2020 Movies: 2021 Edition

Four great performances in three great films and also Malcolm & Marie.

A few months ago I wrote about the 2020 films, knowing that I was doing so without having been able to see some of the most notable films of the year. I didn’t realize a) how many of those films there were b) how quickly after the New Year they’d be available c) how many excellent films would be “released” in early 2021 d) how much I would love so many of these films. I just finished a major writing project and it isn’t time to mark IB exams yet so yep I’m blogging about movies again.

I’ll begin with some superlatives: the films that I enjoyed/moved me/I’ve thought about/surprised me/ the most. Then, my favorite performances. Both of these sections will be spoiler-free. The last section will be about some of my favorite moments from these films, and this will absolutely contain spoilers.

If I’m not vaccinated by the time Judas and the Black Messiah comes to my little theater I’m going to cry.

Superlatives

The film that I enjoyed most:

Minari – I wrote a little bit about Minari already when I suggested it as a double-billing with Nomadland (which isn’t represented here in any way which feels wrong because it’s, like, maybe the best film of the year?). The experience I had watching Minari is basically my ideal film-viewing experience. It was beautiful to watch and listen to. It made me laugh and cry and think and feel. It punched me in the stomach but also warmed my heart. Time will tell whether or not I think this is the “best” film from this year or my “favorite,” but for now I know that I enjoyed watching it about as much as I can enjoy watching a film, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The film that moved me the most:

Sound of Metal – I came to this film knowing that it was about a heavy metal drummer who goes deaf and it was intense. Maybe I should have expected it, but the film’s real power is in the quiet moments, not the loud moments of frustration and rage. As Joe tells Ruben, for the people in the recovery home, it’s not about fixing the ears; it’s about fixing what’s between them. Ruben’s journey of healing and discovery is visceral and devastating in ways that go well beyond the terror going deaf would be for anyone – let alone a professional musician. It is the type of film that Spartan kicks you in the chest, but then reaches out to catch you. It splashes you in the face with moments of pathos and sentimentality, but that water comes from deep wells. I don’t see my own struggles through a new lens after every movie – I did after this one. I also tweeted OH FUCK which is not something I normally tweet.

The film that I’ve thought about the most:

Promising Young Woman – The thorny subject material makes it a movie to think and talk about. But since my cat doesn’t speak English, I have to just think about it. And I’ve thought a lot about it.

First, I had to think about the morality of the film – was the way it handled sexual assault appropriate? After thinking about it a lot, I think the answer is yes, but I would really appreciate women’s perspective on this if you want to hmu. After concluding it was appropriate to think more about, enjoy, and recommend, I thought about the film’s message and how it was delivered. On one level, it is similar to other films that bash the viewer over the head with “the point.” Sometimes this works for me (The Art of Self-Defense, Atlanta (the good episodes)) and sometimes it doesn’t (Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta (the bad episodes)). But as the film progresses, the overt depictions of misogyny form a much more subtle and complex essay on gender and sexuality, much in the same way that Get Out approaches race and racism and both levels.

The over-the-top nature of the film is actually what allows for its subtlety, and one of the reasons I’ve thought about it so much is that it actually intersects nicely with my thesis work on abstract aesthetics. I believe this is one of the most effective ways to subvert audience expectations and clear the space for real moments of clarity and realization that realism can’t capture.

As if to prove my point, I took a long pause before writing this sentence just thinking more about it. Hm. This is one of those times where I kinda would like to write a long, researched, in-depth essay, but given my readership I’m not sure the juice is worth the squeeze. And you know I mean that because I hate that expression.

The film that surprised me the most:

Another Round – I was confident this would be a good film because people I trust recommended it, but I was surprised and delighted by the ways in which it is good, in addition to just, well, how very good it is. There’s a very basic version of this movie that could have been made – man has mid-life crisis and decides to drink all day to be in a better mood. Things get better for a little while with his job and his wife and kids. Then they get worse. Then they get better. That could have easily been a fun, funny, somewhat thought-provoking romantic comedy. Instead, it asks honest questions about ageing, about what it means to live and to live well, about who matters to us and how we matter to others. It’s about love and friendship and inhibition. And it is still fun and funny. It’s immensely watchable, moving, and provocative. I knew it would be good and I’d enjoy it – just not like this.

