Caless’ Top 10 Films of 2020

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

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


20. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK

19. SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

18. SMALL AXE: EDUCATION

17. TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL

16. MANK

15. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

14. CODED BIAS

13. ONWARD

12. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

11. THE INVISIBLE MAN


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2020

What. A. Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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


BEST NON-FILM

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


THE DOCUMENTARIES

10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HONORABLE MENTION

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


THE FEATURE FILMS

20. SOUND OF METAL

19. GREENLAND

18. MONSTER HUNTER

17. ON THE ROCKS

16. GREYHOUND

15. WENDY

14. TENET

13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

12. FIRST COW

11. ONWARD


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

What We Learned This Week: November 9-15

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What We Learned This Week: September 14-20

LESSON #1: THE LANDSCAPE IS NOT READY FOR BLOCKBUSTERS— This first lesson isn’t about desire. With all of the #firstworldproblem wishes, we all miss big event movies. It’s the setting and the earning potential that are not ready. Not enough states and locations are safely open to distribute something wide. Socially-distanced theaters don’t have enough takers or enough seats to make money. Studios either foresee that (and keep delaying) or don’t (and get their harsh baths and haircuts). Look no further than Warner Bros. and Tenet. Watch it fall tremendously short of its budget and maybe cause more harm than good. Watch the PR department spin their own numbers to save face.

LESSON #2: THE DIGITAL OPTION CONTINUES TO IMPROVE AND GRAB PEOPLE— As it stands now, Mulan has made more money than Tenet. Nine months ago, would you have ever thought that was possible? I sure didn’t. Conservative estimates have the Disney re-imagining earning north of $250 million and counting while Tenet just passed $200 million and is struggling to gain repeat business. That echoes Lesson #1. The cherry on top for Mulan is its Velcro to grab and keep new customers. So far in September, Disney+ is experiencing a 68% bump in app downloads coupled with a 193% surge in spending on the app. That follows a previous 79% boost in July attached to Hamilton’s debut on the steaming platform. Something is becoming better than nothing and more is more. Could digital be the new savior until this pandemic lifts. At Disney, let’s see what happens with Black Widow and Soul delays. At WB, we see them sharpening their HBO Max ax.

LESSON #3: HIGH-LEVEL SOCIAL MEDIA HARDBALL HELPS NO ONE— Speaking of Warner Bros., I don’t even know where to begin with the Ray Fisher vs. Warner Bros. fight. With the bold claims being laid and the hills-to-die-on being molded in both directions, this has gone past the stages of “spat” or “disagreement.” The trouble is this is one lower-level actor against a media giant. The success rate is low and the ostracization rate is high, but Ray Fisher strikes me as the kind of guy with that kind of conviction. He’s going to go down swinging. Who do you believe in this feud?

LESSON #4: PEOPLE OF GOOD TASTE OFTEN COME FROM GOOD TASTE— If I were to poll you folks and ask who makes the best American family films right now, I bet the #1 Family Feud survey answer would be Pixar. They make the consistent best storytelling and lesson-rich content. If you’ve ever wondered what people of good taste like Pixar found their taste, check out a pair of excellent Letterboxd lists of age-based recommendations collected from a team of their directors. Their 7-12 list and their 12-and-up list feature some of the absolute best family-friendly films. Indisputable perfection right there.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#140)

What We Learned This Week: August 30-September 13

Welcome back to a renewed start for “What We Learned This Week.” I wanted to say a quick thank you for your patience with this school teacher and the month-long hiatus to get the day job in order during this time of tumultuous landscape change in my profession. It appears the hand basket of hell holding the world is still woven strong, even in the movie business. Let’s hit the chalkboard and vent.

LESSON #1: EVERYONE IS ALLOWED TO BOYCOTT— Let’s say this as simple as possible for a few lessons to hammer a few nails in nice a slow. First, you are allowed to boycott whatever the f–k you want, be that a movie, a politician, stance, or general topic, like say Mulan or the Netflix film Cuties. It’s classic “you do you.” You pick your spots and choose your hills to die on. Choose wisely because Lesson #2 is also in effect. 

