyhound” instead is experienced entirely from Krause’s point of view as he battles fatigue, self-doubt due to his own inexperience, and depression in addition to tumultuous weather, shortcomings of sonar and radar systems, and the enemy submarines themselves. In fact, there is nary a single named German individual met – the threat is the wolfpack of U-boats themselves and they are plenty deadly without knowing anything about the people who run them. The resulting picture is an engrossing one that thoroughly captures the oftentimes split-second chaotic decision-making that must take place in times of direct Naval conflict. Through the chaos and fear, Hanks carefully portrays Krause as a man who makes smart, quick decisions, and as a man of faith and respected leader whose fellow Officers and crew genuinely believe in and trust despite his own insecurities.

Hanks’ performance carries the emotional load and pairs perfectly with the incredibly well-shot Naval action by cinematographer Shelly Johnson. While some viewers may find the constant dark and stormy blue-gray color palette unappealing, I can tell you from personal experience that it is an accurate representation of how cold and miserable life out at sea in this area can be. Aerial shots of battle maneuvers were particularly awesome to watch, and throughout the film, Johnson is able to show us clearly the precision Naval tactics needed to succeed against such a harrowing threat, no small feat when the majority of camerawork is from the viewpoint of the ship’s bridge. A constantly pulse-pounding score by composer Blake Neely and exceptional sound design (the depth charge explosions, torpedoes, and 5-inch guns are loud and powerful just as they should be) help to round out some of the most immersive cinematic Naval warfare ever.

Hanks also penned the screenplay for the film and between the dialogue and his performance you can see that he has a passion for telling this story. His dedication to using correct Navy jargon was admirable and greatly enhanced the experience for this former Navy sailor. I found myself frequently noticing how accurate commands being given and life aboard the ship were. This is definitely a difficult choice for a writer to make because it means that some of the terms will not be understood by the audience, but I feel that Schneider took care to show enough visually that viewers will be able to follow what is taking place aboard the ship at all times.

“Greyhound” surprised me with its hyper-focused and claustrophobic storytelling and non-stop intensity, and it thrilled me with its tactical realism, but also managed to affect me emotionally as I considered how many lives were lost to battles like this one and what kind of stress civilian and military sailors must have faced during every crossing. Hanks is fantastic as the subdued Captain of the USS Keeling (call sign “Greyhound”) and has this ship sailing into 2020 claiming its place as one of the most historically accurate and best films centered around Navy combat to ever be made.

Rating:


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 writes 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.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Way Back

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Director Gavin O’Connor is a master of the sports drama, previously hitting home runs with films about both MMA and ice hockey. Like in those films, his newest is a story that uses the backdrop of athletic competition for a character study. Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a blue-collar worker and alcoholic, separated from his wife, and drinking his way through life one beer at a time. One day, Jack receives a call from his alma mater, a Catholic High School where Jack was once a basketball star destined for collegiate glory, asking him to come in for a chat. It’s then that Jack is offered the head basketball coaching position for the rest of the season, where he will take over while the current coach recovers from illness. Jack, who has never coached before, reluctantly accepts and must find a way to connect with and teach the young undisciplined and under-talented players of the team, all the while still struggling with his addiction and a haunting past. 

In “The Way Back”, Jack’s alcohol use is front and center much more so than basketball. He always has a beer or a fifth of vodka in his hand, to the point where it might almost seem indulgent on the filmmaker’s part. But what Gavin O’Connor does is never let us forget that alcohol is a part of Jack’s life at all times. Jack is seemingly a good person, not one of the usual physically violent alcoholics we are used to seeing in the movies. His addiction is shown for what it is, a disease that can’t be controlled without intentional steps and help. A disease that finds a person drinking on the job, drinking on the drive to the bar after work, and then carrying a beer can into the shower because having a drink in hand has literally become a physical part of who the person is. Jack, like all alcoholics, drinks for a reason. Jack is angry about his past, something he can’t escape, and like so many who struggle with alcoholism, it has him in a dangerous downward spiral that is ruining his life.

Most films in this genre drive toward a final “big game” in which the sports team or individual must compete at the highest level, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path to get there and earning redemption along the way. “The Way Back” is slightly different, instead alternating more often than expected between the excitement of Jack’s coaching up his team during the basketball season and the dramatic revelations about pieces of his past that have come to define him and lead to his current relationship with alcohol. O’Connor certainly still gives us time with the team. We get to know the various kids, their strengths and challenges, and a few of them are developed in meaningful (though fairly cliche) ways. But their stories are never the focus of the film. It’s always about Jack, and his life mirrors that of a real one, with ups and downs, wins and losses, belief that things have gotten better and devastating mistakes. It’s a relatable and smooth-transitioning narrative, one that never stopped being compelling.

