January 2020 Round-Up – Part 2

Part 2 of my (ridiculously late) January Round-Up will focus on films I consider to be 2020 films rather than the 2019 films I looked at in part 1.

Weathering With You(1/19/2020)

Weathering With You is the follow-up to the film Your Name, which was a major hit at the international (though not domestic) box office and is probably the best recieved non-Ghibli anime film since the death of Satoshi Kon.  That’s a tough act to follow and Makoto Shinkai seems to have opted to remain very much in the same lane as his success and has made another supernaturally tinged story about teenagers with really big emotions.  The film focuses on a sixteen year old who has run away from home and found his way to Tokyo right as an unprecedented string of rainy days has hit the city.  Eventually he meets a girl who has a mystical power to stop the rainfall for a short period of time and let the sun come in but there is a price for using this power which becomes increasingly clear as time moves on. Now, the think about Makoto Shinkai’s movies is that they tend to be aimed at and are tapping into the mentality of audiences of a very specific age, namely that of a young person of about 11-15 and they are in many ways kind of expressions of the really big emotions that young people of that age tend to experience and you sort of need to let yourself go with that sort of emo mindset in order to enjoy them.  Here we rather specifically have the weather reflecting the emotions of everyone involved and it’s all depicted rather vividly through Shinkai’s animation.  The film was clearly made for a higher budget than your average anime outing and can indulge in some really detailed drawings of modern urban life but the film is not as removed from modern anime tropes as the Ghibli movies.  This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, but if you liked Your Name and can watch the movie within the spirit it was intended this is well worth a look.

***1/2 out of Five


Les Misérables(1/20/2020)

Lest the title confuse you, Les Misérables is not an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name and of course has nothing to do with the musical of the same title and instead joins a strange little trend of movies like Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation which jack the title of an earlier work in order to sort of respond to it.  I think the film is set in the same neighborhood that Hugo’s novel was but in modern times and both works sort of focus on overly diligent police officers and the poor and downtrodden, otherwise there aren’t really overt similarities.  Instead this actually has more in common with Training Day of all things as it’s about someone’s first day on the force in a tougher area than they’re used to and they end up embedded with people who are semi-corrupt and use varying degrees of excessive force throughout the film.  This was France’s selection to compete in the Best International Film category at the Oscars, which was a controversial choice given that it beat out Portrait of a Lady on Fire and I suspect that this choice was made because Les Misérables spoke more directly to contemporary French society and from a French perspective spoke more for an unheard voice in society.

I can respect that but I must say that coming from the perspective of an American that’s spent much of the last half-decade following the discourse around the interactions between black people and police this all feels a little… lightweight.  Like, most activists in this country wish the local police were only as bad as the ones in this movie because the ones they have to deal with are even worse.  And looked at simply as a crime movie this also only succeeds within certain limits.  Ladj Ly feels rather accomplished for a first time director and certainly helms the film with skill.  He also seems to have some feel for the Parisian streets and the various subcultures that inhabit them and I kind of wish he had just made a movie about those people without the police butting into everything because I’m not sure he has much more of a grip on the psychology of law enforcement than your average TV procedural writer does. All that having been said, I don’t want to be too negative about the film.  Scene to scene and moment to moment it is a nicely gritty addition to the cop movie genre and it shouldn’t be docked too many points just because I’ve grown so suspicious of that genre as a whole.

***1/2 out of Five


Year End Content 2019

The Oscars are over early this year and the time has come to post my year end content.  Last year I announced a new format for capsule reviews for less important movies I watched in theaters and I think that’s more or less worked out and will be continuing as I have been next year.  I ended up spending a lot of last year pre-working some special content I hope to debut pretty soon (probably not hard to guess what given what year just passed) and with that out of the way I hope to have more time for Crash Courses and the like in the coming year.  For now I’ll present my 2019 top ten list, which has been added to my existing top ten page and of course this year’s Golden Stakes.

The 2019 Golden Stakes

2019 Top Ten

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2019(2/1/2020)

For the fourth year straight I decided to go to the ShortsTV theatrical presentation of the Oscar Nominated live action shorts and while I was non-commital in the past I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be an annual tradition at this point.  Whereas four of the five documentary short nominees are available online and three of the five animated shorts are available, you usually do need to go to theaters to see any of the live action shorts and they’re usually the only ones I do this for.  This year is a little different, firstly because the shortened Oscar season means that these things are only going to be in theaters for about a week before the Academy Awards ceremony.  Additionally we’re coming off of a live action shorts slate from last year which, for whatever reason, was oddly grim and largely featured short films that involved child endangerment.  It isn’t all sunshine and roses with this year’s crop either but for the most part this is kind of a return to normal for the category with a field of nominees that are not unlike what you’d expect in a given year.

Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.


A Sister (Une soeur)

Last year’s short program opened with a Spanish short called “Mother,” which was essentially a short thiller built around a tense phone call where someone on one end of the call is in grave danger.  I was instantly reminded of that short when I saw this year’s opener, the Belgian short “A Sister,” which plays out from the perspective of a 911 operator who gets a call from a woman who talks like she’s calling to coordinate childcare with her sister.  Quickly the operator realizes that this caller is actually being kidnapped and is trying to make this call in such a way that her captor doesn’t realize who she’s really calling.  So there’s a pretty clear conceit here and the film’s director, Delphine Girard, does a pretty good job of cutting between the operator and what’s going on in the car while keeping the tension up.  That said, the sheer length of this call does start to push credulity and it also eventually reaches a bit of an anti-climax as it isn’t quite able to as one last twist to the situation.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Nil.  Of the five films this is the one I’d be most surprised to see win on Sunday.  It’s not so much that there’s anything inherently “bad” or off-putting about the movie but compared to some of the weighty places that the other films go to this might feel a bit simplistic.  It’s too grim to be a crowd pleaser but too slight to really get major respect from the voters.



“Brotherhood” is the first of two shorts this year to be set in Tunisia of all places and to my mind it’s probably the stronger of the two.  The film looks at a family living in a fairly remote area who find themselves upended when their eldest son returns to them after having run off to join ISIS with a burka wearing wife in tow.  The mother is happy to see him and wants to welcome him as a prodigal son and to put his actions in the past but the father is gruff and suspicious.  This is probably the most interesting aspect of the film: under any other circumstances this father would seem to be a sort of archetypal closed-minded male grump, but given that he’s having this reaction to a literal terrorist here he would seem to be the one who’s in the right.  The film certainly finds an interesting world to immerse itself in and these characters who are befreckled ginger Muslims just straight-up  interesting to look at.  I was not, however, thrilled with the decision to film this in the Academy ratio, which looks kind of bad on modern film screens and just generally is becoming a bit of an annoying stylistic trend in world cinema.  I also wasn’t completely sold on the film’s ending, which seemed to turn things around a little too quickly and maybe raised a few questions about how a certain character was choosing to present himself earlier in the film.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Kind of hard to tell.  I am seeing it predicted on some of the major betting markets and prediction aggregates, but there’s kind of an infamous trend of live action shorts having their odds over-calculated when their titles come early in the alphabet. If the voters want to be very substanative in their choice this is probably the one they’ll go with.


The Neighbors’ Window

Marshall Curry is not a well-known name but he’s someone who has actually earned four Oscar nominations over the course of his career, all in unconventional categories.  His first nomination was for the documentary feature Street Fight, which followed Corey Booker’s first mayoral campaign long before he became a national figure, and he was also nominated for the documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.  Curry was also nominated just last year for the documentary short “A Night at the Garden” and now he’s nominated for a scripted live action short called “The Neighbors’ Window.”  This is the only English language and only American set short and it begins as this rather comedic take on the “Rear Window” idea of watching people from out your window as it follows a pair of yuppies in a high rise apartment who notice that the young couple across the way have a habit of leaving their blinds wide open, making it so that our central couple can easily see everything they do and mostly what they do is screw.  So this plainly starts out feeling like a sort of indie comedy but it does take a turn for the more serious as it goes as the young couple starts to go through some more serious issues.  I don’t know that the ending this leads to is terribly profound, but there’s only so much meaning you really expect from a twenty minute short like this.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one is kind of tough to call.  This is plainly the most accessible of the shorts here and the one that Academy members are most likely to relate to.  This could be a double edged sword though because sitting next to these other four shorts this could come off as a little “first world problems.”



The fourth film here is “Saria,” which is technically being listed as an American film but is entirely in Spanish and is set in Guatemala.  The film was directed by a guy named Bryan Buckley, who is probably best known for directing a movie called The Bronze, which sold for a very high dollar amount at Sundance and then bombed spectacularly in theaters.  This short is probably the most stylish of the five films here and I’m going to guess had the highest budget out of all of them.  This is based on the true story of events that happened at an orphanage in Guatemala and focuses primarily on two teenage girls who are thinking about ways to escape from the facility and organize a sort of decoy riot that will allow them to do that.  Spoilers.  They almost get away but are then recaptured… and then they all die in a fire.  That last little bit is clearly meant to be a sucker punch at the end to make you angry about these young lives being cut short, but I found this rather manipulative, in part because the rest of the film isn’t exactly building to a message about fire safety and in some ways it just feels kind of disconnected from the institutional conditions that were highlighted earlier.  It might have more impact for people who were aware of the situation that was being covered and knew what was coming, but I can’t really speak to that.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: This one is a bit of a wildcard as I’m not sure how the average Academy member is going to react to that ending.  Some might find it touching and will also respond to the craft and style employed elsewhere in the film, others might find it manipulative like I did.  It’s also unclear how much of a known name Bryan Buckley is in Hollywood and whether that will have any influence on the vote.