LESSON #2: EVERYONE IS ALLOWED TO DISAGREE WITH YOUR BOYCOTT— When you go your “you do you” route, other people are bound to go another direction. If you don’t want them to berate your chosen boycott pillar, don’t shame them when they disagree to match said boycott. That’s the challenge of taking the stances you take. You open yourself as a person up to judgment as much as, if not more, than the chosen topic. That’s where your moral consistency matters more than the topic. Hopefully, those people who have chosen their hills to die on have completed the due diligence of research and reflection to fully inform and understand their decision. If you can’t answer “why” with any substance for the stance you’ve taken, then you’re not ready for your boycott and are doing it wrong. Maybe you need Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: SEE OR LEARN THE THING YOU’RE PISSING AND MOANING ABOUT WITH YOUR BOYCOTT BEFORE YOU “CANCEL” IT— Here’s a full, blunt, and honest first-person admission from me as a person AND as a film critic. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s someone who takes on stump speeches, boycotts, and cancel culture movement protests without seeing, experiencing, or learning about the thing you are hating or defending. If you cannot answer that “why” from Lesson #2 with substance, I lose a measure of respect for you, especially if you are pissing and moaning sight unseen for what you are complaining about. Have you seen Netflix’s Cuties? No? Then STFU. Go see the damn thing. Ruffle your feathers. Grit your teeth and get through the thing you supposedly will hate or disagree with. Then you can pass your judgment, light your torches, and take up your pitchforks. You sound infinitely stronger with your boycott if you actually know what the f–k you are talking about with tangible experience. What you need to maybe do (not the case in all things) is Lesson #4.

LESSON #4: PRACTICE SEPARATING THE PRODUCT FROM THE PARTICIPANTS— This is where Mulan rises to be a perfect example of many that apply to this lesson. Disney’s newest re-imagining has been engulfed to a large degree by off-camera controversies of politics and business practices. They have to and will weather that flak. The finished project and its intent is an entirely different thing to judge than the aims and efforts to make it. It may not always work, but you have to try and separate the person from the performance, the product from the producers, and etc. Film critics should review the film as the film in a review. Save the editorial comments that aren’t on screen for a different section of the paper. Mulan is a fine film with excellent entertainment value with likely questionable origins, no doubt. However, you know what, the same can be said about every Tom Cruise, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, or (*insert canceled person*) work. Enjoying the finished product of someone on your chosen cancel list does not condone said person. If we cancelled every piece with any tie to a questionable sidebar issue, you and I wouldn’t have very much to watch. Call it the price of poker. Choose your boycotts accordingly and, again, be ready for Lesson #2 and Lesson #3.

LESSON #5: THIS IS ALL A BUSINESS FIRST AND AN ART EXPOSITION SECOND— I get to this lesson and the biggest nail to drive home that too many people still just don’t get. As soon as the very first movie charged a dime for a ticket, this became a business first and an art exposition second. Art is wonderful, but if it doesn’t make money, you’re not going to get more art that you want, plain and simple. The goal of the studios and the A-list artists is to make money. We would all love if the entertainment and art end of it all mattered more, but it doesn’t. Paychecks win. Disney does what they do, stomping with hubris, washing what they wash, and cutting corners, to make money. Adam Sandler can make his empty threats about an Uncut Gems Oscar nomination for finally going for the art instead of dollar signs, but he was always, always, always going to return to what butter his bread with Hubie Halloween. They can’t cry and neither can you about such #firstworldproblems. If you don’t like it, good, don’t spend your money on said thing, turn the channel, or scroll on by, but be ready for Lesson #2 and Lesson #3 once you open your mouth to piss and moan again.

LESSON #6: IT’S PERFECTLY OK, IN FACT RECOMMENDED OF YOU, TO GROW, EVOLVE, AND CHANGE— Now, I rant all of that to say this. Grow with your art and entertainment. Open your mind to new things and other ways of thinking different from your norms because the world doesn’t revolve around you. Other people have different situations that yours and the judgment you put on it. Likewise, open your heart to empathy that you are missing or haven’t discovered. Have the personal integrity to be willing to change if necessary. You’re not weak to do that. You are wise instead. If you watch Mulan and loved it for what it was, still learn about the bad practices behind it and understand that side of debate. If you abhor the topic of Cuties, good, you can and you should, but learn and understand that the film doesn’t glorify the ugliness you hear about. It’s quite the opposite in fact.

