In the last installment of my movie review roundups I expressed some concern about new movies in 2020 due to the pandemic. Thankfully I was wrong: while many big budget movies were delayed, 2020 turned out to be a great year for new indie and medium budget movies debuting on streaming services.
Surprisingly three movies on this list take place right here in San Francisco, which I was not aware of going in to any of them.
So in no well thought out order here’s what I watched in the latter half of the year.
An outcast actress named Allison who was deemed “difficult to work with” tries forging her own path by becoming an indie filmmaker. She’s sharing a giant cabin in the woods near a lake with an unmarried couple with a child on the way. The couple doesn’t get along at all and after a series of arguments and too much wine, all three of them become the third wheels of the trio.
Without spoiling too much there’s a film within a film aspect happening here which is revealed about halfway through. What’s real? Who’s acting and to what extent? Is this all imaginary?
This film has some great moments and plenty of thoughtful dark comedy. But it ultimately just made me go re-watch Mulholland Dr. again. Both movies share very similar neo-noir and film-within-a-film concepts. However, Black Bear doesn’t feed on the uncertainty it creates nearly as well as Mulholland Dr., which makes it the weaker — though more approachable — of the two films.
Best moment: When the first twist hits, and you realize in retrospect that you should have seen it coming a mile away.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character from Da Ali G Show is back for a second film. This time there’s more upfront explanation of the backstory, which starts to drag after a while despite some genuinely hilarious moments. The gist is that once again Borat is coming to America, but this time he’s stuck with his 15 year old daughter Tutar who, naturally, lives in a cage.
Cohen’s typical cringe comedy antics are on display here with various disguises, trying to learn about different aspects of American society and failing miserably, etc.
While you’ve probably already read about at least one spoiler for the movie, there are plenty of shocking moments that surprisingly did NOT make the news. Perhaps that’s more of a testament to 2020’s crazy news cycle than what happens in the movie though. And yes, that Rudy Giuliani scene is far more alarming than it was made out to be in the news.
One unfortunate aspect of this movie’s distribution on Amazon is that you will most likely have to enable subtitles to understand certain scenes as their player — at least for me — didn’t turn on subtitles automatically for non-English scenes.
Although I have to admit I didn’t see the twist ending coming, this particular style of prank/cringe comedy is so widely imitated these days that it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when Cohen debuted his Borat character two decades ago, let alone his more recent efforts like Who Is America. But it’s still a wild movie with plenty of uncomfortable laughs.
Best moment: Professional babysitter Jeanise Jones who isn’t just the only sane person in the entire movie, but actually cares about Tutar’s well being.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
This is the story of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests in Chicago told primarily through a courtroom drama and flashbacks to a Vietnam War protest.
Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen also starred in this movie, cast perfectly as 1960’s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman. It’s hardly the only spot-on casting choice in this film though it’s interesting that Cohen appeared in two very different political films this year.
Let me point out that the film gets a lot of things correct, in particular the ideological clashing between the protestors themselves and the courtroom antics. It also gets the gist of the case correct with the judge being unsympathetic to the defendants, how the defendants should have been tried separately (if at all), and most notably that you don’t want a high profile jester in the court, let alone two — Hoffman and Rubin.
At the same time, I think the film’s flashbacks undercut the true story with a variety of embellishments from inventing new characters to inaccurate representations of events.
Taking some liberties with a true story clearly worked for writer (and director here) Aaron Sorkin before with his script for The Social Network, yet this time his tale fizzles out as he attempts to dramatize a much better known story that simply doesn’t need any additional drama. The actors manage to elevate the material from time to time but can’t salvage it entirely.
The biggest issue is there never seems to be any justification as to why this story needed to be told in 2020. I appreciate not being hit over the head with an obvious message, but the parallels to Trump’s America could have at least been ever so slightly underlined.
Best moment: Hoffman and Rubin’s courtroom antics are all funny, but the best one was when they came in dressed in judicial robes. And yes, that’s based on a real event.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Remember Sega? Remember their iconic 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games? For a lot of people the answer to both questions is going to be a resounding no, which leads to a pretty obvious question: who is this movie made for? That was the main question I went into with this one and I’m still not sure I entirely have an answer.
While it’s a pretty universal law that all movies based on video games are going to be bad, a notion cemented by 1993’s Super Mario Bros., in Sonic the Hedgehog thankfully nobody is taking anything seriously. This is a movie well aware of its own absurdity.