Affleck’s performance is right there with the best he’s ever given. It’s an emotionally affecting, and clearly very personal, one that rarely goes over-the-top but has power in its subtlety. Coach Cunningham’s journey with the team is inspiring, even as we see his character flaws gradually revealed. It’s easy to have empathy for and root for his redemption, something I craved even more than seeing the team have success. Credit should also go to O’Connor and cinematographer Eduard Grau, whose outstanding use of beautiful close-ups really draws the viewer into some very vulnerable moments, both on Affleck alone and in deeply affecting scenes between him and his estranged wife Angie (Janina Gavankar). The film’s score by Rob Simonsen is absolutely gorgeous and almost ever-present, strings and piano keys nudging our hearts in various directions as Jack’s journey is made.

“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 simultaneously a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels.

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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 writes 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.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Invisible Man (2020)

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Going back to its original roots as a novel by H.G. Wells and one of the original Universal Pictures Classic Monster Movies, the story of “The Invisible Man” involved a man whose experiments make him unseeable and eventually lead to a descent into madness and violence. For this modern reboot of the film franchise, writer/director Leigh Whannell brings the character crashing into the #MeToo era by centering this story on not The Invisible Man himself, but rather his primary victim. Whereas previous entries have been all about how a person deals with the effects of a strange new ability, Whannell’s film focuses on the perspective of those who suffer from a maniac’s abuse of power and control.

The film opens with an absolutely stunning night-time sequence of Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) suspensefully escaping the gorgeous, isolated home she shares with her brilliant, extremely wealthy, Optics scientist partner Adrien (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Right from the start, Whannell lays out the kind of experience this film is meant to be, relying on skillful precision in cinematography by Stefan Duscio and a powerful, terrifying score by Benjamin Wallfisch to always keep the audience intensely on edge. Cecilia is a woman who we immediately understand is the victim of awful and frequent abuses. She is clearly terrified and we hold our breath while silently praying she gets away from a man we literally know nothing about yet. And this is merely the beginning.

After living in fear for a few weeks, Cecilia learns that her ex has committed suicide, and she is free to begin healing from the horrible domestic and sexual abuse we learn he committed. But she doesn’t really believe it, and it isn’t long before mysterious things begin happening, signaling to her that someone, or something, is stalking her from outside her view. It should come as no surprise to anyone that’s seen much of Moss’ filmography that the actress is as good as they come, and her performance here ranks among the best she’s ever given. For most of the film, she is in a growing state of panic, slowly losing her sanity, and displaying every emotion one could possibly imagine a victim of these evil crimes might experience. Her ability to convey fear, distrust, and deep deep pain via facial expressions and voice inflection is incredibly impressive and also extremely difficult to watch. 

Despite support and assistance from loved ones like her sister, a childhood friend who is conveniently now a police officer, and his teenage daughter, Cecilia struggles mightily when no one believes her claims that an invisible man is out to get her. The terror he eventually begins to reign on her is some of the best supernatural horror you’ll see. It’s minimalistic for so long in a way that makes the special effects extremely impactful when they do happen, and the same can be said for the film’s reserved use of physical violence. For most of the film, it’s emotional and psychological abuse that Cecilia faces the most, but you can always feel the intensity building to something. Eventually, there are a few spots where brief outbursts of bloody action occurs, often in rather shocking fashion. The film is never too gory, though, so viewers fearing an all-out slasher flick need not worry much. 

I can’t express enough just how wound tight “The Invisible Man” is from start to finish. This is a pressure cooker of a thriller where your body is constantly clinched as you are made to feel as if you know where this hidden assailant is at all times, just waiting for the moment when something extreme is going to happen. Sure, it’s got its share of jump scares, but most are effective and play very well with an excited audience, as does the action choreography, a continuation of the great work Whannell did in 2018’s “Upgrade”. Fight sequences with The Invisible Man are especially wonderfully crafted and very memorable.

“The Invisible Man” puts 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 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.

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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 writes 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.

MOVIE REVIEW: Onward

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 54 minutes

Coming hot on the heels of Pixar’s Best Animated Picture Oscar victory for 2019’s unwanted yet somehow still exceptional “Toy Story 4″, “Onward” is the first of two original stories by the revered studio to hit the big screen in 2020. With fairly light marketing going in, many will find themselves entering a theater in the same position that I was – unexpectedly unexcited. But fear ye not, good peoples of Earth, because that Pixar magic is alive and well (literally in fact, because ya know this story is about wizards and stuff).