Nefta Football Club

Much as the opening film this year had a certain kinship with last year’s opener, the closer had at least one key thing in common with last year’s closer “Skin,” namely that both films have big sight gags at the end that they’re kind of building toward.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end though given that “Skin” was a highly questionable parable about race in America and “Nefta Football Club” is… not that.  This is actually the second of these shorts to be set in Tunisia and is a largely comedic short about two kids who stumble upon a donkey wearing headphones and come to learn that this donkey is part of a drug smuggling scheme and the kids get into the middle of it, but in a way that ultimately has comedic results.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: This is probably the one I’d put my money on if I was a betting man simply because it’s probably the most audience pleasing, which is usually a safe metric to assume the Academy will use.  That said its lightness and brevity could be more of a handicap than I’m assuming.


Final Thoughts

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this roster of shorts besides “they’re fine.”  Last year’s shorts were a lot darker and more variable in quality, but they were nothing if not memorable, and I wouldn’t say the same about this year’s roster.  “Nefta Football Club” and “The Neighbors’ Window” are almost certainly the frontrunners for the award and the other three are varying degrees of interesting and well made.  I wouldn’t say any of these are really high art though and I have to imagine there’s better short-form cinema out there than what got assembled by the Academy this year.

Home Video Round-Up 1/28/2020

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (1/5/2020)

The documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which investigates the 1961 plane crash that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, opens with its director saying something along the lines “this could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.”  I would say I do quite like that touch of modesty because the end result of this film is that they fine a great deal of smoke but ultimately fail to prove the presence of a fire.  Presented in a more straightforward manner I would probably not be on board with that given that I’ve come to be increasingly wary about the spread of unproven conspiracy theories and the damage they can do, but here the film’s director places himself front and center in the film for the explicit purpose of showing you that he is just as frustrated about how thin the evidence around this case is.  The film even goes so far as to incorporate a device in which the director explains the whole story of his investigation to a skeptical third party to sort of get their confused reaction to all of it.  That having been said, some of the things that this guy does seem to uncover around the periphery of this case are pretty major if they’re true.  Ultimately, I’m not sure if this was ready for the presses, but I wouldn’t necessarily discourage the director from digging deeper into all of this and if he manages to make a sequel doc with more concrete evidence about all of this I’d be interested in seeing it.

*** out of Five

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (1/8/2020)

This documentary seeks to look at the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his onetime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, who is believed to have been the inspiration for a handful of his famous songs.  Both Cohen and Ihlen are dead and neither were interviewed for this so we mostly get the story through mutual friends of the two as well as some archival interviews and stock footage.  I like Cohen’s music but I’m not a superfan and don’t know a whole lot of biographical information about him.  In fact I don’t know that his life story is as widely known as a lot of musicians and as such I’m not sure this documentary necessarily needed to search for a novel entry point into his life like this one relationship.  In fact the film does end up needed to do a lot of straightforward biopic stuff with him so trying to sell this as two people’s story seemed a touch misguided.  That said their time on the Greek island of Hydra during the height of the sixties does sound interestingly idyllic and the film shows a much different side of the guy than I would have expected.  Probably best left for the hardcore fans.

**1/2 out of Five

Judy (1/10/2020)

This film about the last days of Judy Garland’s life has largely been viewed as Oscar bait in the discourse and there’s probably some truth to that.  The film looks at Garland when she’s at her lowest point, drug addicted and out of her mind forced to focus almost exclusively on doing live performances of songs from her old movies in order to maintain her lifestyle.  Specifically the movie looks at a residency she did in London where she delivered some rather inconsistent concerts about six months before her death.  This period is then intercut with flashbacks to her time as a child star where she was more or less psychologically abused by Louis B. Mayer in order to become the perfect star.  Front and center of all discussions of the film has been Renée Zellweger’s work as Garland.  I’m not necessarily in the best position to judge how close she is to replicating Garland’s look and mannerisms as I’m not terribly familiar with what Garland was like in this stage of her life, but Zellweger certainly does a good job of portraying a character who’s drug addicted and constantly fighting back demons.  Outside of that I’d say the movie is a solid C+ piece of work.  Director Rupert Goold appears to primarily be a theater director and while he is not without visual ideas here he doesn’t exactly execute on them perfectly and the script is generally pretty straightforward.

