DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—
With the onset of quarantine in March and all of us Denisonians now (hopefully) remaining on the Hill, it can easily seem like 2020 is “the year with no movies.” For sure, most blockbusters that would have been on most everyone’s radar have been postponed, and no-one (smart) is seeing movies in theaters nowadays. However, I’m here to dispel the notion that 2020 has offered no new releases worth your time – new releases which you can watch in the comfort of your own home.
“Bad Education” (HBO Max)
This one has stuck with me much more than I would’ve expected it to. Inspired by the largest public school embezzlement scandal in history, HBO’s “Bad Education” is primarily the story of Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the beloved superintendent of a Long Island school district who is secretly stealing from the school he simultaneously seeks to make #1 in the country. The film weaponizes Jackman’s movie star charisma; even as the curtain is unveiled further and further, it’s hard to truly hate Tassone. Between “Bad Education” and his previous feature “Thoroughbreds” (2017), director Cory Finley has a clear fixation on and deep skill in dissecting the rot particular to East Coast Suburbia (as a product of this environment myself, I was genuinely shocked to discover Finley is a St. Louis native, considering he’d managed to paint so accurate a picture both times).
“Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix)
“Da 5 Bloods” is both the latest Spike Lee joint and a reckoning 47 years in the making. This Netflix-released film focuses on a quartet of African-American Vietnam War vets who reunite in the country they once waged war upon; the “Bloods” hope to recover the remains of their squad leader “Stormin Norman” (the recently-deceased and gone-far-too-soon Chadwick Boseman, RIP) and a crate of gold bars buried alongside him. With “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee examines the inherent contradiction of African-American soldiers – they’re risking their lives for a country that has only devalued black lives throughout its history. This refusal to elide historical fact sets “Da 5 Bloods” apart from many lesser entries in its genre; indeed, sections of the film feature newsreel intercut with the filmed footage.
“The Gentlemen” (YouTube)
After a decade of being a studio gun-for-hire pumping out middling-at-best reimaginations of old-school properties, Guy Ritchie is back in “Limey Tarantino” mode with “The Gentlemen.” Matthew McConaughey is Mickey Pearson, a drug kingpin seeking to get out of the life; the story of his attempts to do so are complicated yet nonsense, so I won’t bother recapping them. The joy of the film stems from its ensemble cast , stand-outs being Hugh Grant as tabloid journalist Fletcher, Colin Farrell as gym owner/street tough “Coach,” and a criminally underused Michelle Dockery as Pearson’s wife Rosalind. “The Gentlemen” is a fairly slight film overall, but by the end of it, I was entertained.
“The Half Of It” (Netflix)
Another Netflix-exclusive, “The Half Of It” centers on a love-triangle, but in a less than straightforward way. Introverted, closeted Ellie (Leah Lewis) agrees to ghost-write love letters to Aster (Alexxis Lemire) on behalf of Football-playing Paul (Daniel Diemer). Unbeknownst to Paul, Ellie is infatuated with Aster herself. The irony of the situation forms the film’s dramatic foundation; Ellie wields the words which can connect with Aster but can’t express those feelings upfront, while Paul can approach her despite having nothing to connect with her about. If you haven’t guessed, the movie’s message is “Love is messy,” even in genuinely platonic friendships, as Ellie and Paul’s relationship develops into.
“The Invisible Man” (YouTube)
Sometimes, dredging up a familiar story and putting a new twist on it works. That’s exactly what director Leigh Whannell did with HG Wells’ “The Invisible Man.” Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her abusive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seemingly commits suicide therafter. Finding herself tormented by an unseen presence, Cecilia begins to suspect Adrian may not be gone after all. This reworking of the premise turns “The Invisible Man,” into a potent metaphor for gaslighting and the haunting, lingering trauma of abuse. The film’s technical merits warrant just as much praise – Whannell does an excellent job laying out the geography of spaces, and shows notable restraint when choosing to break the audience’s sustained paranoia for more overt nightmare fuel. You won’t find much relief from this absence of jump scares, however; the nature of the film’s antagonist means that empty space is often just as scary as anything else.
“Mrs. America” (Hulu)
Ok, this one’s technically a mini-series but as a whole it’s still some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year so I’m counting it – sue me. Aired on Hulu and developed by “Mad Men” alum Dahvi Waller, “Mrs. America” charts the 1970s in the United States through the lens of the Equal Rights Amendment; the mini-series follows both the Amendment’s supporters, such as Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and opponents, organized by Phylis Schlaffly (Cate Blanchett), with each episode having a different central POV character. The series humanizes Schlaffly in the sense that you understand what drives her, but it most certainly does not make her sympathetic – the irony of her, that she hindered the advancement of women as a whole in a pursuit of personal power, is hammered in across the series’ 9 episodes. That Blanchett mines the character for all she’s worth and remains watchable in the process further cements that she’s a once-in-a-generation talent.
“Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” (Prime Video)
Eliza Hittman’s “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” is a movie so truly down-to-earth it can feel like a documentary. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a rural Pennsylvania teen trapped in abusive relationships on both the familial and romantic side; her already challenging life is worsened when she discovers she’s pregnant. Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), a handful of cash in tow, hop a bus to New York City where she can get an abortion without need for parental approval – scheduling conflicts force the two to remain in the city for the whole weekend. There’s not much dialogue and what lines the characters do have are sparse, but only because Hittman trusts the audience to understand the cast, Autumn in particular, through their behavior and actions – this trust means the characters are all the more human.
“Palm Springs” (Hulu)
“Palm Springs” has an all-too familiar set-up, but it’s a very charming spin on said set-up. When attending her sister’s wedding, Sarah (Cristin Miloti) stumbles into a cave with an ethereal red glow and finds herself trapped in a “Groundhog Day”-style time loop. She discovers that guest Niles (Andy Samberg) is also trapped in the loop, and has been for so long he can’t remember when it began. After some convincing, Sarah comes around to Niles’ outlook of “nothing matters” and the two indulge themselves day-in-day-out, but their growing feelings for each other complicate the “live and let live” philosophy. The film still works thanks to the performers – Samberg and Miloti share both excellent individual comedic timing and chemistry with each other, while JK Simmons is great as always in the role of Roy, another guest who Niles inadvertently trapped in the time loop.
“The Vast Of Night” (Prime Video)
“The Vast Of Night” is the latest proof that a limited budget doesn’t have to be a limit on a film’s quality. Set in 1950s New Mexico, “The Vast Of Night” follows teenage radio operators Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) discovering a signal they come to believe is extraterrestrial in origin. Evocative of “The Twilight Zone” in aesthetics and setting, “The Vast Of Night” offers nothing concrete in the way of answers but this sense of mystery actually makes the film an even more memorable experience, as well as a unique entry among today’s glut of CGI-stuffed alien invasion movies.
“Weathering With You” (YouTube)
I’m not a huge Anime person (I have nothing against it as an art form, but I only love a few select works of Anime), so when I recommend Makoto Shinkai’s “Weathering With You,” trust that this praise comes from as casual a viewer of Anime as I presume many of you are. When teenage runaway Hodaka meets orphaned girl Hina in Tokyo and together, the two discover that Hina can control the weather. However, their puppy love may be cut short, for Hina’s gift comes with a price. The visuals of the film are astonishingly gorgeous throughout, but the film doesn’t fly by on its pretty animation alone – there is a strong, beating heart within the story shared by Hodaka and Hina, and the film’s airborne climax is the greatest swell of emotion I’ve felt with any 2020 release thus far. Now, I’ve only seen the Japanese version, but if you prefer dubbing over subtitles, I can’t imagine the different voices will detract from the fundamental beauty of the film.