SIFF 2023

After taking 2022 off for personal reasons, I have purchased my first (non-digital only) full series pass to my local film festival, SIFF2023. Over the 2 ½ week runtime of the festival, I watched 33 features and 1 short in person along with another 11 features and 5 shorts online as part of the virtual fest. In lieu of full reviews for all films (which would take me months), I wanted to share my quick thoughts on everything that I saw.

Past Lives (Dir. Celine Song)

As beautiful as it is made out to be, Past Lives explores the space between platonic and romantic relations. It ponders what could have been and romanticizes the past while accepting that the present reality can also be beautiful. For her first time behind the camera, Celine Song possesses a preternatural instinct for creating an emotionally devastating piece of cinema. The closing seconds of the film were some of the most tear-jerking seconds of cinema in recent memory. I left the theater ugly crying all the way to the after party.


Retreat (Dir. Leon Schwitter)

An inauspicious start to the first proper day of the film festival, Retreat was beautifully shot but lacking substance. A little character motivation from the father besides, “things are bad” would have gone a long way. The ending was significantly darker than I was expecting and left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.


Angry Annie (Dir. Blandine Lenoir)

In the wake of the overturning of Roe, a slew of abortion related historical dramas have come out. Angry Annie is a solid outing in that undertaking with a stellar performance by Laure Calamy as the titular woman. And while it falls a little to trap of telling over showing in its later moments, it’s still a wonderful timely telling of a story that needs to be told at this point in time.


King Coal (Dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon)

A documentary on the cultural significance of coal to the Appalachia region, and the hole that the decreased reliance on the fossil fuel has on the people who live and work there. By focusing on a pair of young girls who are seeing the world around them change as quickly as they are, King Coal stays grounded in a unique perspective.


The Night of the 12th (Dir. Dominik Moll)

The multiple César winning The Night of the 12th is an intriguing police procedural about an enigma of a real-life case. The film is well acted and keeps viewers on the edge of their seat as each additional ex-boyfriend appears more guilty than the last. While the film was very good, I don’t believe it lives up to the award winning hype.


The Eight Mountains (Dir. Felix van Groeningen)

The beautiful Cannes winner tells the story of two male friends who’s destiney is tied together in the mountains around where they met as children. The film had the best cinematography of the festival, but its two-and-a-half-hour runtime was longer than necessary and the film declined to end at many natural concluding spots.


Harka (Dir. Lotfy Nathan)

Harka was a very dark portrayal of poverty in Tunisia. Really strong design decisions stood out in this dirty drama. The filthiness of Ali’s (Adam Bessa) single shirt and construction zone turned one room home created the depressing tone for the film. The ending was exactly what it had to be, but the added surrealism to the moment sells the film.


Falcon Lake (Dir. Charlotte Le Bon)

Falcon Lake presents its traditional coming of age story as if it were a horror film. Editing and score decisions amplify this decision, and the horror aesthetic works well for the adolescent story as that time can feel like a horror movie at the time. The young Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit put in solid performances and sell the mysteries of adolescence.


Year of the Fox (Dir. Megan Griffiths)

A rough first outing with a really stilted screenplay and dialogue left this coming-of-age film feeling hollow. The voice over from Ivy (Sarah Jeffery) was exceptionally detrimental to the film. I unfortunately have very little positive to say about the film, but I know others enjoyed it so take that as you will.

Filip (Dir. Michal Kwiecinski)

With a stellar lead performance by Erk Kulm as the titular Filip at the center of it, Filip was a great WWII drama that focused on the life of a Jewish Pole living undercover in a Nazi occupied hotel. The film takes a unique look at WWI by focusing on the life of people livening under occupation but not in the camps.


And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine (Dir. Axel Danielson)

A documentary about the power of cameras and media. And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine is filled with intriguing imagery, though the message of the film gets a little blurred. The film becomes less about the power of the camera and more about the power of televised fascism.


Passages (Dir. Ira Sachs)

Ira Sachs continues to be an enigma to me. I have wanted to like all his films, and I have never disliked any of them, but I have also yet to feel a real connection to one. Passages was no different, as the sex filled, love triangle drama was intriguing if not engrossing. The complexities of being a bisexual man exploring sex with women for the first time in years makes for a solid story; it just didn’t resonate with me.


Until Branches Bend (Dir. Sophie Jarvis)

This Erin Brockovich story lives entirely on the lead performance of Grace Glowicki as Robin, a woman who finds a beetle inside a peach and creates an uproar over it. Glowicki is wonderful in the film, and she manages to encapsulate the uncertainty of the reality she lives in when the tow around her starts to gaslight her on what she saw.


Monica (Dir. Andrea Pallaoro)

The first of three trans related films I went out of my way to see explores a trans woman’s connection to her mother even years after abandonment. By staying hidden throughout her visit Monica (Trace Lysette) is allowed a small amount of closure, but the distance never closes in a way that hits close to home.


A House in Jerusalem (Dir. Muayad Alayan)

A ghost story that isn’t scary and a pro-Palestine narrative that is completely buried, A House in Jerusalem misses the mark on most axes.


Matria (Dir. Álvaro Gago Díaz)

Matria reminded me of a Dardenne Brothers film. A story of a working-class woman forced to endure extreme circumstances but still finds a way to preserver. The moments of joy she allows herself while the world around her crashes is the highlight of the film.


Motherland (Dir. Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich)

Two very different documentaries combined into one messy one, Motherland firstly tries to tell the story of bullying in the Belarusian army, but through lack of access to any of the violent acts resorts to additionally focusing on a group of boys partying after being enlisted but before entering the army. The two stories don’t mesh and make for a confusing 90 minutes.


