Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Best of 2020: Top 10 Films of the Year

There's a common notion that audiences naturally gravitate towards more optimistic movies during challenging times. But as I reflect on 2020's best films, the stories that stood out were ones which reflected our contemporary lives in a myriad of ways. Indeed, rather than turning to escapism, I was compelled by documentaries, true stories and naturalistic films that felt like real life. As the world looks to a post-COVID-19, post-Trump future, I believe these fine works of cinematic art will stand the test of time, acting as time capsules for one of the most significant years in our collective memories. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Films of 2020.

Honorable Mentions: Athlete A, Boys State, Premature and Wolfwalkers

Best of 2020: Top 10 Foreign Language Films

In the now iconic words of Bong Joon-ho, once you overcome the barrier one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. And in 2020, that statement continued to be true with a slate of extraordinary cinematic works from around the world. From wartime dramas to forbidden romances, world cinema made us laugh, cry and open our eyes to fresh perspectives. With the bountiful array of international films produced in the past year, this list is hardly exhaustive. But from what I’ve seen, here are my picks for the Top 10 Non-English Language Films of 2020. 

Honorable Mention: Night of the Kings 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Best of 2020: Top 20 Acting Performances

In true Norma Desmond fashion, 2020 was marked by small films with big performances. Indeed, while most of the year's best acting was unfortunately confined to our humble screens at home, they shone with talent and charisma. From new takes on the damsel in distress, to sensational interpretations of historical figures, here are my picks for the Top 20 Acting Performances of 2020:

Best of 2020: Top 10 Documentaries

Documentary aficionados perhaps make this claim every year, but 2020 truly felt like a standout year for non-fiction filmmaking. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters worldwide and the blockbuster films that pack them, documentaries were able to shine brighter than ever before. And in this historic year of social and political change, documentaries complimented the news cycle brilliantly. Indeed, the year’s best documentaries tapped into the zeitgeist, exploring topics surrounding the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, sexual abuse and existential reflections on the meaning of life. These outstanding works of non-fiction storytelling are presented below in our Top 10 Documentaries of 2020.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

REVIEW: News of the World

If you thought the film industry would put a halt to the traditional period epic Oscar contender in the wake of widespread theater closures, think again. Paul Greengrass' 19th century western "News of the World" arrives in the nick of time for the December holiday season. And yet, it could also be appropriate to say that it arrives too late, representing entertaining but old-fashioned filmmaking that feels like an outdated throwback to the prestige films of the past.

Set in the post-civil war South, "News of the World" follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a war veteran who now makes a living from touring through small towns to read the latest newspapers to captive audiences. During one such trip through Texas, he stumbles on a young girl (Helena Zengel) alone in the wild who is unable to speak English. Upon reviewing documents accompanying her, Captain Kidd learns that she is of German descent but was taken by the native Kiowan people after her family was murdered. Further instructions reveal a surviving aunt and uncle, her only remaining family. Feeling obligated to protect her, Kidd embarks on a journey to brave hostile terrain and humans alike to restore her to civilization.

Adapted from a novel and mounted on a grand scale with a lovable movie star, "News of the World" is indeed a throwback to the classic adventures of yesteryear. From Dariusz Wolski's glorious wide shots, to James Newton Howard's heartstring-tugging score, to its unchallenging screenplay, there's a familiarity to its storytelling. And with Greengrass at the helm, the requisite shootouts and environmental dangers are depicted with his trademark intensity.

While the virtuosity of the production values will leave you feeling nostalgic for the Golden Age epics, the film is perhaps even more resonant as another relic of old Hollywood - the star vehicle. In her first American role, Helena Zengel's tenacity will surely be praised as a revelation (despite recalling the same unruliness displayed in 2019's "System Crasher"). But it is Tom Hanks' noble screen presence that will captivate audiences and smooths over some of the screenplay's flaws. Namely, there's a simplistic morality of the screenplay that leads to predictability and a lack of complexity to the film's obvious heroes and villains. Furthermore, it fails to fully reckon with the economic and racial tensions of the time period and setting.

And yet, there's a sense of comfort that comes from witnessing a story so carefully crafted around an actor's persona. From the very first scene, you know he'll do the right thing and win your heart. Heroic westerns may be going out of style, but a good Tom Hanks performance is timeless.

