By John H. Foote
As Bob Dylan prophetically sung in the mournful, timely song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and indeed 2020 brought many changes that will be felt for years to come. The movie going experience, a collective experience since its creation over 100 years ago, might never be the same as COVID-19 shook the industry to its very foundation. Beyond the cancellation of release dates, of production on films, the industry has experienced the shutdown of theatres, meaning the studios became partners with their enemy, the streaming networks on the web.
I think going forward we will see a select number of films released into cinemas as road shows, on the same day they begin streaming for the major providers, though I believe each studio will do as Disney did, begin their own streaming service. At its core, movie watching will not change so much, the stories will still be told, and we gain the chance to see films in the privacy of our own homes, but that all important collective reaction of hundreds around you will be lost. Seeing something that feeds on audience reaction, such as The Exorcist (1973) or Airplane! (1980), will not play the same but will be every bit as good as originally thought.
When film was created, the naysayers said it would never work. It did.
When films became longer and longer, until finally in 1915 a three-hour film was released, they said it would never work. It did.
When sound came to the movies, again they fought it saying it would never catch on. Silent films died; sound films thrived.
When television exploded through the fifties and sixties, it was said film would gradually die off. Of course it did not.
Every new innovation was said to be the death of film, most recently computer-generated images used as special effects and finally with Toy Story (1995) a film created entirely within a computer. Again, they said it would never catch on.
Some of the finest films made since 1990 have been made with computer generated imagery (CGI).
And now we have the issue of streaming.
Face it, streaming new films is here to stay. Like it or not, it is not going away.
At the end of the day a story is a story, and while I prefer a film in a theatre, the big images allowing the experience to engulf the viewer, the sound superb, and if you fall into the film, nothing changes. So, streaming will be embraced, count on it.
The United States, mercifully, has a new President so how long before the films about Trump start racing towards us? Not long, trust me. Hollywood has always hated Trump, and I expect the films about he and his Presidency to reflect that.
COVID-19 impacted the entire planet, taking millions to their grave, young and old, this plague knows no mercy. Those who do survive describe the hell of the disease in brutal, grim detail. Everywhere I go I wear a mask, and frankly it did not take long for the masks to become fashionable. I have masks with logos of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Silence of the Lambs, Scorsese, Superman (for Nick), Batman (again, for Nick), E.T. and Jaws. They are cool, I like them, and it makes the wearing of the damned things at least fun (a little).
TIFF went ahead bravely, but obviously the festival was but a shadow of its usual self. I missed the energy of the city, the buzz inside the Lightbox and ScotiaBank cinemas, the chatter walking from film to film, seeing friends from other countries I have got to know through the years. It was a rough 10 days. Memories of festivals past danced in the landscape of memory, making the slimmed down version all the more tough to take. Instead of 300 plus films, we had around 50, and a lot of the heavyweights stayed home.
On screen we discovered many new young talents supporting major stars in new films. While we talk Oscars for Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Sacha Baron Cohen, we should be doing the same for their young co-stars, who were often the heart and souls of their films
So here we go – the annual 10 best list, and despite cancellations of many high profile Oscar potentials, there were some great films released this year.
Despite the many losses we endured this year, and they were tough losses no question, it has taught those listening that all we really need is each other. I hope the entire world was listening, but given our past, I have my doubts. Forever the cynic.
Here we go with the best of the year.
1. NEWS OF THE WORLD
Paul Greengrass directed this excellent western, the year’s best film that features Tom Hanks in the year’s finest performance by a leading actor. The actor reunites with his director of Captain Phillips (2013), one of his finest, most painful performances. As Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War, haunted by his memories of battle, gutted by the death of his wife, he now moves from town to town, reading the news from the newspapers he carries with him. Hoping to bring some degree hope to the townsfolk, reading about the events and happenings around the globe, he relishes in the information he brings to those living far from cities and larger towns. He takes into his charge a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who has spent most of her life raised by the Kiowa Indians who have turned her loose. Kidd decides he will take her to her surviving relatives, though she speaks no English and is suspicious of those she does not know. Hanks gives his finest performance since Cast Away (2000) and deserves to be in the Oscar race. Zengel is superb as Johanna, her trust of Kidd growing as the film moves forward, an intense bond growing between them. He believes bringing her to her people might offer her a chance of happiness in this life and might make right his past. Hanks captures the anguish of a man who has lost everything and sees in the girl a chance to redeem himself. Superbly directed, a thing of beauty. Absolutely one of the great modern westerns, masterful. Homages are paid to the classic westerns The Searchers (1956) and both versions of True Grit (1969/ 2010), and the cinematography in the westerns of the great John Ford. The land is as sparse and desolate as the story, once again proving westerns are deceptive in their simplicity.