Heed these lessons well and welcome back to “What We Learned This Week.” We’ll go softer next week, I promise, because apparently, it wouldn’t be a WWLTW in 2020 if didn’t talk about Christopher Nolan.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#139)

What We Learned This Week: July 20-26

LESSON #1: WE ALL KNOW AND REMEMBER THE COLLECTIVE EXPERIENCE— I don’t want to get all Mufasa of The Lion King with a “Remember, who you are” or, worse, an Alan Jackson post-9/11 country song of “Remember When” because, in honesty, this whole “I haven’t seen a movie in forever” rant that gets tossed around has only been a few months. That’s a mere drop in our life’s bucket in the grand scheme of things. Look, I get it. Sitting at home on a TV or computer screen isn’t the same. We miss going to the movies, and the movies miss us too (or rather our money, more on that next). Nothing beats the collective and communal experience. Former Roger Ebert wingman Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times made it to very spaced-out Music Box Theatre in Chicago for a 70mm screening of Interstellar after 126 days since being in a theater. The joy and comfort came back to him and he poured that out in a lovely column. What happened for Richard, can and will happen for us. It will be wonderful when it does. It will just take time, namely the right time.

LESSON #2: NO STUDIO IS GOING TO LEAVE NINE FIGURES OF MONEY ON THE TABLE— Sigh. I feel like every week this summer here in WWLTW I have to keep talking about Tenet. Finally this week, it received the full “indefinite” delay that it should have gotten months ago. Was that enough to finally get Nolanites to chill and accept reality? Just like his mind-bending films, the answer was no. The hubris continued with speculation it would at least play in China or Europe or some newfangled staggered rollout. Let’s keep banging the table. Folks, it ain’t gonna happen because Warner Bros. is not going to release a movie, especially one that needs $800 million to make it to the black, without its biggest market. They won’t accept less. They would be asking for torrent piracy to swoop in and spoil their golden goose. You can wish all you want, but it’s time to move on. This is where our #firstworldproblems are at: 

LESSON #3: ANY DYING BUSINESS IS GOING TO DEMAND THEIR SURVIVAL EVEN IF IT IS BAD FOR BUSINESS—It’s ugly, yet understandable. The whole industry is swirling an ugly and uncertain drain to against an invincible threat that cannot be wished away or bought. Similar to the predicament schools are in (and, boy, as a teacher, let me tell you about this rocking boat) about what’s best for re-opening, movie theaters are weighing options and recommendations with desperation. For theaters, as evident by the sentiments of the National Association Theater Owners, their answer is anger and frustration with every studio delay like Tenet. “Urge” is becoming “should.” And “should” is starting to sound like “demand.” Things are looking like mid-2021 at best. Unlike schools, their direct survival at the industry level is on the line. They have a bankruptcy gun barrel either pushed to their temple or inserted in their own mouth. Schools, on the other hand, have viable alternatives. I’d hate to be in those budget meetings right now in Hollywood. 

LESSON #4: EMBRACE THE PARANOIA— Earlier during this COVID quarantine, the hot social distance water cooler movies to see where the virus-based thrillers like Outbreak and Contagion. Months later, more and more of the craziness is setting in and more tin foil hats are going on. Let some or your movie consumption dive into that. Blake Collier of Film Inquiry posted a recent piece on what paranoid cinema says about ourselves and society. It’s an excellent read and filled with stellar films to sample. Dip your toe in the loony waters and have fun.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#138)

What We Learned This Week: June 27-July 12

LESSON #1: HUBRIS, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, COSTS MONEY— No studio executive in their right mind is going to intentionally lose money versus a genius’s hubris. Filmbro golden calf Christopher Nolan can say he’s not worried about his future Tenet box office performance (now bumped to August 12th), but I guarantee you the pearly bean counters are. They’re not leaving earning potential on the table just to appease a filmmaker, no matter how virtuoso he is. They’ll let him walk, and he can’t take his movie with him. Patience, Christopher, patience. Just wait and let your biggest nation of audience get healthy.

LESSON #2: PREMIUM VOD WILL EMERGE AS A VIABLE OPTION— Family fare like Trolls: World Tour and Scoob! have tested the VOD waters for family attention. The King of Staten Island and Irresistible have tempted adult crowds. The question becomes what happens when a popular title for the masses becomes available for a premium rental. Who bites? If enough do, just as this recent Hollywood Reporter column suggests, expect this premium option (PVOD) to become a new go-to or must for craving audiences. The key is price point and the opponent is piracy.