Monday, December 21, 2020

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

There are some films so original and daring in their concept and execution, that it takes a while to process what you've just seen. Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman" is one such film. In this debut feature from actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell, the #MeToo movement gets one of its most provocative cinematic statements, mixing scathing social critique with irreverent, cheeky wit. 

"Promising Young Woman" is the story of Cassie, a former medical school student with a bright future ahead of her. In the aftermath of a traumatic experience, however, she has left her big dreams behind. But while she is now seemingly drifting through life without purpose - to the chagrin of her parents with whom she lives - she has secretly committed herself to an unusual path to recovery. By day, she works in a humble coffee shop. But at night, she masterminds salacious encounters with men, thus transforming into a conniving femme fatale. 

Indeed, you've never seen Carey Mulligan like this before. After her breakout role as a naive schoolgirl in 2009's "An Education," the diminutive actress has become known for her delicate vulnerability. As Cassie, however, she is force to be reckoned with, weaponizing her beauty to thrilling ends. 

Challenging our expectations is truly the hallmark of Fennell's impressive filmmaking here, as she takes the kind of audacious risks that could make or break careers. In addition to Mulligan's against type casting, the opportunistic men she encounters are a recognizable array of unassuming "nice guy" personalities and nerds, including Superbad's Christopher Charles Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson of "Veep" fame. And as Mulligan's Cassie embroils them in your mysterious plot to right the wrongs of the past, an ingenious soundtrack of boy crazy pop anthems adds a touch of hilarious irony. The costume design further adds to the fantasy, with Cassie donning a slew of disguises like a shape-shifting superhero. 

Keeping us guessing and entertained all the way to its mindblowing ending, Fennell's stylistic choices would seem frivolous if it weren't for the trenchant social commentary embedded within the narrative. Under Cassie's well-adjusted veneer is a woman whose life is forever traumatized as a result of an experience with sexual abuse. And through her interactions with other characters, the script highlights the ways rape culture persists in society in the form of victim-blaming, wilful denial and the silence of women and men alike. Most importantly, it reminds us that the unbalanced power dynamic will almost always favor men, even in the face of formidable women like Cassie and the brilliant writer-director who envisioned her.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

REVIEW: Nomadland

Much ado has been made over the past decade about the supposed neglect of Middle America - or more condescendingly, "real America" - by the "coastal elites" and "liberal media". During his election campaigns and presidency, Donald Trump pandered to the beliefs that immigrants were stealing jobs and contributing to a culture of "immoral" progressive values over conservative tradition. And yet, one of the most beautifully empathetic films about the working class struggle was directed by a Chinese woman based in Los Angeles. In "Nomadland", Chloe Zhao takes audiences on a breathtaking journey into America's heartland, exploring the perspective of one woman and her newfound way of life.

Indeed, Fern (Frances McDormand) knows a thing or two about the blue-collar lifestyle. She spent much of her life in a factory town established around US Gypsum, a manufacturer of sheetrock and other construction materials. In the wake of the recession, however, the plant shuts down, leaving the residents of Empire, Nevada bereft. Exacerbated by the death of her husband, a company man, Fern thus finds herself unmoored. Fueled by her innate will to live and pick up the pieces, she then musters the courage to embark on adventure through the American West, living out of her van as a modern nomad.

The power and impact of large corporations is acutely felt through "Nomadland." Apart from US Gypsum, the historically successful Amazon company looms large over this story as one of the main sources of employment for Fern and some of the people she meets along the way. Drawing attention to Amazon and its recognizable signage - as opposed to an unnamed or fictional company - Zhao shrewdly places "Nomadland" within the present day. And if there is anything we learned in 2020, is that America prioritizes the economy and big businesses above all else.

What makes "Nomadland" so special therefore, is how it functions as a reclamation of America from its capitalist ideals and focuses instead on the people whose livelihoods often depend on the production line. Indeed, many of the nomads Fern encounters have been "workhorses" as one man puts it . Brimming with stories about their life experiences, we listen to them around campfires and chance meetings across the vast terrain of Fern's quest. 