The Blue Caftan (Dir. Maryam Touzani)

Breathtakingly beautiful, The Blue Caftan lives in closeups in soft focus of the three lead actors Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri, and Ayoub Missioui along with longing shots of the gorgeous fabrics and threads used to make the handmade caftans. What is obsessively a love triangle story is filled with love and adoration between all three characters. The Blue Caftan is destined to go down as one of the year’s finest films.


Hole in the Head (Dir. Dean Kavanagh)

My one walk out of the festival, Hole in the Head attempted to be Dean Kavanagh’s version of My Winnipeg, but without the style and skill of a Guy Maddin, the film rends itself unwatchable.


Next Sohee (Dir. July Jung)

The story of a young, South Korean woman who kills herself under the pressure of an externship at a call center and the woman detective who follows her case, Next Sohee plays out as two separate stories stapled together. While each are excellent on their own, the combining of the two was a little inelegant.


Confessions of a Good Samaritan (Dir. Penny Lane)

Penny Lane’s documentaries are always an enjoyable, highly stylized bit of fun and Confessions is no different. Her most personal film to date perfectly captures her neurosis as she goes through the process of donating a kidney to a stranger. Funny and well edited Lane continues to be a director to seek out.


When it Melts (Dir. Veerle Baetens)

The darkest film of the festival, When it Melts explores the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. By cutting back and forth between Eva as an adult (Charlotte De Bruyne) and a child (Rosa Marchant) Veerle Baetens tells a twisted story that can only end in one way and that way is devastating.


Other People’s Children (Dir. Rebecca Zlotowski)

A loving tale of a woman who becomes attached to her boyfriend’s young daughter; Other People’s Children is heartwarming. Virginie Efirais excellent asRachel the women in question, and her connection not just to the young Leila, but all the young people in her life make her the ideal mother just without a child of her own. My only complaint is that the film could have used another round of editing, the epilogue in particular either needed to be cut or more flushed out beforehand.


L’ immensità (Dir. Emanuele Crialese)

Penélope Cruz as the mother of a trans boy, what’s not to love? Unfortunately quite a lot as L’ immensità just didn’t quite hit. With three out of nowhere musical numbers, and an occasional glimpse into fantasy, this film didn’t know what it wanted to be and failed for that.


Plan 75 (Dir. Chie Hayakawa)

Set in near future Japan, Plan 75 proposes a world where the elderly can choose to be euthanized to help remedy a society that has aged. Given that premise, the film explores it from three viewpoints, Michi (Chieko Baishô) a woman considering signing up for the program, Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) a man signing people up for the program, and Maria (Stefanie Arianne) a woman working at a facility. The film plays with the moral implications of the program in a way that doesn’t judge but makes you think.


20,000 Species of Bees (Dir. Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren)

It may have taken me a few days to realize it, but 20,000 Species of Bees was my favorite film of the festival. Whether or not it is the best film of the festival may be up for debate, but nothing hit me personally. Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren manages to perfectly capture the mix of confusion and gender bliss that a young trans person experiences while figuring out who they are. Sofía Otero plays the 8-year-old Lucía beautifully. I’m starting to tear up just thinking about the film I love it so much.


Sonne (Dir. Kurdwin Ayub)

This film baffled me. It centered around an Iraqi teen Yesmin (Melina Benli) living in Austira. She and her friends do teen like things include making a viral video of them singing Losing My Religion by R.E.M.. Weirdly though the film introduces plot points throughout the film without ever following up on them. Near the end I finally started getting on board with the all vibes no plot follow through but it ended before I could entirely get it.


Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia (Dir. Julien Chheng and Jean-Christophe Roger)

An absolute delight, the sequel to 2012’s Ernest and Celestine has just as much if not more heart. The bear and mouse pair get into more adventures in Ernest’s hometown of Gibberitia where music has been banned, and obviously that means the score and diegetic music are the highlights of the film.


Let the River Flow (Dir. Ole Giæver)

Let the River flow is the tale of Ester (Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen), a Norwegian passing Sámi woman who embraces her indigenous identity to join a resistance against a dam that threatens Sámi land. A moving tale against colonialism and about finding power in who you are.


Dreamin’ Wild (Dir. Bill Pohlad)

Bill Pohlad, the Love & Mercy director returns for another music biopic, this time about the Emerson Brothers. Headlined by Casey Affleck who is as sure a bet for a great performance as there is in Hollywood today, the film captures the unbelievable story of the two brothers as they learn their 30-year-old album has become one of the hottest tickets in the music industry.


Blue Jean (Dir. Georgia Oakley)

Lesbianism in the era of Margaret Thatcher, Blue Jean tells the story of a gay gym teacher who while in a loving relationship finds the need to keep things hidden to keep her job. When she sees one of her students at the gay bar with her, she needs to balance being a good gay role model with protecting herself. This dichotomy is perfectly realized in the excellent film by Georgia Oakley.


The Hummingbird (Dir. Francesca Archibugi)

The first half of The Hummingbird showed great promise from director Francesca Archibugi. The editing between timelines was seamless and orchestrated wonderfully to create a coherent story despite taking place in half a dozen eras. Unfortunately, the second half introduced more plotlines that were not as interesting, and the tight editing fell away.


Time Traveling Through Time (Dir. Ryan Ward)

A comedic, short homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée is more interesting in premise than in practice.


LOLA (Dir. Andrew Legge)

My final in person film of the festival was a packed house to see this black and white science fiction. The women lead super geniuses who invent a form of time travel and use it to change the outcome of WWII was unique and a great while not the absolute best film of the festival was a fun way to close it out.


26.2 to Life (Dir. Christine Yoo)

Rehabilitiation stories are something I’m always open to receiving, and 26.2 to Life does a great job of humanizing the inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Christine Yoo uses the running program as a gateway to investigate the lives of the men who use it as an escape and a way to stay connected to life.


Satan Wants You (Dir. Steve J. Adams)

An intriguing documentary on the satanic panic scare and its source – The 1980 memoir Michelle Remembers, Satan Wants You as a rather cut and dry talking head documentary, but the subject matter is what draws you in.