A stunning film from the great David Fincher, the finest director working without an Academy Award. He should have won for The Social Network (2010), one of the most topical, urgent films of the decade. Here with Mank he is working from a screenplay written by his father, which explores the creation of the classic film Citizen Kane (1941), but instead of dealing directly with Orson Welles and Kane, the film explores the creation of the character by the writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank), portrayed with bluster and fury by Gary Oldman in a career best performance. Sadly, Oldman does not have a chance of winning as he won just a few short years ago for Darkest Hour (2017), portraying Winston Churchill, but was it the acting that won, or the make up? I never found Oldman captured Churchill as well as any of the other actors who have portrayed him, but here as Mank he is sensational. A known boozer, no one really takes him seriously until he fixes his sights on the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who will be the basis of his next script, Citizen Kane. Told by everyone who knows both he and Hearst not to make the film, he forges ahead anyway, forever making an enemy of the powerful man. Amanda Seyfried should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, giving the performance of her career and the year. The shimmering cinematography and superb production design plunge the viewer into Hollywood of old.
3. THE MIDNIGHT SKY
The eyes are truly the window to the soul are they not? Though I suspect I will take some heat for placing this Netflix film so high on the list, I bear no guilt in my admiration and love for the film. It touched me in a way few films this year have, and I could feel the finger of the deep emotion within stroking my soul. It is 2049. George Clooney is a gifted scientist, terminally ill, death impending while working in the Arctic when an extinction level event rolls across the earth, slow to get to the Arctic wasteland but no question, on the way. Incredibly he finds a little girl, Iris (Caoilinn Spingall), left behind when the station was evacuated and the two decide to go to a station to let the incoming spacecraft know not to land on earth. The craft has been away scouting another planet so humans can be moved there, and they have had success, thus being mankind’s last chance at carrying on with life. Taking the child with him across the Arctic they head for the tower, as the crew aboard the ship attempts to make a decision about entering the earth’s atmosphere. Clooney is superb as the beaten and dying scientist, who is more alone than he realizes in crossing the ferocious Arctic. Young Spingall is stunning as Iris, her eyes the soulful eyes of humanity, looking to Clooney for answers that might never come. The twist is a stunner and reminds me of what I was told when my wife died. When they come to us and do not speak, yet we understand their thoughts, we communicate, they are really there. It is not a dream. A bold, visionary work.
4. DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee finally takes on the war in Vietnam with this powerful film about a group of former soldiers who decide to go back to Vietnam, 50 years after their time there. They go for two reasons – one to bring home the remains of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) their platoon leader killed during combat, and two to retrieve the gold bars they hid in the earth. Old slights come to the surface, grudges come back, memories are tainted, and they are haunted by what happened during the war. They find the people they encounter have not forgotten either, their memories just as fresh as the former soldiers. Lee did not choose to use younger actors to portray the young versions of the men, instead he allows the older versions to relive their past as their current selves. It is a bold move that works like a dream. When the great Delroy Lindo finally is face to face with the ghost of Boseman’s Norman, his past reaches into the present and he finds peace, though his wails of torment will haunt you long after the film is over. Lindo gives a towering performance and Boseman is truly haunting, all the more so after his sudden passing. One of the year’s best, among the finest films Lee has directed and a work of art. Lee had previously taken on WWII in Miracle at St. Anna (2006) which I thought was terrible, but here his direction is confident, he is absolute control of the narrative. One of the most haunting war films ever made that makes clear the staggering impact of war on the psyche, it never leaves. Ever.
5. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
A colorful, nightmarish film seething with revenge, with ferocious rage, and a character you will not soon forget. Carey Mulligan gives the performance of her career as a young woman hellbent on revenge in this thrilling debut film from Emerald Fennell who pulls off a very tricky balancing act in this black comedy seething with inner rage. Cassie (Mulligan) has been wronged, horribly so, by men, so she takes it upon herself to bring a terrible revenge upon any predatory men she encounters, and the film is teeming with them. If we are honest we have seen these guys in every bar we have ever entered. They wait for women to be a bit tipsy and then move in. That is exactly what Cassie does, pretends to be smashed, allows the men to take her home or to their place, and then unleashes hell for what they are doing to her, and have done to countless others. Mulligan, with her sad eyes who seems to carry the weight of great pain on her slender shoulders, is a terrifying revelation as Cassie, a woman getting even for the crimes against not just her, but womankind. The film emerged from the Sundance Festival last January, and Mulligan’s performance as Cassie who is scorching the earth is astounding. She could and should win the Academy Award. Dark, troubling, deeply unsettling, it is howl of anguish and pain aimed directly at predators. Would they do this to their daughters, their mother, their sister? Deeply wounded, Mulligan manages to bring vulnerability, yet a towering strength to Cassie, who saw her life going in a very different direction before that night. Hell hath no fury …
6. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
I know very little about blues music, other than when I hear it. It is not my music of choice, but I understand the passion of it, just as I get the passion that goes into rock and roll, hell, all forms of art. Two unexpected performances dominate the film, each providing a jolt of energy that reminded me of the blinding power of a bolt of lightning hitting a tree. Viola Davis is astounding as Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues, who one day comes to a recording studio to record some songs, leaving the owners quaking in their boots at what her needs and wants will be this time. Knowing her songs keep the studio alive, she does indeed walk in with demands, but it is the way she walks in, with a confident strut a woman who is in absolute control and knows it. The band will play her songs the way she wants them played, they will speak when spoken to and they will avert their eyes away from her lady lover. All but one. Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is a cocky, enormously talented young trumpet player who sees the blues evolving and wishes to evolve with them. He has passed songs to the owner, who likes them, but knows to help Levee is to cross Ma, and he is not interested in going to war with her. No one is. And Levee continues to cross lines throughout the afternoon, going so far as having sex with Ma’s lady, trying to get her to play the songs his way, and challenging the other members of the band to grow up and speak up to her. Tensions boil over as one might expect and a terrible event closes the film, one we do not see coming unless familiar with the August Wilson play. Directed nicely by George Wolfe, the film cannot hide the fact the beginnings of this work came on the stage, but the design and costumes and recreation of depression Chicago are superb. Boseman and Davis are Oscar bound, no question and though I believe others are more deserving, each is in the talks to win.
7. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
For years this film has been in various stages of development, at one point with no less than Steven Spielberg directing, but as happens with many fine films they are years coming to the screen. Aaron Sorkin finally stepped in as director and writer, bringing to the screenplay his style of fast talking, loading information in a single paragraph. It is a talky film but in the language is great excitement. As urgent now as the events were in the late sixties, listen to every word, because as Arthur Miller said of Willy Loman, “attention must be paid”. A group of Vietnam war activists are charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In a year that saw the shootings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, ending hope in the United States, the youth railed against the war, making no bones of the fact they hated U.S. involvement and wanted it stopped. Among those charged and fighting for their lives in court were Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the famous counterculture warrior Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) who worries the others that he is there for publicity. The film is a legal thriller even though we know the ending, and watching the case and the legal minds snake their way through the system is thrilling. No doubt about it, corruption really does exist within the courts. Superb performances from the aforementioned Redmayne and Cohen (mesmerizing as Hoffman) go together with Mark Rylance, Frank Langella (insidious) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all potential Oscar nominees. An extraordinary ensemble guided beautifully by Sorkin.