"Nomadland" isn't the first film to center a narrative on people who have chosen an unconventional lifestyle. But Zhao's simple, yet profound vision outshines them through its relatability. Fern isn't trying to "find herself" or reject modern society and technology like a counterculture hippie. Her desire is to reconnect with other people and restore the pleasures of nature and friendship to her life. 

What results is a story that is both personal and universal, told with the heartfelt, plainspoken authenticity of a documentary approach. You don't need to do any research to learn that many of the supporting characters are non-actors and real life nomads. And their naturalism is shared by McDormand in an exceptionally lived-in performance. Effectively acting as a surrogate for Zhao and the audience, her performance is largely reactive, filled with moments of active listening. Completely lacking in vanity, she finds real depths of emotion and feeling.

Aside from the touching humanity on display, what elevates "Nomadland" into the realm of the sublime is the supplemental artistry that Zhao and her craftsmen lend to the narrative. Most notably, Ludovic Einaudi's serene music - taken from his album "Seven Days Walking" - and Joshua James Richards' majestic cinematography, which takes full advantage of natural light to accentuate the preciousness of community and the effortless beauty of the American landscape. "Nomadland" may not convince you to drop everything and become a wandering nomad, nor does it ask you to. But its exhortation to embrace the simple things in spite of the pain of grief and suffering is deeply moving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

REVIEW: Minari

With his duly award-winning new feature "Minari", filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung has delivered one of 2020's quintessentially American stories. Based on his own childhood experiences, it follows a Korean-American family as they settle into their new home in Arkansas. At once a classic and undeniably contemporary immigrant drama, this special film is a touchingly empathetic piece of storytelling.

Indeed, while its 1980s setting and Korean characters point towards more recent waves of immigration, the opening scenes of "Minari" harken back to the first settlers on the American frontier. As the Yi family make their way towards their new land in the middle of nowhere, the promise of a vast land of plenty awaits. Adapting Western iconography, however, the iconic horse-drawn wagons and homesteads are replaced by a family sedan, moving truck and mobile home. Having abandoned the city life of their previous LA abode, the family's patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has big dreams for his new farmland. But this modest small town life may prove to be too much of a culture shock for his wife (played by Han Ye-ri) and their two young children.

The American Dream indeed looks different for each family, all of whom fall on various spectrums of American assimilation. With his desire to build a thriving farm of Korean produce, Jacob is the model of the traditional economic migrant. He clings to his culture while forging an optimistic future through hard work, discipline and sacrifice. The rest of his family, however, are more inclined towards the immediate comforts of a more urban lifestyle. 

The tensions between their viewpoints is what propels Chung's wonderfully humane script, illuminated through fully realized performances from the cast. The partnership and understanding subtly conveyed by Yuen and Ye-ri for example, makes their widening rift all the more heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the inversely burgeoning relationship between David and his newly arrived grandmother becomes the heart of the film. 

With easily the year's most adorable child performance so far, Chung uses his surrogate David (played by Alan Kim) to explore both the humor and poignancy of growing up as a confused first generation immigrant. As he inbibes his "mountain water" (i.e. Mountain Dew), he laments the fact that Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is not a "real grandmother" who cooks and bakes cookies. But before long, they become the best of friends, with their scenes together providing some of the film's most heartrending emotions. 

Though its sunny photography and largely welcoming community - a major relief considering rural red state setting - may fool you into thinking otherwise, the Yi family will face their share of struggles. But what "Minari" beautifully portrays is how family and friendship can enrich the simplest ways of life, where a weekly church service represents the only significant social activity. In its unique way, "Minari" therefore celebrates the often underappreciated shared humanity between the immigrant experience and small town America. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

REVIEW: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - a stunning play now adapted for the big screen by director George C. Wolfe - would be nothing without the profound words of playwright August Wilson. But the earlier musings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes also echo throughout this tragic tale about the black experience in America. Set in 1920s Chicago, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a heartrending exploration of what can happen to a dream deferred. 

Of course, there's no greater dream than the American Dream, which for many black people in the post-reconstruction era was symbolized through The Great Migration. That mass exodus is quickly referenced in the film, whereby advertisements portrayed the North as the Promised Land for the downtrodden in the South, proclaiming a bounty of employment opportunities and a better life. But the fantasy soon gave way to disillusionment for many, including singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Despite achieving success as the "Mother of the Blues", Ma Rainey becomes weary of exploitation underlying her professional relationships with her white manager and producer. Meanwhile, Levee is still fueled by fierce ambition, despite his own experiences with trauma at the hands of white men. As they both fight to overcome their "glass ceilings," tensions also flare up between them and the rest of the band during one fateful recording session.