“Onward” is a beautifully colorful film set in the fictional city of New Mushroomton, part of a world full of fantasy creatures like centaurs and sprites, that despite once being filled with magic and champions on heroic quests is now taken over by scientific and technological advancement. Mastering magic was “too hard” and innovation for convenience won the day. The story centers around two elf brothers, Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) Lightfoot, who on Ian’s 16th birthday are given a present from their deceased father. This gift is a magical item that if used correctly will allow the boys to spend one last day with their Dad, which both of them desperately desire. Because he passed away from illness while they were young, Barley barely remembers their time together and Ian has no memories of his own at all. It’s something that both haunts and drives him, as he continually makes lists of things to accomplish in life hoping to make his father proud. In the old days, an epic quest was a staple of someone’s 16th birthday and after Ian’s attempt to use the item goes terribly wrong, the brothers set off to retrieve a mythical stone so that they can try again. Before the sun sets, of course. Every good quest needs a time limit.

To reveal any twists and surprises of the story would be completely unfair because the emotional journey Pixar takes viewers on is a truly wonderful one. Pratt and Holland have perfect chemistry as the brothers, who in lieu of a true antagonist for the film have a relationship that is both loving and also filled with many differences of opinion that lead to some exciting situations. Barley is a walking mishap who drives a van named Gwynevere, spends his time in role-playing games or protesting the destruction of historical sites, and generally reminds everyone he comes in contact with about how magic used to rule the land and they’ve gotten away from their true nature. Ian, by contrast, is smart but timid, socially awkward, and thinks his brother’s obsession is mostly lunacy. It makes for a ton of great banter throughout the film as the two embark on a daring quest that features all of the elements you might expect, including but not limited to finding a quest giver to get a map, solving tricky puzzles, and overcoming dangerous beasts with legendary weapons of power.

Yes, “Onward” is basically Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft with a heartfelt and deeply poignant story of brotherhood and parental loss layered into that world, and it’s incredible just how powerful the emotions it evokes are! Make no mistake, at multiple points during the fun adventurous quest full of monsters, spells, and swords, the tears will flow and the heart will pound. This dramatic quest for family grieving is non-stop clever and charming along the way, and with “Onward” Pixar has a truly magical start to 2020 with a film that families (and especially fantasy fans who will enjoy the film’s many references) are going to find themselves enchanted by.

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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 writes 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.

MOVIE REVIEW: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Rating: G / Runtime: 1 hour and 26 minutes

There is something I find sincerely appealing about stop-motion animation, be it in the style of Laika or Aardman, who utilizes a beautiful and detailed claymation technique. Both styles of animating take significantly longer than CGI or even hand-drawn technique and is a big reason why these studios can’t pump out new films at the rate Disney and Pixar do. The first “Shaun the Sheep” film came out over four years ago and grossed over $100 million at the box office. This sequel was inevitable, but crafting it took time. 

“Farmageddon” is, in a nutshell, a remake of Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, with a much cuter alien and an overwhelming amount of references to other famous science fiction films and television sprinkled throughout. The extra-terrestrial, in this case, is Lu-la, a small light blue and pink alien with telekinesis and a powerfully loud/forceful belch. Her space ship lands in a forest and while she’s out exploring, it’s not long before the government sends Agent Red and a team to examine the landing and seek out answers.

Back on the farm, Shaun and his sheep family are living their normal everyday lives, being trouble-makers and fighting with Bitzer the farmer’s sheepdog. When Lu-la stumbles across Shaun and the group, they embark on an adventure of discovery with the goal of ultimately hoping to find Lu-la’s ship so that she can return home. There’s not a lot more to be said about the plot, although Agent Red does have some backstory that provides a reason for why she is so driven. It culminates in one of the sweeter moments of the film and is a welcome character development choice to take her beyond just the typical cookie-cutter governmental baddie. 

Those concerned about the silent nature of Shaun the Sheep films should honestly not be worried at all. I remember being incredibly surprised at how much I loved “Shaun the Sheep” back in 2015 despite the lack of dialogue and in “Farmageddon” I didn’t even miss it. The soundtrack and score show up perfectly, and sound effects are used to greatly enhance the already incredibly expressiveness of the claymation. Because this film is playing so heavily off of sci-fi films of the past, there are frequent musical cues that callback to famous themes, and it was a joy hearing one each and every time. Additionally, the aforementioned soundtrack does a wonderful job of occasionally letting the lyrics being sung help tell the story of what is happening on-screen at that moment. This tactic is used sparingly, but with great success.