It’s a matter of time when the right big title and the right price gets the customers to come running for a rental.

LESSON #3: IT’S WALLET DESTRUCTION WEEK— Speaking of money, this week is going to destroy the mattress money, nest eggs, swear jars, and piggybanks of physical media fans and cinephiles with low will power. It’s Barnes & Noble’s semi-annual 50% off Criterion sale. At the same time, the Warner Archives has opened its 4 for $44 sale. If you are someone survived the recent Arrow, Kino Lorber, and Target sales this summer without subsidizing your home or pawning your car, you’re so screwed now.

LESSON #4: THE OSCARS CANNOT GET AHEAD— There’s good news outnumbered by bad news. The good news is diversity keeps notching wins and the Academy recently added 819 new members with 36% of them being POC. That’s an ongoing shift they have long needed and each year will continue to bring new blood. As soon as they do that, they take two steps back when the MPA announced they are allowing agents the right to vote for Oscars. That’s beyond stupid and out of touch. That immediately inserts favoritism and more selfish and showy campaigning and placating that the Oscar cycle already has too much of. Agents are not artists, period.. They are not on the same level of industry professionals who make the movies. They should be removed from this arena.

LESSON #5: ONCE AGAIN, THERE IS NO BETTER TIME TO EDUCATE YOURSELF— In a callback to my last regular WWTW, the educational opportunity for our time at a social-distancing home with a buffet of media choice at our fingertips continues. While parents and schools mull what it’s going to take to go back to school buildings, you parents can be a homeschooler of film. If you need a “curriculum,” let PBS, Martin Scorsese, and Film School Rejects curate your content starting here. For more, PBS has a “Crash Course Film History” series on YouTube and Film School Rejects has a new “Cinephile Summer Camp” column. Get you some education!


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#136)

What We Learned This Week: The New Future of Movie Theaters “Soapbox Special”

SOAPBOX SPECIAL: The New Future of Movie Theaters

During this last month or so of our collective national and international quarantine, I’ve been holding the topic of re-opening movie theaters from my usual “What We Learned This Week” columns for a “Soapbox Special.” There have been so many articles, so many perspectives, and so many rapidly evolving updates and changes that I couldn’t distill them down into one little lesson or column entry. 

With several regions of America starting to re-open (including my own state of Illinois and city of Chicago), it was time to get on the stump and arm the cannons. I put some of what follows into spoken word recently on an episode of Mike Crowley’s “You’’ll Probably Agree” podcast, but the issue has grown since then. Click into the multitude of links in the lessons for the deeper referenced stories. They are well worth their reads and your attention. The theme of this all can be summarized as cautiously optimistic.

LESSON #1: WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO GO BACK TO THEATERS— I’ll open this rant back in late May with polling from Variety. It featured a survey of consumer comfort. Here are some bulleted results in numerical order:

  • 91% requested hand sanitizer stations
  • 90% say the most important factor is a cure for COVID-19.
  • 86% supported limited screenings for cleaning time
  • 75% support employees temperature checks
  • 70% would rather watch a first-run feature at home
  • 61% would feel better about mandatory face coverings
  • 60% support audience temperature checks
  • 47% were comfortable buying concessions
  • 46% were comfortable using public restrooms at theaters

There’s more there in that article, but those were the highlights. Beyond even that poll, you’ve got more and more segments of the population who won’t feel comfortable with any public event, let alone a movie, without a vaccine in place. Putting any number of these initiatives in place would be costly, especially for theater chain companies reeling on the edge of bankruptcy. 

LESSON #2: WHAT DOES THAT FUTURE LOOK LIKE— Any of those changes from Lesson #1 would make for a very different setting than the “normal” way we’ve been going to the movies for the last century. Many editorials and articles (Seattle Times in May, Vulture in May, and Quartz in June) have tried to talk that out exhaustively with every guess in the clouds. For example, many of us have embraced reserved seating as a way to select our spots, skip crowds, and guarantee seats even if we walk in last minute to avoid 20 minutes of senseless trailers (I know that’s not just me, *wink*). The activity timeline changes upward if we are to stand in a line for temperature checks and even downward if there are no concession lines or needs anymore, which is a tremendous business hit to the theater chains that have been bolstering their kitchen capabilities and choices beyond candy and popcorn for the better part of the last two decades. The other word in there everyone wants to avoid is “crowds.” Can that be accomplished with roped off sections, skipped seats, or an all-reserved seating model (which some older theaters don’t fully have)? In the meantime, you’ve got companies fumbling financial footballs and poking public outcry bears (bravo Michael Phillips) over requiring or not requiring masks (and reversing courses) and other measures before they even open. Do you really trust them to get all of this right on the first try here in July?