The story setup is basically this: after being hunted on his home world, the speedy Sonic the Hedgehog is given a bag of rings that let him teleport to other planets. He winds up on Earth in a small town and eventually befriends a sheriff’s officer named Tom who’s on his way to becoming a police officer in San Francisco.
Meanwhile after Sonic accidentally causes a power outage, the Pentagon decides to bring in Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist played by a mustache-twirling Jim Carey, to hunt down and eliminate the problem.
My expectations were low going in and while I can’t say Sonic is going to be a classic film by any means, it’s a reliable and fun diversion. Not every joke lands — or even most of them to be honest — though the movie manages to capture a similar feel to not-very-serious comic book movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.
Best moment: The mix of real footage and computer animation is solid throughout the movie — if I had to pick just one example I’d go with the bar fight scene. The animation is particularly remarkable as Sonic’s design underwent significant alterations shortly before release.
The Invisible Man
This new adaptation of The Invisible Man is very loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel, so if you’ve read it or seen the previous film adaptations you’ll still be going in fresh. Even the genre has shifted slightly to lean on horror more than science fiction.
Cecilia is trapped in a controlling relationship with her husband, an optics engineering genius named Adrian. One night she makes an escape with the help of her sister and goes to live with a detective friend for her safety.
Cecilia soon gets the news that Adrian has killed himself, a relief at first… but given the title of the movie you can easily guess where this is headed.
Can’t say too much more about the plot without going into spoilers. Check out the trailer though, which provides the gist of the story while slightly misdirecting the viewer. At least one scene in the trailer is not even in the movie.
Overall I enjoyed this film. Like the best horror movies it keeps the audience guessing without revealing the villain too soon, for obvious reasons in this case. The cinematography masterfully presents empty space as potentially treacherous. For a two hour film it manages to keep viewers on their toes until the very end.
My only complaint is why set this in San Francisco when only the establishing shots are filmed here? Places have their own distinct visual language and it’s distracting when it doesn’t line up with what’s presented on screen, occasionally breaking the tension.
Best moment: The big reveal and its immediate aftermath. Can’t much more without going into spoiler territory, except that it’s the best kind of jump scare: the one you’ll anticipate long in advance.
Feels Good Man
This documentary is like peeling back the layers of an onion to explain a strange phenomenon; an alt-right internet meme that started out as an innocent and completely unrelated comic.
Matt Furie, a soft spoken San Francisco artist created a comic called Boys Club while working at Community Thrift. One of the characters in the comic is Pepe the Frog, a humanoid with a frog head. At one point Pepe takes his pants off to pee while standing up with the dialog “feels good man.” For various reasons both this phrase and the image of Pepe become an instant internet meme, eventually finding its way to the 4chan imageboard popular with disenfranchised basement dweller types.
Matt Furie initially ignores the spread of Pepe across the internet until it becomes classified as a hate symbol after being associated with white supremacy. Far too long after it’s spiraled out of control Furie decides to fight back, officially killing off the character and suing sellers of counterfeit Pepe merchandise such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Oh and just like the “doge” meme before it, Pepe becomes the mascot of a cryptocurrency because of course it does.
Much of the film centers on interviews with Furie and his wife with a mix of archival footage and animation. Self-described druid John Michael Greer is presented as a voice of reason in this completely insane story.
It’s a very well put together documentary and while I do recommend it at times it comes across as a little too sensationalized. I legitimately do feel bad for Matt Furie though.
Best moment: On a personal note as someone who’s been stopping by Community Thrift here in San Francisco every now and then for ages, this one surprised me. If anything I’d expect an anarchist zine to come out of that place.
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns hasn’t had a hit in decades. To make matters worse they now have to write a song to unite the world and don’t have much time to do it; not only is time itself collapsing, but a killer robot named Dennis is coming after them. Given access to their old time traveling phone booth they decide to go into the future and attempt to steal the song from their future selves
Meanwhile their respective daughters — Billie and Thea, naturally — borrow a more modern time machine to recruit some of the best musicians from throughout history to join their dads’ band.
Going in I was skeptical of a sequel to a funny but old pair of movies from nearly 30 years ago. Turns out when the concept essentially boils down to an absurd lighthearted comedy with time travel, outdated slang, and music, there’s plenty to room to craft a ridiculous tale that only needs to be fleshed out enough to get from one funny moment to the next. What more can you expect from a Bill & Ted movie, dude?
My only real complaint is it left me wanting to learn more about Billie & Thea’s relationship as it felt like a one-note joke here. That said the last half of the movie really delivers. In terms of making a new entry in a movie series from decades ago I’d rate this as a solid effort.