References to favorite sci-fi properties are plentiful, and though the story of “Farmageddon” is tender, easy to follow, and full of hilarious goofy action, picking out these moments will be great for major fans of the genre. For one thing, there is the required mention of Area 51. Then the “Alien” tie-is done in a brilliant way that makes it kid-friendly. There are also “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Signs”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Dr. Who” references and more. Agent Red even has a sidekick robot named Muggins that looks like a combination of Wall*E and Johnny 5 and serves as equal parts investigative partner and filing cabinet. This robot will quickly win kids over and is easily one of the film’s highlights. 

“Farmageddon” may not possess the deepest of storylines but that makes it accessible for everyone. With plenty for older geeks to enjoy along the way, this is a rare G film that parents and kids can sit through and enjoy equally together. It moves at a breezy pace and the cute factor is off the charts. This cosmic adventure is all-ages entertainment at its best. Pull up Netflix, hit play, and enjoy.

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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 writes 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.

MOVIE REVIEW: Sonic the Hedgehog

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 39 minutes

Let me just get this out of the way up front. I can confirm that Sonic does indeed go fast! Very fast, in fact. Almost as fast as the studio lept into action and changed the CGI animation of their titular character after extreme internet backlash following the original trailer’s release. That choice was a wise one, removing the creepily human similarities that made the character look very different than its video game origins. The newer design of Sonic is much more approachable, relatable, and adorable, and it likely salvaged Paramount’s chance at having the Sega game adaptation become a success. 

It’s no secret that films based on video games have been more miss than hit, and there are a number of understandable reasons why this is the case. Low budgets at times, a lack of talent or star power, or misunderstanding the market desire for a film version of a game to name a few. The list goes on. But one very real challenge that many adaptations face was something that “Sonic the Hedgehog” can actually count as a strength. The video game style of Sonic, you see, is not extremely narrative-driven, and thus the character is much more of an open slate with which to explore a new storytelling medium. Most casual audience members will simply go into the film knowing that Sonic is a cute furry blue hedgehog-like creature that runs super-fast and collects rings. The film smartly wastes no time in quickly getting most of its lore dump out of the way, showing us see where Sonic came from, explaining to us the power of these iconic collectible rings, and introducing Sonic’s nemesis. 

With the background in our rearview, “Sonic the Hedgehog” can get down to the business of crafting an adventure for the blue devil in the modern world. Sonic (Ben Schwartz) lives a lonely existence. He inhabits a small cave in the forest outside of small-town Green Hills, MT and enjoys watching Tom and Maddie Wachowski (James Marsden and Tika Sumpter) from afar, but he constantly dreams of a world in which he is not alone and can interact with the local humans. Eventually, that happens. After an emotional outburst sets off a special power Sonic was unaware that he has, the government comes calling, sending in their egotistical genius scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and his legion of drones to capture and study what they believe in an alien specimen of great value. The majority of the movie is made up of Sonic and Tom on a quest to keep him safe, having hilarious and exciting encounters while developing a growing friendship that neither quite knows how to handle. All the while they are chased by the evil, mustache-twirling Robotnik. It’s a performance by Carrey that calls back to his comedic brilliance of the past with him commanding the screen and delivering deliciously ridiculous dialogue in the perfect tone of a video game villain. While Marsden definitely does solid work, even with some slight emotional nuance, and Sonic is competent though unspectacularly voiced by Schwartz, this is Carrey’s movie through and through. True to his name, he carries the film and keeps it enjoyable throughout.

Action pieces in the film are a mixed bag. Some are exciting and others exist only to generate hearty laughs and play with Sonic’s speed in interesting ways, like a slow-motion bar fight that is reminiscent of Quicksilver’s memorable moment in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” or comparable sequences in any number of iterations of The Flash. You probably won’t remember the specifics of any action a day or two later, but it’s never boring and the kids are going to love it. What is more surprising is how emotionally resonant the heart of the film is. Despite some really on-the-nose references to family, Sonic clearly desires one and we want that for him. By the end, you may even find yourself tearing up a bit at some of the sweet character interactions that occur. 

Film adaptations of video games have been so bad for so long that the low bar has reached a point that isn’t honestly that hard to clear. “Sonic the Hedgehog” is certainly nothing special, but it’s a perfectly fun new version of the character to spend an hour and a half with that both scratches the nostalgia itch with its frequent references to the source material and is modern enough to keep younger audience members engaged at the same time. The end of the film teases a sequel and maybe the biggest endorsement of this film I can give is that I truly hope it happens.

** There are two scenes at the end of the film, one of which is mid-credits that you don’t want to miss! **

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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 writes 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.