LESSON #3: THE OPTION OF AUTOMATION— Piggybacking off of Lesson #2, one potential solution could be artificial intelligence, as crazy at that sounds. According to Variety in May, some theaters in Korea were considering “contact-free” technology.  Theater chain CJ-CGV replaced its human staff with AI robots and automated kiosks for scanning and handling ticket transactions. Concession stands were replaced with app-powered and LED-controlled pick-up/delivery boxes. Leave it to tech-savvy Asia to be the tip of that spear. Could the likes of AMC or Regal pull stuff like that off, again, while teetering on financial failure? How do data-danger-minded consumers feel about that?

LESSON #4: COMPANY SURVIVAL IS PERILOUS— The first three lessons constitute a forecast and some great ideas, but who or what can afford those measures? After months of virtually complete closure, save for some door-front concession hawking, large theater chains, especially AMC (which includes the Carmike brand), are in the financial toilet. Bailouts and loans are hard to come by and “junk” status is hitting stock reports. You even have Amazon interested in gobbling up AMC, which would be quite interesting. It may require a rescue such as that. This peril is international as well with CineEurope reporting a possible $20-31 billion loss for the year. Even reopening isn’t an instant cure. The majority of profits for these companies are dependent on concessions because of the high ticket receipt percentages going back to the studios, a gouge that has been increasing over the years at the high blockbuster level (Thanks, Disney). If the food areas are closed due to viral fears and health code regulations, that destroys earnings. 50% capacities of social-distanced seating doesn’t help theaters either. Even 50% might be optimistic. There are theaters opening at barely 25% capacity

LESSON #5: “TOO BIG TO FAIL” IS LOOKING FAILURE STRAIGHT IN THE FACE— And with that we reach the studios’ level of wallet hit with an inactive theater distribution market. Even with their demanded big bites of the pie, half-filled (or less) theaters do not help them either. This is especially the case at the blockbuster level. No matter the anticipation demand or potential staying power of a really big hit flick with less competition, it is exponentially harder to recoup $200 million-budgeted tentpoles and their $100+ million marketing campaigns if sizable fractions of the screens holding butts are gone or entire chains are shuttered. That’s why the really big stuff like Tenet, Mulan, Fast 9, No Time to Die, and more are not automatically landing on streaming services or VOD outlets. Even at a Trolls: World Tour-equivalent $20 price tag per rental (and its modest success), those giants cannot recoup those huge red balances versus getting a ticket for every head instead of every household. A little thing like The Lovebirds or Irresistible can land in the green with VOD, but not Wonder Woman or Black Widow. A business with a blockbuster class level of movies that once looked too big to fail making its worldwide billions is now failing because they have no place to go and no one able to come to their shows.

LESSON #6: STUDIOS DID SOME THIS TO THEMSELVES— Believe it or not, the studios have slowly damaged their own theatrical success/potential for years with the incremental shortening of the windows between big-screen premieres and home media release dates. Folks my age remember the months of interminable wait back in the VHS and cable TV eras before streaming services were even a glimmer in someone’s eye. For example, Forrest Gump hit theaters over the July 4th weekend of 1994. It didn’t land on VHS until late April 1995 after a long theatrical run and a winter Oscar bump. After that, it wouldn’t hit paid cable for another bunch of months and then years before basic cable made it “free.” By comparison, Joker opened on the first weekend of October last year, hit store shelves the first weekend of January 2020, and no one cares if it comes to HBO or Showtime because Netflix, Hulu, or VOD is cheaper and better. What used to be six months at the minimum (or even an entire year if you were a Disney release) has shrunk to merely 90 days on average. Sure, both Forrest Gump and Joker raked for their times, but it’s an indictment on patience versus money-grabbing. People that are willing to wait can now weather a pretty comfortable amount of time compared to the past for their 4K players and big-screen TVs in their dens. In our current COVID-19 state, we’ve all got nothing but time on our hands to do just that. Why risk health if personal patience versus some “fear of missing out” can pay one $20-30 digital download/disc price to watch a movie repeatedly instead of hauling the entire family plus concessions once, especially for something they don’t deem “big screen worthy?” The studios trying to keep the buzz constant with shorter waits will now see leverage backfire in favor of the consumer. For a current case of that, just look at Disney/Pixar’s Onward and the mere weeks it took to cave from the VOD rental level to dismissively dishing it to everyone in Disney+. With studios building their own streaming shingles, you’re going to see more of that or see more wins for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