*** out of Five

The Peanut Butter Falcon (1/11/2020)

I really want to have stronger feelings about this film but for me it was just kind of the personification of an average indie movie.  The film is a Southern picaresque in the vein of Mud or Undertow in which a guy with Down syndrome escapes from the institution he’s living in and connects with a drifter played by Shia LaBeouf while a nurse played by Dakota Johnson also pursues them.  I would say that the film’s cast is pretty good; LaBeouf is in good form and it’s cool that they found an actual Down syndrome person to play that role.  That said I found a lot of the characters here to be pretty broadly drawn.  The staff at the home the Down syndrome guys was living in felt more like the kind of staff he would have had to deal with in a different era than what a modern disability home would be like and the LaBeouf character’s effortless homespun wisdom did not ring particularly true to me and the way they drag the nurse into the adventure leading to a romance between her and the LaBeouf character felt contrived in a very clichéd movie way.  Beyond that the whole movie kind of seemed to get its point (that people with mental disabilities should be treated more like regular people) across really quickly and doesn’t really have much else to do from there and it reaches its finale in a way that didn’t strike me as overly satisfying.

**1/2 out of Five

I Lost My Body (1/20/2020)

I’ve come to really appreciate the animation branch of the Academy as they really seem to do their research and have shown a willingness to nominate unexpected choices. This year their big discovery is I Lost My Body, an R-rated animation from a largely unknown French animation studio that appears to primarily make television rather than film and which is currently being distributed by Netflix.  The film is about a severed hand which, through some unexplained magic, has come alive and become sentient as it tries to find the body it was severed from and that is intercut with flashbacks to how said hand came to be severed.  That’s a neat Gogol-esque concept and the movie finds interesting ways to capture this hand crawling around the city like Thing from “The Addams Family” and that part in and of itself would have been a pretty good forty minute short-subject but the movie feels like it’s been expanded to feature length with mixed results.  The flashback sections here certainly aren’t “bad,” in fact some of them are kind of touching and relatable but if given a choice between watching them and the adventures of a sentient severed hand I’m going to have to side with the severed hand and in many ways the flashbacks just gets in the way of that.  Still a pretty cool and daring little project to be sure, just kind of think it’s in the wrong format.

*** out of Five

Klaus (1/20/2019)

Sergio Pablos is a Spanish animator who worked for Disney during the late 90s when they were making computer assisted 2D animated films like Tarzan and then he left them and took more of a leadership role Illumination where he became one of the co-creators of the Despicable Me franchise.  For his latest film he is bringing 2D animation back and claims to be trying to run an experiment to see what western 2D animation would have evolved into if people were still making it through the last twenty years, which certainly a cool idea from a visual perspective.  The film is hardly hand-drawn and uses a lot of computer assistance but it does mostly have a cool look.  I would also say its base storytelling idea is interesting in that it’s a sort of origin story of Santa Klaus that re-imagines the legend as a non-supernatural woodcutter who lives on a weird island where everyone fights like Hatfields and Mccoys and starts delivering toys to kids as part of a sort of joint-venture with a desperate mailman.  I’m a little queasy about the film’s basic message, which basically boils down to “materialism brings world peace” but the real problem here is really the film’s sense of humor and writing in general.  When Pablos said he wanted to see what 2D animated movies would evolve into the modern era he apparently also meant that it would take on a sort of sub-Dreamworks/Illumination sensibility where people talk in this bad anachronistic patter and the film is filled with some pretty bad slapstick and leads to a dumb sentimental moral for children.

** out of Five

Harriet (1/28/2020)

In the last ten years or so there have been more movies about the black experience in America than ever before but I’ve been a little disappointed that so many of the movies that get made about black history seem to be more interested in inspiring children than in getting into the complexities of the black experience and you can pretty safely place Harriet alongside the likes of 42 and Red Tails in that regard.  The film generally falls into a lot of the usual traps that mediocre biopics tend to fall into; I wouldn’t accuse it of being a hagiography exactly since Harriet Tubman is enough of a legendary figure that there aren’t many “warts” that need pointing out, but the movie in in such a rush to point out her righteousness that it doesn’t really make her feel like a fully human character and a lot of the period trappings felt undetailed and bland and the movie also struggles mightily to fit even a fraction of the character’s life into a two hour film.  That’s not to say that the movie is horrible or anything, Tubman and her Underground Railroad rescues were interesting enough that you would have to work pretty hard to make a movie about the subject that wasn’t at least watchable, which this mostly is.  It will probably be shown in a lot of middle schools in the years to come and if that’s what Kasi Lemmons set out to accomplish then she accomplished it, but I want a little more out of my historical movies than that.

** out of Five