Stay for the post-credits sequence which is most excellent, my dudes.
Best moment: A posthumous George Carlin “hologram” as a nod to the previous two films.
Normally I won’t see a film just because of who’s in it, but after seeing Mads Mikkelsen’s eccentric performances in everything from Casino Royale to the Hannibal television series, I’ve been curious to see him in a film from his home country of Denmark. When this one appeared on my radar with good critical reviews I figured why not, if you’ll pardon the pun, give it a shot?
Another Round is an original dark comedy about a middle aged teacher named Martin (Mikkelsen) at the equivalent of a high school in Copenhagen. He’s stuck in a rut, rarely gets to see his wife, and when his students (and their parents) blame him for their bad grades it seems clear his interest in life is fading.
In the first quarter or so of the film we see Martin and three of his fellow school employees bond over drinks. One of them gets to talking about an obscure philosopher who once remarked that humans were born with a blood alcohol content 0.05% too low. This leads to an experiment starting with Martin taking a swig of vodka in the school bathroom. Soon all four of them become day drinkers.
Best moment: Again I’m steering clear of spoilers here but the ending is very memorable and surprisingly fun.
The Last Blockbuster
Remember Blockbuster Video? Even though most of us probably associate Blockbuster with fees for not rewinding your tapes, the company didn’t go under until well into the age of DVDs. Despite the company’s demise a few franchisees held on — and now there’s only one left.
This documentary presents several different angles about Blockbuster: nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, the rise and fall of Blockbuster corporate, and a look at the life of the woman who runs the last Blockbuster.
The first two aspects of the film are largely through talking heads. The nostalgia angle is covered by the likes of director Kevin Smith and comedian Brian Posehn, the latter of whom rented VCRs since he couldn’t afford to buy one.
Likewise a separate roundup of talking heads familiar with Blockbuster’s business guide us through how the company started, the tactics they used to muscle out (or acquire) their local competitors, and ultimately why the company didn’t make it.
And finally we also get the story of Sandi, the woman running the last Blockbuster. She’s a very hands-on type who does everything from purchasing movies to solving IT issues. Her family and various current and former employees from the store are interviewed along with her. These glimpses into the daily life at the store end with Sandi trying to figure out how the store can survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the film the number of remaining stores steadily decreases, despite the efforts of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight promoting the three remaining Blockbusters in Alaska by sending one of them memorabilia from Russell Crowe movies.
While all these individual stories and tidbits are interesting, unfortunately they hardly overlap enough to make for a cohesive documentary. It banks so heavily on (frankly, undeserved) nostalgia that it struggles to find a good argument for why Blockbuster should still exist as a physical store. Many of the people we see treat the last Blockbuster more like a living museum than an actual store. Even Sandi herself seems nostalgic, looking backward rather than to the future.
Best moment: Gen-Xers remembering how they struggled to find a good date night movie at Blockbuster. I laughed out loud at this, as though younger generations don’t spend time scrolling through Netflix or whatever for the same reason.
Wild Mountain Thyme
Perhaps the weirdest movie of the year — but not necessarily for the intended reasons. The movie kicks off with Christopher Walken’s character telling us he’s dead before backtracking a couple years.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. The real problem with this movie are the Irish accents, which seem evenly split between “actual Irish actor” to “failed an audition for a Lucky Charms commercial.” Walken in particular doesn’t sound like he’s even trying. The differences are so jarring it’s hard to believe these actors are even in the same scenes together.
Getting back to the story it’s about a man named Anthony Reilly and a woman named Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) who work neighboring farms in Ireland. The two are clearly in love but too stubborn to do anything about it.
This all changes one day when Anthony’s cousin (Jon Hamm) comes to town from New York City with eyes not only on the farm, but on Rosemary as well.
Aside from the accents the big problem with this movie is the script: the dialog is cheesy, the characters are flimsy with little backstory, and there’s no real sense of pacing.
Whereas an average movie tends to sag in the middle, Wild Mountain Thyme’s entire first half is largely pointless. It’s all very day-dreamy filler until Jon Hamm shows up and kicks the story in motion. From the halfway mark it’s at least enjoyable, if not completely obvious where it’s headed.
At some point I had to stop the movie and look up if it was written by an Irish or American screenwriter. Turns out it was written and directed by an Irish-American living in NYC. I’ve never been less surprised in my entire life.