Inglorious Liaisons (Dir. Chloé Alliez)

A unique depiction of teenagers (all portrayed by painted electric plugs and on/off switches). The short portrays what it’s like to be a closeted lesbian when everyone around you pushes you to get together with the cute boy.


Now I’m in the Kitchen (Dir. Yana Pan)

A very short sketchy animation about a woman remembering the impact her mother had on her through the catalyst of the kitchen.


The Voice in the Hollow (Dir. Miguel Ortega)

Very interesting art style, but a pretty bland story.


Europe by Bidon (Dir. Samuel Albaric and Thomas Trichet)

A rather boring animated short of a man trying to immigrate to Europe.


Pipes (Dir. Kilian Feusi, Jessica Meier, and Sujanth Ravichandran)

A very short, animated film of a bear fixing pipes in an underground gay club. Funny and sex positive.


Egghead & Twinkie (Dir. Sarah Kambe Holland)

Zoomer Scott Pilgrim but make it gay. I enjoyed Egghead & Twinkie substantially more than I thought I would. Not all the sequences worked as well as others, but it was still a fun coming of age story with a lot of style and a lot of heart. A great promise at what Zoomer cinema will look like.


Hanging Gardens (Dir. Ahmed Yassin Aldaradji)

What if Lars and the Real Girl, were about a very young Iraqi boy. That’s essentially the premise of Hanging Gardens where the young As’ad finds a sex doll and sells the use of it for money while slowly becoming over protective of his findings.


Bad Press (Dir. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler)

An eye-opening documentary about something I knew nothing about (the lack of freedom of press in most Native American territories). The film follows a story of one papers struggle after their nation repealed the freedom of press act.


Adolfo ( Dir. Sofía Auza)

Everyone wants to make the next Before Sunrise, and few people succeed. Adolfo is an overly quirky version of the trope does not end up as one of the better ones.


A Letter from Helga (Dir. Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir)

A Letter from Helga is a very slow film, and while that’s not a death knell for me – many of my favorite films would qualify as slow cinema – If you can’t create the right mood the slowness becomes boring. Unfortunately, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s latest outing falls into the boring camp.


Le Coyote (Dir. Katherine Jerkovic)

A man agrees to take on the son of his heroin addicted, estranged daughter while she goes to rehab in this quiet, understated film. Very slow and very quiet to the point of it being distracting watching at home as pat of SIFF’s virtual festival.


Douglas Sirk – Hope as in Despair (Dir. Roman Huben)

An extremely dry documentary about the renowned melodrama filmmaker, Douglas Sirk. I love Sirk and am interested in learning more about him, but even with that I struggled to pay attention to the film it was so barren of style.


Snow and the Bear (Dir. Selcen Ergun)

In a part of Turkey where winter never seems to end a nurse Aslı (Merve Dizdar) arrives in a small town where the local doctor is unable to reach and begins her compulsory service. The film is a perfect watch on a scorching hot summer day as director Selcen Ergun captures the cold in a way that will chill anyone to the bone.


20 Days in Mariupol (Dir. Mstyslav Chernov)

Horrific and gruesome, 20 Days in Mariupol uses its unprecedented access to war torn Ukraine to create a moving documentary. That said, outside of proximity, the documentary doesn’t bring anything new to the medium. Still a miraculous story to tell.


Eternals: Quiet in a Loud Genre

Where Chloé Zhao filmed Marvel's Eternals: the locations that stood in for  the Amazon rainforest, Alaska and ancient Babylon | South China Morning Post

Eternals, the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is proving to be one of the most divisive in the series. Much of the divide amongst both critics and audience alike can be attributable to Academy Award Winning director Chloé Zhao’s quieter sensibilities. Her penchant for tone poems may have made her a peculiar choice for the action heavy genre, but her more subdued style is a welcome breath of air for a genre that can be frantic at times.

While the film is inherently plot driven, with countless action scenes as Marvel requires in all their films, Chloé Zhao keeps an emotional arch at the center of her film.  By the start of the movie, Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden) and the rest of the Eternals have lived for millennia. In that time, they have experienced countless lifetimes of emotion; they’ve experienced both endless joy and heartbreak. Sersi and Ikaris have spent eons in a loving relationship, and just as much time hurtfully apart. This baggage weighs heavily on Sersi as she begins a new emotional journey with a mortal, Dane (Kit Harington). When the deviants, the creatures the Eternals were sent on Earth to destroy, return, Ikaris and Sersi are thrust back together forcing Sersi to process her emotional baggage so she can fully commit to a relationship with Dane. This is the emotional core that Zhao relies upon to bring something personal and relatable to the loud franchise.

The strongest parts of the film for building these characters are the extensive flashbacks. In these, each of the Eternals in turn experiences a defining moment of their long lives. These often don’t come in battle, but in helping the humans progress and live fuller lives. For example, sitting down with a mortal cooking a simple dinner imbues Sirsi with empathy that guides her life for the centuries to come. These moments are where Zhao’s voice comes through the loudest. She enables her characters to evolve on their own without plot dictating what they should become. While it is still much more restrained version of Zhao’s other work, her auteurial signature pushes through, nonetheless.

Where Zhao’s influence is felt the least is unfortunately in the entire third act during which all character nuance is disregarded so that an overblown fight can take place. This fight sequence could fit in just fine with any other film in the Marvel library, but Zhao was building to something more. Her film deserved a more emotionally driven climax as part of the action. Instead, the film falls prey to the same soulless fight sequences that fans of Marvel fans have seen dozens of times before.