Before the characters get to dig into the dialogue of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's expressive screenplay, the music takes the spotlight. The film opens in a show-stopping number with Ma Rainey leading the way, letting us know how she got her esteemed moniker. As we're introduced to her in caked up makeup, gold teeth and striking figure, Ma Rainey is unforgettable even before she croons her first lyric. She is truly one of the year's most eye-catching creations of makeup, hairstyling and costume design.

It's through Viola Davis' incomparable acting, however, that Ma Rainey's commanding, unapologetic personality come to life. In a career full of memorable performances, this is her most transformative and challenging role to date. With every swish of her hips, sharp retort and indulgent gulp of Coca-Cola, she is the physical manifestation of a woman "taking up space" and "reclaiming her time." 

Unfortunately, all the talent, self-assurance and ambition is no match for institutional racism. And this is most painfully evoked through the perspective of Levee in his interactions with his band-mates (perfectly portrayed by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts) and other characters. As he reflects upon the horrors of his past with an optimistic gaze towards his future, the bittersweet themes of the film hit home. Ultimately, Levee's struggles to fulfill his dreams take on an unanticipated metatextual resonance, as the late Chadwick Boseman's astonishingly dynamic and charismatic performance reminds us of a promising future that can no longer come to pass. I can hardly think of a more fitting final act for his career than this.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Ever since its 1990s heyday of John Grisham adaptations, pure courtroom dramas have largely fallen out of favor within pop culture. With its grandstanding monologues, showy acting and easy moralizations, the genre has been even more dismissed by film critics, who now prize subtle realism and ambiguity. It therefore takes a skilled filmmaker to rise above the fray, like writer-director Aaron Sorkin and his latest film "The Trial of the Chicago 7." 

The case at hand in this riveting film was one of great national concern. It is the year 1969 and the United States is knee-deep in an unpopular Vietnam War. Frustrated by the senseless loss of both American and Vietnamese lives, groups of anti-war citizens decide to stage a peaceful protest in view of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But when the protest unintentionally erupts into a riot, the newly elected Nixon government decide to make an example out of a select seven men to quell rising dissent. A criminal case is charged against them, seeking to prove that they initiated a plan to incite violence against the police. But as one of the defendants quickly declares, "this is a political trial." 

That statement is made by Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the counterculture Youth International Party (Yippies). Mischevious yet principled, he believes widespread cultural revolution is needed to foster progress. In the film's greatest casting coup, Sacha Baron Cohen is at his chameleonic best in the role, which acts as an extension of the subversively political comedy of his own productions like "Borat" and TV's "Who Is America". But the film also finds its bleeding heart through his dramatic scenes, anchoring the film through its most liberal viewpoint. 

As Hoffman and his fellow defendants face off against a determined prosecution and a brazenly unsympathetic judge, Sorkin's screenplay works its magic through the sheer spectacle of the courtroom proceedings. Through testimonies and circumstantial evidence, it becomes clear that the accusations of a conspiracy are baseless, most obvious in the case of Bobby Seale (fiercely portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is charged along with the Chicago 7 without any reasonable evidence of collusion.

Like the others, however, Seale's progressive ideologies pose a threat to the establishment. And Sorkin's script puts forth its most astute observations by parsing through such nuances within a larger progressive movement. The confrontations between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (a steady, confident Eddie Redmayne) are especially intriguing, as they explore the tensions between achieving progress through traditional, "respectable" means, versus disrupting the status quo by overturning a failing system and rebuilding anew. 

Through this subplot, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" becomes a fascinating companion piece for Regina King's similarly philosophical "One Night in Miami". Both set during the tumultuous 1960s era of American society, they are resonant testaments to the ways in which long-standing injustices continue to divide us today. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" would have already been a must-see film for its captivating ensemble, engaging pacing and rousing story. But its sincere plea for a more free and fair democracy makes it all the more essential in a pivotal election year for the United States.