LESSON #7: THE PRICE POINT OF DIGITAL— Let’s go further with the digital wants of consumers versus the new risks and hassles of theaters. Circling back to that opening Variety polling again, remember that 70% would rather watch a first-run feature at home. And that was back in May. Imagine now knocking on the door of Independence Day, no matter how much antsy-pant anticipation and hope is out there. That same Variety polling screened respondents on online pricing with some keen results. It asked how much a “reasonable” price would be to stream top-quality productions in their home. Here are those results in numerical rank:

  • 47%- $10 
  • 20%- $20
  • 19%- only if it was free
  • 6%- $30
  • 3%- $40
  • 1%- $50, $60, or $80%

That’s 67% holding firm at $20 or under and studios need to do their own projections of math. Regardless, welcome to a more than a little bit of the #firstworldproblems portion of this entire “Soapbox Special.” Movies are wants, not needs, period. They are lovely fulfillment, but non-essential. For every one of those 6% hardcore FilmBros and cinephiles with the disposable income to drop $40 or more to see their precious Christopher Nolan film, over 95% aren’t budging or can’t afford it. Check your privilege. 

LESSON #8: ADAPT OR DIE— One way or another, change is needed at the highest level that trickles down to every screen in America. A popular industry that has weathered the advent of television, cable, and now streaming opponents and competition in its century of existence should be able to survive this. Or can they? With the Paramount Accords lapsed, is it time for studios to buy or build their own sustainable theaters to show off their own wares and keep all the profits they used to share with the chains? If studios instead mine the digital landscape successfully, do we really need multiplexes anymore? That is a question posed recently in The New Yorker by Richard Brody in a good read. They’ll need smaller budgeted films to do that, scaling so many things down. Go back to the roots. You can make a dozen solid indies or five or more star-driven mid-budget programmers like the industry used to do in the 1990s with the cost of a single MCU film. Reverting back to that level of business would require some baths and haircuts, but it would rescue the industry. It’s time to embrace those needs. In another angle, columnist Nick Clement on Back to Movies says the film industry is “f–ked.” In many respects, I highly agree with him and his fantastic stump piece speaking on unemployment and the public state of some of those aforementioned #firstworldproblems. Time and patience are the biggest needs. 

LESSON #9: “ABSENCE AWAY MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER”— I’ve used this lesson before in “What We Learned This Week” and it’s time to end with it again. Shed away all the polling and conjecture. We all know the love for movies is there or we wouldn’t be talking about it. Look at the success of early openings and the lined-around-the-block comeback of drive-in movie theaters. It will be a topsy-turvy year, without question, even with a full return. We’ve had a zero-budget film named Unsubscribe streaking at an empty box office only to be dethroned by revival screenings of Jurassic Park putting it back to #1 in the nation, George Foreman-style, 27 years after it last ruled the multiplexes. If the year ended today, Bad Boys For Life would get the “biggest movie of 2020” championship belt in the record books. Just like Field of Dreams says, “people will come.” They just need to wait. Everyone, for that matter, from the greedy studio execs and sidelined movie stars to the lowly theater ushers and concession stand workers, needs to wait. This has sucked and it will keep on sucking, but the best answer is to wait and get through this better and healthier, personally and financially, than rushing and screwing it all up. The movies will be there. We want all the people to be there too. 


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.  (#135)

What We Learned This Week: May 11-24

LESSON #1: IF ENOUGH PEOPLE YELL LONG ENOUGH THEY OCCASIONALLY GET THEIR WAY— By far the biggest industry news this week was the rumor-destroying announcement that the long-rumored “Snyder Cut” of Justice League will see the light of TV screens on HBO Max next year. It’s rare to see urban legends come true, and it’s even rarer to see collective efforts move a needle in the entertainment industry. This whole campaign has brought out the best and worst of the internet, from fan support for creators and charitable goals on one side to every matter of entitled vilification possible known to Twitter and man. Besides the possible success or failure of the re-cut film, just the precedent of this can go many directions. As always, I think the goal becomes pausing and looking at you are arguing about or for. Ask if it’s worth it and to what degree, because if some new version of a maligned movie is all you have to sustain your life for hills to die on, you’re the epitome of dwelling in inconsequential first world problems. 