Eternals more than any other Marvel film allowed the distinct voice of its director to shine through the standard formula. Her use of flashbacks allowed her the slower pacing she uses so well to ensure that her characters develop organically. However, a completely disconnected third act leaves the film feeling like two separate entities. Zhao’s influence comes back for the film’s resolution and is strong enough throughout to warrant a recommendation. It would just be nice to see Marvel trust their directors with complete control of a film rather than micromanage all the action sequences.

Bergman Island

Bergman Island' Movie Streaming Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Perennial festival darling Mia Hansen-Løve returns for another film that is destined to receive plenty of critical acclaim if not much commercia success. Bergman Island like all Hansen-Løve films focuses on mastering the intimate to tell a story that is both incredibly specific and eminently relatable at the same time.

Bergman Island tells the story of Chris (Vicky Krieps) who follows her husband Tony (Tim Roth) to the titular Bergman Island to work on her next film while her husband teaches a series of masterclasses. After a prolonged bout with writer’s block, she takes inspiration from her surroundings and writes most of her next project. The second half of the movie cuts between the movie’s reality and the Chris’s eventual film within the film starring Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph.

Set on the isle of Fårö, Bergman Island leans heavily on the rich cinematic history of its setting. Hansen-Løve fills her camera with iconic imagery whenever possible but does not let the film turn into a simple travel brochure. Everything is in subservience of her characters. Chris, Tony, and Amy are all filmmakers, so their connection to the island and its famous locations provides a reason for the shots of Bergman’s legacy. The balance of utilizing her setting and but not letting the setting use her is a real strength Hansen-Løve shows throughout the film.

The film’s genius shines through the most in the second half when telling of Chris’s in progress movie leads to a blend of reality. Amy and Joseph while creations of Chris’s work also serve as proxies for the married couple. Hansen-Løve is a master of character work, and these doppelgangers allow her to flex those muscles. Chris and Tony’s relationship and life circumstances are dissimilar from that of Amy and Joseph and yet Hansen-Løve finds the through lines and creates a rich tapestry of human emotions and relations for the viewer to sample.

In her latest outing, director Mia Hansen-Løve delivers another superb picture featuring her strength of capturing interpersonal relationships. Her lead characters that the complexities of their emotions are front and center to the story. The stunt location decision feeds into her story seamlessly without becoming a distraction, and the decision to utilize a film within a film builds wonderful character depth. Bergman Island is a wonderful specimen of quiet yet deeply personal storytelling.

Army of the Dead: Too Much Style, Too Little Substance

Army of the Dead review: Zack Snyder bets on brainless zombie flick - CNET

Fresh off the success of his four-hour cut of Justice League (2021), Zack Snyder takes his screenplay that had been stuck in development hell for years and uses his current goodwill to jump behind the camera and make the film himself.

Army of the Dead sells itself as a George Romero zombie film mixed with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward a mercenary for hire who assembles a crew to infiltrate the walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas. The goal is to steal the $200 million from an underground vault before the government nukes the city in hopes of containing the outbreak.

The script for Army of the Dead is a mess. It has very awkward pacing – highlighted by a far too long prologue – and is filled with numerous things for YouTube cynics to nitpick. The script’s largest issue comes from the film’s supposed emotional center. Scott uses the heist as an excuse to reunite with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works as a volunteer in a camp adjacent to the walled off Vegas. She is clearly meant to be who the audience resonates with as Scott is a cold protagonist. Before the reunion with her father, Kate makes a pact with her friend who is being forcefully held in the camp that if she attempts to escape – which must be done through the infested city – Kate will watch her friend’s children until they can be reunited. As Scott and the others are preparing to enter the city, Kate realizes that her friend did in fact enter Vegas but has not emerged leaving the children abandoned. This sets up a powerful dilemma for Kate, but instead of exploring that Snyder simply uses it as an excuse to force Kate into the city with her father and completely forgets about the abandoned children. In a script filled with head scratching moments, denying the film its natural heart is the most damaging to the film.

While Snyder may have looked to Romero and Soderbergh for inspiration, the only director whose influence Snyder truly takes to heart is his own. Romero’s Living Dead films were filled with social commentary from a man with a lot to say on the subject. Snyder on the other hand is extremely misanthropic, and this deprives the film of any meaningful commentary. While the film sets up for the potential of an immigration story, the open-air detention facility is purely used as a plot contrivance and then promptly ignored for more action. Zack Snyder does not care to use his platform to create an allegory. This same misanthropy is also at the heart of why Snyder struggles to capture the wit in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. While the film is filled with jokes, each of them is mean spirited and come at the expense of someone. This provides none of the levity that drives the Soderbergh’s films and instead creates an unpleasantness which causes the film to feel a slog.

If the film fails to capture the essence of the narrative’s inspirations, Snyder does at least perfectly replicate his own style. Every shot is stylized to the point at which it ceases to have any connection to reality. For the first time, Snyder chose to sit directly behind the camera and shoot his own film, and his personal vision does not work well as a cinematography. In service of making every shot interesting, he kept the depth of field extremely shallow often putting important characters behind a soft focus for no discernible reason. Just as a film should not use exclusively flat shots, one also should not always employ extreme composition techniques. This flawed decision is further amplified by Snyder’s signature desaturated color pallet – a decision which completely wastes using the gaudy Vegas Strip as a setting. The result is a film that is actively straining on the eyes to watch.

Snyder’s other stylistic signatures are present as well. The film makes liberal use of bullet time imagery and dramatic rewinds to create entertaining set pieces. This is where the film is most comfortable, creating graphic violence by and against the zombies. Unfortunately, this positive aspect of the film becomes gratuitous at times, and the interesting visual flare does little to counteract the numerous other flaws.

Zack Snyder was intimately involved in nearly every part of Army of the Dead and his presence comes across clearly on the screen. The film is not without vision, but vision alone does not create a good film. Between a nonexistent theme, the misanthropic souring of narrative tropes, and a headache inducing visual style, Army of the Dead is the most Zach Snyder film in the worst way. Snyder is best when subject to some restraint, and it is clear that no one felt comfortable telling him “no” for this endeavor.