Favorite Performances

In no particular order:

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) – Flame emojis. The number of different things she has to do in this film, the range that she has to exhibit…it’s stunning. It’s a cunning choice Emerald Fennel makes to make Mulligan – through hair/makeup, wardrobe, and lighting – just really, really hot in this film, and Mulligan plays off that. She carries herself in a way that is so aware of the lascivious male gaze, but stares back with an uncanny ferocity. Oh now I’m remembering another really good piece of theory I could apply to this essay and oh no why did I leave school gahhhhhhhh….. Anyway. Just an absolute movie star performance that should announce Mulligan as one of the best in the game. I mean, I even fell for her chemistry with Bo Burnham, and I can’t stand Bo Burnham.

Mads Mikkelson (Another Round) – I had honestly forgotten that he’s Danish. It’s fun watching an actor get to use their native accent and/or language. But that’s mostly besides the point here; this is a convincing and authentic – to use tired acting clichés – performance. Each phase of Martin’s transformation is believable and Mikkelson’s drunk acting – like all four of the leads – has me wondering if they were actually slightly inebriated while filming. Mikkelson embodies this character in a way that shows a love and care for Martin’s pain and joy.

Steven Yeun (Minari) – Or, really, everyone in this film. Really great ensemble, including the kids. It adds so much when the kids are legitimately good, and not just passable. Yeun’s performance does a lot of storytelling. There is plenty of necessary exposition, but Minari also does a lot of “show don’t tell,” including in the ways the characters present themselves on screen. We know very quickly what kind of man, husband, and father Jacob is. He’s written and performed in a way that suggests Lee Isaac Chung and Yeun know this person in real life.

Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) – The desperation in Ahmed’s performance is riveting. The way he pleads with Lou to stay with him and the doctor’s to fix him. The anger as he smashes a morning donut or his sound mixing equipment. The anguish as he describes his view of the world to Joe. It’s a physical performance as big as his chiseled, tattooed body, and as intimate and subtle as his eyes and mouth. Raci is my personal Oscars victory. This is everything I want from a supporting performance, with the added difficulty of signing so much of his dialogue. His delivery of my favorite line in the film (which I’ll talk about later) destroyed me. De. Stroyt. Me. Those Oscars noms are delightfully sensible. Nice job, Academy.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) – I can’t say I liked watching this performance, but I thought she actually gave birth to that baby so, yeah. The film doesn’t totally work, but the first thirty minutes or so (a depiction of a home birth) is harrowing stuff, held down by Kirby’s work. Her final scene goes in the pantheon of courtroom performances.

Zendaya (Malcom & Marie) – Speaking of films that don’t totally work. If not for the excellence of Zendaya and John David Washington, this might have been one of the worst high-profile films in recent years. Zendaya especially is just fantastic. There’s plenty of room for capital a Acting, with crying and shouting and all that, but she already has such presence, command, and subtlety. She carries herself so well as the sexy woman who is full of self-doubt, as the girlfriend who is so over her boyfriend’s buffoonery, expressing herself through her physicality as well as some brilliant line-readings. It’s so exciting how many great young actors are working right now, and I hope I’m watching Zendaya in movies for a lifetime.

Favorite Moments

Again, in no particular order:

Malcolm X and Cassius Clay pray (One Night in Miami) – Early in the film, Cassius meets with Malcolm X to pray. As they stand next to each other with their hands folded, Malcolm reaches over and gently rearranges Cassius’ hands to be in the proper position for prayer. Those legendary hands, accustomed to beating opponents into submission, are finding their way into the submissive posture of worship, worship that will play a part in making one of these men a figurative martyr and the other a literal one. The film’s premise – an extended fictional conversation between X, Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke – intrigues because it allows us to see the big ideas these men were contending with ping around the room in plain conversation, but it is a small moment like this that makes this kind of fictional depiction a treasure. It’s a reminder that these supremely famous and influential humans were exactly that – humans. The fierce radical sometimes lent a gentle hand of correction. The Greatest humbled himself to learn a new way to live. It’s a small, small moment, but one of my favorites of the last year.

Honorable acknowledgement to the “Chain Gang” scene, which is a big showy moment, but absolutely hits the right notes (literally).

Cassie’s revenge (Promising Young Woman) – This scene is incredibly difficult to watch, but it is Fennel’s masterstroke. The text itself is devastating; Cassie, on the verge of revenge, is murdered. But the subtext is genius. Cassie has done all the work necessary to enact her revenge, using her smarts and bravery to expose Al on a bed, the site of so much violence against women. It would seem to be game, set, match – she’s going to win. And then Al breaks free of a literal handcuff and overpowers her, smothering her beneath a pillow until she suffocates. In the end, it didn’t matter what Cassie did; the man could still use his natural strength advantage to break free of the handcuffs and smother any threat that Cassie still carried. He is too strong in the arm for the literal constraint, too secure in his maleness for the synecdoche. For good measure, Cassie lies dead on the bed in a fairly obvious Christ pose. Women can do all the right things, but in the end that may not be enough for safety, or even for justice. While the ending of this film is the fantasy, the “hell yeah” conclusion to a revenge movie, this first ending is the bucket of cold water. Men have terrorized women because they can – not because of any failing on the part of women. It’s brilliant, brilliant filmmaking. I don’t ever want to watch it again though.

Harvesting minari (Minari) – It’s the perfect ending to the film. The film’s true, if not literal, beginning is a scene of Jacob, with his son, David, surveying the field he’s bought. It’s an intersection of his economic ambitions, his immigrant journey, and his fatherhood. The film ends with Jacob and David crouching down over the little minari herbs, harvesting the legacy David’s grandmother brought from Korea, the plant that persists in growing even in a strange new land, each sprig a sign of hope in the wake of the destruction of the year’s harvest, another symbol of Jacob’s labors and his relationship with his son. Minari is not an optimistic movie, and the ending leaves much unexplained – especially relating to the family’s economic future and Jacob and Monica’s marriage – but this quiet little moment is hopeful in a moment as tender as the plants the father and son collect from the earth.

Stillness / I thank you / You saved my life / ending (Sound of Metal) –

RUBEN: It’s time. I gotta do something. Right? Trying to save my fucking life. So that’s what I’m doing. Okay? No one else is gonna save my life. Right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I gonna have? Nothing. Okay? And all this shit? Like, what does it matter? What does it matter? It just passes. Yo, If I disappear, like, who cares? Nobody cares, man. Seriously. Yo, and that’s okay. That’s life. That’s life. No, for real, okay? It just passes, it just fucking…fucking passes.

JOE: I wonder, uh…all these moments you’ve been in my study – sitting – have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben, the world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, the moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.

This moment left a crater in me. It’s a point of culmination, but it also begins a sequence of scenes that carry through to the film’s conclusion. After the surgery does not deliver the results Ruben had hoped for, he goes to France to reunite with Lou. Lou’s father welcome him into the home and confesses to Ruben that it took him a long time to stop feeling like Ruben had stolen his daughter from him. But now he knows that’s not the case:

“And you…you…Well, you gave her a place to go. Then, and……this is a good thing. Don’t you see, I didn’t like you much at the time, but now I thank you. I want to say to you that.”

Later, as Ruben continues to struggle with the distorted audio of the hearing device, he finally has an intimate reunion with Lou (by the way Olivia Cooke is great and I hope she keeps doing movies like this). They lay in bed and kiss, and then talk about the uncertain future. Lou looks distressed as she itches at the self-harm cuts on her arm. There’s a long moment of silence – of stillness – as Ruben looks down at her hand. Then he raises his eyes to her.

RUBEN: Hey. It’s okay, Lou.

LOU: What?

RUBEN: It’s okay.

LOU: What’s okay?

RUBEN: You saved my life. You made it…you made it beautiful. So it’s okay.

LOU: What? Why are you saying this? [they embrace] You saved my life, too, Rubi.

Ruben was wrong. Someone would care if he disappeared. And in acknowledging what Lou has done for him, he tacitly accepts that his life is worth saving.

These scenes open the door for the final moments. Out for a walk, Ruben’s hearing still distorted by the device, he sits on a park bench and finally, in frustration, takes the device off his head. The sound cuts out, and finally a peaceful, contented expression forms on Ruben’s face as the film ends.

That’s just great cinematic storytelling.

So, in short, while the pandemic flipped the world of movies on its head, it was still an excellent year of film, and it’s terrific how accessible these titles are on streaming services. I hope you’ll seek them out and let me know what you think.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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