LESSON #2: CHOICES HAVE TO BE MADE— The longer these quarantines and sheltering orders go, the more release choices need to be made. It’s a split between the big stuff and the little guys. We’ve seen a massive amount of rescheduling at the blockbuster level because the studios know their best chance at making the most money (or even their gaudy budgets back) is with theater dollars. VOD rentals at $20 a pop is not enough. What once looked “too big to fail” now cannot survive, no matter how hard Christopher Nolan’s Tenet wants to be the savior. We citizens might not be able to go out and get a haircut, but a proverbial one might be forced in the coming months. The smaller fare of lesser spectacle can find life and some money going to streaming options. They are looking at their prospects and settling smartly. The Lovebirds just did this week following Trolls: World Tour and Onward. Unless Keanu Reeves is shooting people, the third Bill & Ted movie wasn’t going to break any banks and likely neither was Tom Hanks with Greyhound. What looks like disappointing endings for larger efforts still counts as coups for the outlets that get these titles. Apple+ has to be doing backflips to win the bidding war for a Tom Hanks vehicle. 

LESSON #3: MEASURES OF SUCCESS CHANGE OVER TIME— I was one of those keenly interested movie fans that enjoyed hitting up Box Office Mojo on Saturday afternoons and Monday mornings to see the box office estimates and actuals (and, of course, loving on inflation-adjusted records). Without steady business and streaming becoming the cinematic exercise model of necessity at the moment, success is getting measured a little differently with “digital records.” Netflix reports 90 million households grabbing onto Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction. Imagine if each household paid $20 or even just $10 to see it. There’s money to be made with the right move and the right price point, even if that price point is slice of subscription fees. Going back to that idea of haircuts from Lesson #2, Trolls: World Tour made nearly $100 million in its first month of rental availability. While it’s not an incredible windfall, it’s proof there still is a paying audience. If $100 million becomes the new high watermark, watch budgets get scaled down where profit margins get closer and more palatable for the accounting departments.

LESSON #4: LAZY PEOPLE GONNA LAZY— How lazy do you have to be during this current stretch of social life to NOT use your Netflix subscription? Who has that kind of disposable income nowadays? Apparently, there are enough inactive Netflix subscribers from their 183 million total that the streaming giant is going to start closing those silent accounts. What I find almost even more surprising is that a bottomline-chasing company such as Netflix hellbent on user statistics is publicly willing to voluntarily reduce their membership numbers and stop taking their blind money. That’s astonishing. That’s like asking a Twitter account puffed up on paid bots to poke its own influencer balloon. Somewhere Richard Roeper is throwing his arms in the air.

LESSON #5: AWARDS CAN WAIT— As a “Meme Monday” pusher on my own Every Movie Has a Lesson Facebook page, I’ve enjoyed the jokes that have hit social media over the last two months that if the 2020 movie calendar ended today the parade of semi-crappy film releases from January to March would all stand high as frontrunners for the 93rd Academy Awards. If that’s the only way someone like Elisabeth Moss is going to win an Oscar, let’s start the campaign now (see Lesson #1, maybe we can start #VisibibleforInvisible). Like this lesson title, the pageantry can wait for a full competition. I’m glad to hear the 2021 Oscars are considering postponement. Like everything else right now, it’s the right thing to do. I’ve said it this whole time and will keep saying it: “Absence away makes the heart grow fonder.” That will be the case with red carpet spectacles too.

LESSON #6: BILL HADER HAS VERY GOOD TASTE— If all you know of actor Bill Hader are the silly voice, impressions, skits, and his dorky Everyman TV/movie roles, you will be impressed by his taste in movies. In the recommendation slot of “What We Learned This Week,” I stumbled across Bill’s September 2019 list from a Collider interview of over 200 must-see films. The man has a great eye and I love his picks. Luckily, a few Letterboxd users have made this list convenient for your next checklist.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.  (#133)