Top 25 Films of 2020

This is the latest that I’ve released my year end list in a long while, but 2020 was a weird year so it is what it is. Even taking an extra 2 (closer to 3 now that I’m actually finishing) weeks to put together my list, between the closure of theaters and rampant depression I still watched fewer new releases than I normally do by the end of the year. That said, while I may be pulling from a smaller pool, I stand by every film on this list. Maybe they wouldn’t all make this list it on a more normal year, but I full heartedly recommend each and every one of them.

25. Emma (Autumn de Wilde)

Emma. movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert

To be clear, Clueless (1995, Dir. Amy Heckerling) is still the all-time best rendition of the Jane Austen classic, but Autumn de Wilde’s more direct telling is excellent in its own way. Anya Taylor-Joy had an impressive year, and that started with her wonderful depiction of the titular character. Taylor-Joy manages to perfectly balance the character’s manipulative nature with her naivety. Her lovely performance combines with the colorful set design and costuming to create a memorable first entry to my list.

24. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)

Wolfwalkers' Review: Stunning Irish Toon on Apple TV Plus - Variety

The best animated feature that I saw in 2020 wasn’t either of Pixar’s offerings, but instead Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers. Like their previous two pictures, The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), the film evokes more of the classical Disney style than the mega-studio has had in its own films for years. They manage to create wonderfully kid-first animation that still appeals to adults without forcing the voice of comedians or awkwardly inserting adult jokes. Instead Wolfwalkers appeals to adults the same way it appeals to children, with drop dead gorgeous animation and a lovely story.

23. The Lodge (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)

Riley Keough is outstanding in 'The Lodge,' a disturbing horror film

Normally when a film has its release date pushed from November to February that is a sign of a train wreck. This is especially concerning when the film debuted at Sundance the January prior, so the delay wasn’t a matter of an unfinished film. And yet, The Lodge is a wonderfully executed, twisted horror film. The heavy usage of religious imagery works well as the film toys with the difference between culturally acceptable piousness and cult fanaticism. Even the blinding white snow which the film uses to create a completely isolated location acts as a religious purity symbol. The Lodge was a film that should not be forgotten from the pre-lockdown era of 2020.

22. Driveways (Andrew Ahn)

Driveways' Is the Best Movie I've Seen All Year | InStyle

While I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that melodrama is inherently a negative in filmmaking, there is a lot to be said for a film that can tackle heavy topics while remaining grounded. Andrew Ahn’s Driveways accomplishes this well in its telling of a single mom and her son’s ability to cope with hardships. The scenario the two are put in is more than should be asked of people in their situation, but not more than frequently is put upon people. By keeping the film so realistic, the overall message is elevated. We could see ourselves in Kathy’s (Hong Chau) predicament, and the way that she and her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) thrive through everything inspires us to believe we could do the same. The limited movie magic makes the impact all the stronger.

21. Saint Frances (Alex Thompson)

Saint Frances' Review: Millennial Disaffection Gets Fresh New Voice |  IndieWire

In contrast to the subtle Driveways, Saint Frances is more brash with its message, and at times it almost comes across as a bit manipulative, but I love it all the same. Much of my love for the film stems from how connected I feel to Kelly O’Sullivan’s character Bridget. Years after the spike in movies about young 20 somethings many of us who resonated with those characters still feel as lost now in our 30s left behind by the capitalist system that served our parents. Saint Frances perfectly delivers on that still present niche, and the young Ramona Edith Williams as Frances is wonderful as the unexpected directional beacon for Bridget. Is this film one that I think is destined to be taught in film school for years to come? No, but I love it just all same.

20. Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

Women and Reclaiming the Self, at Any Cost, in Swallow | The Mary Sue

I wrote a lot about this one in one of my daily posts, and in that I talked a on end about how it is a representation of repressive patriarchal hierarchies. What I don’t think I delved into nearly enough then was how perfect Haley Bennett is as Hunter. She puts on a timid front when interacting with her husband’s affluent family, clearly uncomfortable with the position she has been thrust into. However, when she decides to take her first “selfish” action her eyes light up and the timid exterior becomes one of self-fulfillment. As an actress she manages to ever so slightly change her performance to allow the audience in on her joy while still being convincing that those around her wouldn’t notice.

19. Undine (Christian Petzold)

Undine (2020) Movie Review from Eye for Film

I missed the film Christian Petzold made between Phoenix (2015) and Undine; I don’t know if Transit (2019) would have prepared me for the tonal shift between the films, but I was not expecting the twists Undine took me down. Paula Beer is wonderful as the unhinged title character who is driven by love and vengeful to any man who dare scorn her. Her elevated performance combined with the oversaturated colors helps to create the fairytale imagery which allow the film to transition from love triangle melodrama to a unique twist on a Hans Christian Andersen classic.

18. The Nest (Sean Durkin)

The Nest Is One of the Best Films of the Year | Vanity Fair

Sean Durkin may have only made two films to date, but both Marth Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Nest prove that he is a director who can build extreme tension through the banal. On its surface, The Nest is a drama about marital struggles: tragic but not thrilling. Jude Law aptly captures Rory a man increasingly detached from reality, but it’s Carrie Coon as his wife Allison who really shines. As the desperation of their predicament becomes apparent to her, she refuses to put on airs like her husband. A brilliant depiction of upper-class desperation.

17. Run (Aneesh Chaganty)

Sarah Paulson Lionsgate Movie 'Run' Flees The Big Screen For Hulu – Deadline

It almost saddens me that Aneesh Chaganty would follow up his groundbreaking feature debut Searching (2018) with a film as conventional as Run, but while it may lack the technical gimmick of his first film, Run lacks none of the impact. First time actress Kiera Allen is the standout performance in the horror film. She allows Chloe to be a teenage first, horror film participant second. This means balancing the naivety of one who doesn’t know much about the outside world (especially given her mom’s homeschooling and overprotection) with the craftiness of teens who have little respect for anyone older than them. Her performance is perfectly complimented by Sarah Paulson’s descent into madness as her mother Diane. I look forward to what Chaganty does next now that he has proven his versatility.