Best moment: Any moment Emily Blunt is on screen as she’s the only actor trying to make this idiotic movie work.
I Used To Go Here
Kate is a writer whose first book “Seasons Passed” isn’t selling well and her book tour has been cancelled as a result. This comedy film more or less begins when Kate’s former writing professor invites her for a reading at her old college (hence the name of the film) and she jumps at the chance.
From there it turns into a predictable nostalgia trip for Kate, catching up with old friends and meeting the new batch of roommates who live in the same home she used to.
The characters are very much cookie cutter tropes, which is fine for a comedy. I mean if you expected Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun movies to have any character development, you were watching the wrong movie. But what works fine for a comedy (and worked for the first two acts of this movie) doesn’t work when it shifts suddenly into a drama in the last act. A drama with no well established stakes simply cannot work.
While I will have to say this is a funny movie with a lot of sharp jokes and cringey moments, the ending let all the steam out for me. That said it’s not a long movie so it’s tough to complain too much about something I got a kick out of, even if it didn’t work entirely.
Best moment: The line “Honestly I just can’t think of a good lie here,” which I may have to use if I’m ever in a similar situation.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Lucy goes on a long drive with her new boyfriend Jesse, despite her apathetic feelings toward him, to meet his parents. During the drive they have a long, philosophical, and meandering conversation filled with silent pauses. During the silent moments, Lucy’s inner thoughts are presented to us as a voiceover, with Jesse’s voice interrupting her internal monologue.
During the ride Lucy recites a poem she wrote about the dread of coming home, which foretells what’s about to come.
The meeting with parents gets inexplicably awkward at first, with her boyfriend’s embarrassingly oversharing mom telling uncomfortable stories about Jesse’s childhood.
Soon various shifts and jumps happen which I won’t spoil here, other than to add that a (seemingly) different story cuts in here and there.
If you liked Charlie Kaufman’s other movies (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) you’ll probably find much to like in this movie’s maze of dream logic. Otherwise you might consider checking out those earlier films first.
Best moment: Whatever moment you first notice that something is off, which I’d suspect is a little different for each viewer.
A tough young American man suffering from severe amnesia wakes up in an army base in Burma, proceeding to kick everyone’s ass with his bare hands for no clear reason. After being reunited with his team of fellow ass-kickers it’s revealed his name is Jake — and he’s a key part of their mission.
Jake soon meets the eccentric Wylie (Nicolas Cage) who explains the backstory: an alien fighter named Brax returns to Earth regularly and, according to legend, demands a “fair” fight for some definition of fair that is never explained. The stakes? If Brax isn’t satisfied it’s the end of life on Earth.
As you can easily guess from the above description this is not a good movie. At the same time it’s not the unwatchable schlock some critics made it out to be. Yes, the story is very thin, the CGI is mediocre, and cinematography is wildly inconsistent.
Yet at the same time the story is so goofy and the fight scenes have such laughable sound effects (whoosh! whip!) that it’s clearly an homage to action comedy movies from twenty plus years ago. Come to think of it, if this came out in the 1990’s it would probably feature Jackie Chan. Even the major plot points are so absurd and often inconsequential I couldn’t help but to laugh at them.
Best moment: Whenever Nicolas Cage is on screen doing his thing. Unfortunately despite receiving top billing that’s maybe 20 minutes of the entire movie at most.
Joe, a music teacher at a New York City middle school is tiring of his students’ poor performances just as he’s offered a full time teaching position. Meanwhile he’s excited by an offer to perform on stage with a famous jazz musician at a local club, foreshadowing that if he could perform with her he could “die a happy man.”
So naturally after auditioning for the part, Joe dies and ends up in a cartoon pastel-colored purgatory of sorts where all of the administrators are abstract beings named “Jerry.” In this afterlife the former and future souls appear as Smurf-like caricatures of themselves.
Unlike most of Pixar’s works, Soul focuses on an adult character facing adult issues. I suspect children might find Soul watchable or even fun but won’t fully appreciate it.
Which leads me to my only complaint about this film. If Pixar can pull off a unique story like this that can only be told through animation, why does it need to be dumbed down with a sense of humor for six year olds? I wish Pixar’s writers weren’t always so bound to Disney’s “we need a comic relief character” mentality. But then again, Hollywood seems addicted to making movies for children (and adult children) so it wouldn’t be entirely fair to take out these general annoyances on this particular film.
Best moment: Joe’s cartoonish walk past a number of dangerous obstacles before he inevitably enters the purgatory.