There are towns so connected to the industry within, that when the industry dries up, so does the town, and the people living there. When her husband dies, the work dries up and she loses her home, Fern (Frances McDormand) outfits her van for living and hits the road as a modern-day nomad. Like a desert wanderer she moves from town to town, finding seasonal work to sustain her through another season and then returns, often finding the same people she knew from the previous year. Chloe Zhao brilliantly directs the film, giving it a documentary feel, and McDormand fits right in with a hyper realistic performance as Fern who, while out there, finds herself as a woman. Needing no one, needing no possessions other than what she can carry, she is freed for the first time in her life. We can feel the excitement building in her as this freedom is unleashed and for the first time in her life, replying to being asked if she is homeless, “I’m not homeless, I’m just … houseless.” A perfect answer. McDormand gives a vanity free performance, blending in beautifully with the non-actors, real life nomads in the film, a superb performance from one of cinema’s most resourceful actors. McDormand does her best work in her silent moments, eating alone, sitting by herself near a blazing campfire, working in factories saying nothing to anyone, inhabiting the role in every way. A brilliant film, to be sure, and though I do not believe it is as strong as other critics state, the genius within cannot be denied.
9. SOUND OF METAL
Riz Ahmed. Remember that name because you will be hearing it a lot during awards season and in the future. As Rueben, a heavy metal drummer decorated in tattoos, a recovering addict, his hair colored with peroxide, suddenly begins to go deaf, not a little but 80 to 90% and eventually all his hearing in a very short period of time. Imagine being an artist and your art depends on hearing, Beethoven comes to mind and suddenly you cannot hear a single thing? I cannot imagine; I doubt any of us can begin to imagine. Rueben has made bizarre choices his entire life, and though it might be easy to blame him, the punishment of losing his hearing makes laying blame impossible. To a musician is this not a fate worse than death? What will become of him? Ahmed gives a powerful, confident performance unravelling over losing what is to him, is his most important sense. I compared it to a film critic losing his sight, can you imagine not being able to see a film? I can still read the dialogue through subtitles, but to not see the imagery? No, I cannot imagine. Olivia Cooke (superb as always), fast becoming one of the best new actresses in movies, is superb as the lead singer/ girlfriend, but the film belongs to Ahmed, and the camera often lingers on him capturing his humanity and the reactions he has to what is happening to him. His eyes give us insight to his soul, and this is a truly miraculous performance. The film is flying under the radar but deserves attention.
10. THE OUTPOST and BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM (Tie)
I could not choose my tenth best of the year, as two films had equal merit, so I tied them, sue me.
The first is Rod Lurie’s incendiary, electrifying war film The Outpost, which might be the most realistic and startling such film since Saving Private Ryan (1998). Like Spielberg, Lurie plunges into the intense realism of combat, as the Taliban are just up the hill and attack sporadically through the day and night, meaning death could come at any time. Lurie captures the frayed nerves of the soldiers trying to stay alive, who know at any moment a bullet might shred its way through them or the man standing beside him; it is an unnerving remarkable achievement. The men in the Middle East deal with so much beyond the intensity of the heat, the desert, the rocky terrain, the tough living conditions, they deal more often with an enemy they simply do not understand. Not the language, they have translators, but they will never begin to understand what makes the Taliban tick, why they hate Americans, and the lengths they will go to in order to kill the Americans. A strong ensemble of actors makes the film work, but the star of this is the director who creates the finest work of his career and a war film for the ages. Could any of us live in such unbearable conditions and with tension like this?
An outrageous sequel to Borat (2006), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm from director-writer-actor Sasha Baron Cohen is every bit as subversive and daring as the first. One wonders where the screenplay starts and ends, as so much of the film is obviously made using real ambush situations including shocking Vice President Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani. Bolstered by a hysterical performance from newcomer Maria Bakalova as Tutar, Borat’s daughter – at the beginning little more than a feral animal kept in a cage in the barn, transformed into an absolute beauty while in America. The young actress goes through the film in a state of giddy bliss, thrilled at every happening in her life but most of all thrilled to be with her “Daddy”. The two make up one of the most hysterically comedic pairs in the history of the comedy cinema. Once again like the first, Borat is in America to deliver a gift to the high ups in American politics and when his daughter eats a famous monkey on her way over in the crate, having stowed away, the decision is to give the daughter to someone, anyone. But as Borat gets to know her, he discovers that she is more like him than his sons, and he begins to love her, seeing her as so much more than a mere girl, a piece of property.
- ON THE ROCKS
- THE ASSISTANT
- NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.