16. World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)

Don Hertzfeldt Teases 'World of Tomorrow' Ep. 3 | Animation Magazine

I was very specific when talking about Wolfwalkers above to call it the best animated FEATURE of the year, because for the third time straight time, Don Hertzfeldt has struck gold with his World of Tomorrow shorts. Missing from this entry is the delightful ramblings of Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae, but as she would now be 9 years old it’s understandable. Instead, the film focuses on the later clones of Emily and the search for her love from the man she first met as a clone in an art exhibit. Each of the shorts have gotten longer, and denser, but Don Hertzfeldt still manages to touch on the deeply personal with each entry.

15. Kajillionaire (Miranda July)

Kajillionaire Review | Movie - Empire

Kajillionaire is a movie that feels both like a natural fit with Miranda July’s prior work and like a movie completely separate from her first two outings. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011) are my go to examples for what the term twee means in popular media. Kajillionaire trades that saccharine demeanor for a relatively darker pessimistic one. The way that Kajillionaire feels in kind with the other films is that they all exist in a world parallel to ours. Excluding the talking cat in The Future, all her films theoretically could take place in our universe, there’s no explicitly fantastical elements to them, but the people in her films don’t act like people do in reality. The three family members Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) are parodies of scammers, but that doesn’t make the commentary any less prescient. I think I’ve always wanted this film from July, something with her quirky outlook, but one that doesn’t rot your teeth out.

14. Small Axe: Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen's Mangrove, From His Small Axe Anthology, Gets First Trailer  | Movies | Empire

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology was one of the more intriguing items to come out in 2020. All in all, I’ve been on the record of being a little mixed on the project. By essentially putting out 5 feature films in 1 year, he ended up spreading himself a little thin. Not all of the entries hold up to what I expect from a Steve McQueen film. Still, in the best of the entries, McQueen continues to be one of the best filmmakers working today. Mangrove is McQueen’s take on the courtroom drama, and it delivers on every aspect of the genre. The righteous Mangrove Nine, headlined by a standout performance from Letitia Wright, fight against the injustice of the inherently racist London police department. Every argument resonates as the Nine fight for their freedom.

13. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)

Montclair Film Festival Review: 'Minari' is an Intimate Look at  Assimilation - Awards Radar

When casing child actors, unobtrusive is normally a best-case scenario, yet Alan S. Kim in Minari gives one of those rare child performances that holds an entire film together. Kim plays David a young Korean boy with a heart condition caught in the middle of his dad blindly following the American dream and his mother holding onto as much of Korea as she can. David doesn’t really understand what’s going on but knows that he’s been forced into a position where he’s different and he resents it. Kim balances the joy he receives pranking his character’s grandma (played marvelously by Youn Yuh-jung) with the genuine terror when she is sick. A great film that is elevated by the performance of a child.

12. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)

American Utopia' review: Spike Lee directs David Byrne - Los Angeles Times

Is this really a movie? Does it matter? Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Jon Olb) was on my list in 2018 and Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles) was on 2016’s, so if those counted for me then, I see no reason why David Byrne’s American Utopia can’t make it onto my list this year. Musical documentaries are undeniably more difficult to distinguish from their music than other films are from performances. I’m perfectly capable of liking a movie starring an actor I don’t like, but I don’t think I could say the same about a concert film. Even still, my love for David Byrne’s and the Talking Heads’s music is not what stands out in this film; It’s the performance. Filled to the brim with rudimentary yet striking choreography and use of camera angles that offer a completely unique view of the show, Spike Lee helps deliver the second masterpiece of a concert film to David Byrne’s credit.

11. Time (Garrett Bradley)

Time' Review - Variety

Created primarily from home video footage, Time feels like the most pertinent documentary for the age we live in. While not explicitly a Black Lives Matter film, the movement has everything to do with the film’s premise. Rob Rich may be in jail for a valid reason, few people would consider armed robbery acceptable, but he would not have had to make that decision if society didn’t constantly push Black people down and leave the family desperate. Time focuses on Fox’s, the wife of Rob, attempts to get him out of jail while juggling the raising of their six boys. The composition from Fox’s own hand camera creates a familiarity with the subject matter and induce empathy from the viewer. Eras in the film pass in a blur on screen much how it must feel for the Rich family living without their patriarch. No film captured the Black struggle as eloquently this year.

10. Shirley (Josephine Decker)

Shirley review – Elisabeth Moss anchors darkly compelling literary  psychodrama | Sundance 2020 | The Guardian

I said the same thing last year with respect to her performance in Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry), but Elisabeth Moss is a genuine movie star and really needs to be recognized for more than just her television work. In her most recent film, she plays the acclaimed horror writer, the titular Shirley Jackson who is at an apparent low point in her life. Co-star Odessa Young plays Rose, Shirley’s temporary caretaker and is also outstanding in the film. The two play off each other exploring the power dynamics between the haves and have nots. Even when Shirley is bedridden and Rose should be in complete control, Moss’s acting clearly identifies that this is never the case. No matter how mentally unstable Shirley is, she is always manipulating the situation until she has complete control over Rose’s mind.

9. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

Another Round" Review: A Beautiful Look at the Bottom of the Bottle

Mads Mikkelsen drunkenly dancing at the end of this film is the most fun 3 minutes I had in 2020 movies and succinctly encapsulates the themes of Another Round. Mikkelsen’s Martin and his friends have been playing a dangerous game where they attempted to live life at constant state of inebriation. As one would expect, this has some negative consequences for the group, but it also leads them to some of the highest highs they’ve had in their middle life. Mikkelsen’s jubilant dancing at the end reflects the urge to return to the bottle and chase those highs once more. Vinterberg refuses to deny the enjoyment his characters receive through their self-destructive habit.

8. The Assistant (Kitty Green)

Watch The Assistant | Prime Video

The Assistant was the last film that I saw in theaters before the lockdown, and it was also the first great film I saw this year. Kitty Green managed to create an impressively tense drama for those with the patience to watch it. Rocking the impressive 92% to 25% critic to audience score on Rotten tomatoes, The Assistant is a perfect encapsulation of where my tastes differ from the average movie going public. I’m not looking for spectacle (not that there is anything wrong with looking for it in your entertainment); instead, I’m looking for subtle nuances that provoke a more genuine emotional response from me. Actor Julia Garner as Jane portrays the helplessness of a young woman attempting to navigate a workplace predisposed to cover for her boss’s indiscretions. Every moment of the film is poignant in its ability to express awfulness without explicitly showing anything.

7. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

The Noise of Time / TNT: Beanpole (Дылда): Conversation with Kantemir  Balagov

More than the story or the acting performance, what stands out to me the most about Beanpole is how the visuals blend the grotesque with the beautiful. Taking place in post war Leningrad the surroundings for Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are bleak. They are stuck sharing a bed in a communal building with dilapidated walls. Their clothing is mostly in tatters, and the only new dress they are ever able to wear is merely on loan and even that they stain. Yet through all the grime the two live though, the colors absolutely pop. Almost everything in the film is a shade of green or red, and the color tinting of the film make them all painfully vibrant. This dichotomy of the visuals mirror that of the film. Everything is awful, but there remains enough vibrance to get the two women through.

6. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)

Dick Johnson Is Dead | Netflix Official Site

Dick Johnson is Dead does something that many of my favorite documentaries of the past 10 years have done: use fiction as a mechanism to process fact. Spoiler warning, but Dick Johnson is not in fact dead, but like all of us he will be some day. Kirsten Johnson the director and daughter of Dick understands that one day he will be no more and prepares for that eventuality by filming increasingly extravagant ways for her father to die. These staged performances are really just excuses for she and her father to spend quality time together, time that has been hard to come by while she’s spent the better part of two decades traveling the globe making films. By allowing her and her father’s intimate conversations to be captured on camera through the making of the film, we as viewers learn not just a lot about their relationship, but also on how one prepares for the inevitability of when the ones we love pass away.

5. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

Promising Young Woman: the ending, explained - Vox

Promising Young Woman is not a subtle film, but it’s not trying to be. Emerald Fennell had a vision for a brash, angry film about the injustices young women are forced to endure so as not to inconvenience young men, and with the help of her star and executive producer Carey Mulligan she delivered a film which will likely be remembered for years. Mulligan plays Cassandra, a woman whose life was permanently changed by the actions of young men. Mulligan is what makes this film as great as it is. She manages to perfectly capture the trauma of her character allowing the audience to sympathize with her, even as she does some unsavory things. She understands that everything her character does is a coping mechanism for the trauma she may never get over, and never revels in the revenge she exacts. There is no joy to be had, but each conquest at least dulls the pain for a little bit.

4. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Could Steve McQueen start a lovers rock revival with Small Axe? | Reggae |  The Guardian

The other of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to make my list, and while Mangrove was a great courtroom drama, Lovers Rock is a great Steve McQueen film. When I think about McQueen’s film, I instinctively think of long scenes. I think of the 17-minute scene of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) talking to the priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (2008) and of Chiwetel Ejiofor tiptoeing to avoid asphyxiation in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Rather than those two though, Lovers Rock long scene instead harkens back to a scene from my personal favorite McQueen film Shame (2012) where Carey Mulligan extends the 3-minute Frank Sinatra Classic to nearly 5. This extended cut of the song is almost painful in it’s beauty, and the same can be said with the Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ scene in Lovers Rock. The 3 ½-minute song is looped and extended to 10 full minutes which is likely not something that would have ever happened in the reggae party depicted. It’s in that fantasy space, however, that the film transports us into the room. We feel the sublime joy of the party goers as they find a momentary escape from the prejudiced world on the other side of the sweltering walls housing the party.

3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

First Cow movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert

First Cow is actually one of my least favorite Kelly Reichardt films, but even a middling Reichardt film is easily one of the best films of the year. Cookie played wonderfully by John Magaro is one of the most sympathetic characters to ever be brought to screen. He’s just a young man with domestic sensibilities trapped on the frontier. Magaro captures the kindhearted Cookie by portraying him as extremely soft-spoken and caring. Even when he and his friend King-Lu (Orion Lee) start stealing milk to bake cakes for profit, it’s clear that King-Lu is doing so for the freedom the capital will bring the pair while Cookie just loves cooking for his fellow man. He wants nothing more than to be in the service industry. Even if the two men have slightly different goals, Reichardt manages to recapture the spark from one of her first films Old Joy (2006) by delivering a tranquil tale of male friendship devoid of machismo posturing.

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always' is the best film of 2020. That's it | Movie  Reviews & Stories | Orlando | Orlando Weekly

A trick to making it near the top of one of my year end list is to make me sob uncontrollably, yet not feel exploitative when doing so. Never Rarely Sometimes Always accomplished that multiple times in its runtime. The most obvious instance of this happening is during the scene from which the film takes its name. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is sitting in a planned parenthood office to get an abortion. We know that she is pregnant, but we don’t know much in the way of the details about how it happened. When the nurse asks the standard questionnaire for which Autumn is to answer with one of the words in the film’s title, we learn that the circumstances of the teenager’s sex life are more insidious than careless. As the questions become more personal and cut deeper Flanigan’s performance turns tragic. Instead of answering all she can do is cry, all the viewer can do is cry, all I can do simply remembering this scene is cry.

1. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

Nomadland' Leads Oscars Race With TIFF 2020 Audience Win

Sometimes picking my number one film of the year is difficult. There have even been years where I’ve changed my order while writing the list as some film touches me in a certain way. This year was not one of those years. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was number one with a bullet this year. Her 2018 film The Rider would have been extremely high on my list that year had I seen it before writing, and Nomadland matches Zhao’s perfect direction with a stellar performance from Frances McDormand. McDormand’s Fern is a fully actualized character. She lives her nomad life partially because of trauma but also partially out of love for the lifestyle. The movie passes no judgment on the nomads she encounters, many of whom are non-actors essentially playing themselves. Instead Nomadland does what most great films do, explore an aspect of the human condition.

Oscar Ballot 2020 (If I had a Vote)

Image result for oscars 2020 banner

The Oscars are my version of the Superbowl, and after frantically filling in my blind spots this past month, I’ve, for the 3rd year in a row, been better than most actual voting members of the Academy and watched every nominated film. In preparation for tonight’s show, allow me to share what I’d vote for in all 24 categories.

Visual Effects – The Lion King

While I did not especially care for the impact the visuals had on the recreation of The Lion King, I can’t deny that they were impressive. The animated photo-realism is a technical marvel even if the film falls flat.

Costume – Little Women

The costume design in Little Women is both gorgeous and serves as a detail to explain the class differential between the characters.

Makeup and Hairstyling – Bombshell

The three leads in Bombshell go through great transformations through their hair and makeup. Charlize Theron’s transformation into Megyn Kelly is particularly eerie in it’s accuracy.

Production Design – Parasite

Both houses in Parasite are wonders of production design. The contrast between the dirty basement dwelling and the modern million dollar household plays well to the themes of the film.

Sound Editing – 1917

The war sounds in 1917 are immersive in their accuracy. Each bullet and explosion fell real.

Sound Mixing – 1917

Similarly, the mixing in 1917 is excellent. The blending of quiet stealth moments with loud action scenes create great contrast. Where the mixing stands out the most is late in the film when a song slowly crescendos as Lance Corporal Schofield staggers through a forest.

Original Song – (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again (Rocketman)

I feel somewhat weird voting on the music categories, because I don’t have the objective knowledge to judge them like I do with film, but of the songs nominated, I liked “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” the best so it get’s my vote.

Original Score – Joke

I did not like Joker, and I do not think it’s a very good movie. That said, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is magnificent. Eerie and foreboding while still being extremely melodic and captivating, her score is the highlight of the film and in a perfect world would be the only Oscar it received.

Editing – Parasite

By cutting back and forth from planning to scheme, Parasite‘s tension is amplified cementing it in the thriller genre.

Cinematography – 1917

The most obvious of the categories, Roger Deakins “one-take” 1917 is impressively beautiful. The night scene in particular is some of the best photography I’ve seen.

Short Film, Live Action – A Sister

This was probably the weakest category this year, but A Sister was a worthy winner. A really tense portrayal of a car ride gone wrong, and the lengths women need to go to be safe.

Short Film, Animated – Kitbull

Was I won over by a cute cat video? Yes, yes I was.

Short Film, Documentary – Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

A strong category this year, but the joy of watching the Afghan girls learn to skateboard and find confidence made this my pick.

Documentary Feature – For Sama

My favorite film nominated for any Oscar this year, For Sama‘s framing of the film as a gift for the director’s baby Sama brought a personal flare that left me shaken by it’s power.

Animated Feature – I Lost My Body

A young man trying to find meaning in life and a severed hand searching for it’s body all backed by great animation and a stellar score make it the best animated feature of the year.

International Film – Pain and Glory

Yes Parasite is amazing and will undoubtedly win, but Pain and Glory is the best movie Almodóvar has ever made and it’s extremely personal story is in my opinion the best international film of the year.

Adapted Screenplay – Little Women

Previous adaptations of Little Women have always struggled with the condensing of two books into one movie resulting in subsequent three act structures. By telling the story non-linearly, Gerwig managed to be freed of that issue in a beautiful way.

Original Screenplay – Marriage Story

Marriage Story is getting the most recognition for it’s acting, and while all the nominated performances are amazing, the underlying screenplay gave them a superb starting place.

Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

When watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Brad Pitt stands out as just having a lot of fun. Be it cruising through the streets of late 60’s LA, brawling with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), or beating up members of the Manson family while high on acid, Pitt’s presence is always enjoyable.

Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Dern as the cutthroat Lawyer with a sugar coated exterior is the best performance in a film filled with best performances. Her sympathy for Johansson’s Nicole is endearing, but her shrewdness sneaks through when she goes on the offensive in court. All together, an intricately balanced performance.

Lead Actor – Antonio Banderes (Pain and Glory)

Banderes’s performance as the aging and pain ridden Salvador Mallo, a not so subtle Almodóvar stand-in, is subtle in it’s brilliance. He’s tortured by the demons in his past, but he internalizes them letting them destroy his life. The Oscar will undoubtedly go to the flashy Joaquin Phoenix performance, but if you’re looking for the best acting and not the most acting, it should be Banderes.

Lead Actress – Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Renée Zellweger was so good as Judy Garland that I find myself singing the movie’s praises when really she’s the only reason to see it. That said it is worth seeing just for her performance.

Director – Bon Joon Ho (Parasite)

Parasite is the most meticulously put together film of the year. It has the strongest auteurial voice. The tension and intensity stem directly through Bon Joon Ho’s decision at the head of the film.

Picture – Marriage Story

Not the best movie of the year (though I did have it at number three), but between an immaculate screenplay, and strong performances through out, Marriage Story is the movie I recommend to people over almost anything else released this year. It’s personal and emotional and would be a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar.