- THE TOP TEN
- HONORABLE MENTIONS
- THE SO-BAD-IT’S GOOD AWARD
Films actually were released in 2020. Despite not seeing many films in the traditional theater setting, I was still sufficiently entertained by more than a few finely crafted movies and am glad to be able to share a list at all.
As to the future of the theater-going experience, much is unclear. Entering into 2021 facing a paradigm-shifting augmentation to big studio film distribution, major theater chains may need to significantly alter their current business models to stay financially solvent. However, I do not foresee theater-venturing going out of fashion permanently and am optimistic about what is to come.
THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2020
This list is the ten best feature-length, non-documentary films I have seen that had US release dates in 2020.
10. Small Axe (Anthology Film Series)
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons, Courttia Newland
Starring: Letitia Wright, John Boyega, Shaun Parkes
Runtime: 63-128 mins
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
I was not entirely certain how to categorize this pick as Small Axe is an anthology film series whose entries are thematically and aesthetically but not narratively connected. For locality of reference, I choose to judge the films collectively and grant Small Axe the final spot in my top ten list. All of the films are rooted in a distinct cultural identity as each entry dissects specific issues faced by West Indian immigrants in London spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s. Harassment from law enforcement and locals, social objection to integration, and lack of access to high-quality education are a few of the struggles facing the immigrants addressed throughout the series.
Going through the entries in their chronological release order (they can be watched in any order), I started with Mangrove which tells the story of 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine. Out of all the entries, Mangrove feels most like a feature-length film clocking in at over two hours and utilizing the entirety of that runtime to fully flesh out the courtroom drama. McQueen’s pronounced directorial hand heightens the emotions of any given scene. The Mangrove restaurant, the centerpiece of the story, is imbued with an endearing personality and serves as an intimate connection into the community. You feel the characters’ happiness during celebrations. You feel their anger due to harassment and injustice. Excellent performances, top-notch production design, and a compelling script make Mangrove one of the best in the series.
Next up is the high point of the series in Lover’s Rock which follows a group of young women who venture out to a late night Reggae-infused house party including all the elements common to young adult frolics across most eras and cultures: music, dancing, alcohol, and creepy dudes. Through Steve McQueen’s direction, you are invited to come and experience the vibe of the scene and just let it entrance you as the partying meanders into the night. As a slice of period- and culture-specific night life, Lover’s Rock functions remarkably well, managing to nakedly capture the hopeful nature of youth and, by its conclusion, point towards a burgeoning second generation of immigrants. Unfortunately, the series begins to take a dive in quality beginning with Red, White and Blue.
Starring John Boyega, Red, White and Blue details the true story of Leroy Logan (Boyega) as he chooses to enter the London Metropolitan Police in order to be a positive force for change from within. This film simply lacks the energy and nuance contained in the first two entries while following a formulaic presentation of events. While John Boyega’s performance instills some life into Red, White and Blue, there is no salvaging Alex Wheatle, a look at the life of award-winning author Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), which suffers from the same issues as the previous entry and is easily the most boring in the series. Documenting a fictional case of the real historical practice in London of sending underperforming children to special schools for the “educationally subnormal”, Education is easily the worst of the series lacking memorable characters and an engaging narrative often feeling more like a PSA than organic filmmaking.
Though McQueen’s period-accurate visual flair and dialect-heavy scripts with unified themes and purposeful messaging are more than enough to make this series a memorable set of experiences, I was left wanting more even in the stronger entries as I know how skilled he is as a filmmaker. The amount of human anguish he communicates in his three punishing tour de forces Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013) dwarves anything on display in this series; in comparison, emotional considerations in Small Axe seem trite and perfunctory in many ways. Even still, the emotions in this series are still real though not in their rawest form and will resonate with many people. All in all, Small Axe relates the lives, passions, and trials of a distinct historical sub-culture and demonstrates in its very existence how cohesion and strength came as a result. The sum of the parts is greater than the parts by themselves though the weaker parts do pull down the overall score.
- Mangrove: ★★★½
- Lover’s Rock: ★★★½
- Red, White and Blue: ★★★
- Alex Wheatle: ★★½
- Education: ★★½
- OVERALL: ★★★
9. The Vast of Night
Director: Andrew Patterson
Writers: Andrew Patterson (teleplay by) (as James Montague), Craig W. Sanger (teleplay by)
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer
Runtime: 91 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
The Vast of Night is an ultra low-budget ($700,000) sci-fi mystery based around extraterrestrial activity in a small New Mexico town in the late-1950s. Staging the story as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like television show in a clear act of homage, first-time director Andrew Patterson focuses his effort on time period aesthetics and penning a sharp script. The authentic clothing, vehicles, high school gymnasium, telephone switchboard, and radio station among other things effectively serve as a time machine to a decade long past while the dynamic between the main characters of Everett (Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, is established with snappy dialogue littered with period-specific figures of speech. Though simple characters, they are both likable and you gain a certain attachment to and appreciation for them as a result of the film lingering on the minutia of what they do in the first act. Set in near real-time at night, the movie’s ultra-clean visual presentation clearly demonstrates that Patterson has a tight grasp on actor instruction, pacing, continuity, editing, lighting, and shot composition as he is able to efficiently compose a mysterious atmosphere and capture both the fear of and wonder in the unknown. While the turn of events is straightforward and does little to deviate from common UFO sci-fi tropes, the larger appeal is more about the atmosphere than anything else. In fact, the exposition of the story’s mystery mainly occurs in extended stationary dialogues between the main characters and old people recounting spooky memories; this style of information revelation really only work because of the established atmosphere. All in all, The Vast of Night is a short, briskly paced film with energetic characters interacting with impressively staged albeit unoriginal and unsurprising alien-encounter plot elements. Patterson achievements in this movie are commendable considering how limited his financial resources were, and I highly recommend you check it out.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Chloé Zhao (screenplay by), Jessica Bruder (book)
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Runtime: 108 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Similar in aesthetics to her last film The Rider (2017), Chloé Zhao constructs another musing work with the backdrop of the vast landscapes of the western United States. Soon after losing both her longtime job and husband in Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) decides to purchase a van and live the mobile life of a nomad as she searches the country for work. There is not a ton of high-level details to relay about the story as it is mainly just Fern’s life organically unfolding as she bounces from job to job and meets people. The lifestyle of a modern day nomad is wholly unfamiliar to me, and I was fascinated by the sharply focused presentation which gives convincing motivation to Fern’s meandering life path and makes you empathize with her as an outsider to ordinary life. Everything feels like a one-to-one reflection of real life due to the realistic dialogue and believable idiosyncrasies of characters which is probably equal parts the non-fiction source material, the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, and Zhao’s extremely grounded and immersive directing style. In a broader sense, the film portrays the western United States as a wild frontier yet again, and this facet is reflected by the gorgeous cinematography which consistently draws attention to the sheer scale of the physical features in this part of the country; Fern is more a part of the natural landscape than traditional human civilization. Unfortunately, while this film’s core is solid, it is not quite able to sustain its runtime due to plain lack of any meaningful character developments. Nomadland is a more contemplative experience and might bore many people, but I recommend it if you want a laid back inspection of another person’s radically different way of life.
7. Bad Education
Director: Cory Finley
Writers: Mike Makowsky (screenplay), Robert Kolker (based on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintenent” by)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Ray Romano, Welker White
Runtime: 108 mins
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Based on the true story of an $11 million embezzlement scandal in a New York school district in 2004, Bad Education introduces us to the slick superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who is beloved by students and parents alike for his availability for face-to-face interaction, and the assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Alison Janney) at the height of their district’s success. When a curious teenage reporter for the school paper begins finding irregularities in school financial records, Pam, who habitually uses school district funds for personal expenses, realizes the precarious situation for her and the other members of the school district leadership who know about the illicit spending, including Frank. Bad Education avoids a lazy regurgitation of real life events and caricatures of the convicted individuals deciding instead to go a bit beyond one-dimensional characters. Pam uses the backdoor to unlimited purchasing power as a means to elevate the status of her family as a sort of misguided motherly provision, but emboldened by her positional power and corrupted by the love of wealth, she overestimates her own ability to keep the charade going. As more and more is revealed about Frank’s character, you see through his public facade into his troubled psyche as masterfully conveyed by Hugh Jackman’s linchpin performance. You come to understand that Frank has genuinely convinced himself that the beneficial work he does for the school system outweighs the financial shenanigans to which he is a party. Eventually, you understand that Frank’s self-deception is a result of profound insecurity and is what has led him down the path to moral degeneracy as his entire life is barely held together by deceiving others. I enjoyed how this film uses the innocence and stubborness of youth as the instrument for unraveling the web of corruption and deception; it effectively teaches the simple truth that though one may have institutional authority and years of life experience over you, that does not necessarily mean that that indidividual is a moral authority over you. The general plot developments are unsurprising, but the sharp, humorous script and well-defined characters keep you engaged and invested in how specifically the events will play out. Definitely check Bad Education out if you get a chance.
6. Another Round
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writers: Thomas Vinterberg (screenplay), Tobias Lindholm (screenplay)
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang
Runtime: 117 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (would probably be R)
Another Round is an amusing Danish film from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, The Hunt) about four middle-aged high-school teachers (Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang) who collectively decide to each indefinitely sustain a BAC of 0.05 or higher to induce a heightened state of creativity and social ease. To their surprise, this choice appears to improve each of their lives, convincing them to not only continue but see if they can take their BACs even higher. Though the premise verges on ridiculous, the story stays grounded in reality by making readily apparent the obvious repercussions of such incessant behavior that begin to shake apart each of their lives. The amusement comes from the increasing degree of mental gymnastics the men go through to justify their decisions, and the skillful performances from all of the leading men, particularly Mikkelsen, as they very convincingly attempt to instruct students and maneuver their daily lives while mildly inebriated. The story works as a dramedy by never becoming too absurd and leaning on the fact that all of the men are genuinely funny and likable enough to gain your sympathy despite their utter foolishness. Vinterberg’s artful direction elevates the look of the film by avoiding stagnant shot choices infusing it with a pleasant energy. Simple but effective filming, editing, and music choices give the presentation a memorable personality. For example, a numeric BAC percentage pops up center-screen to indicate the latest level of intoxication the men are attempting to maintain, and as the group gets progressively drunker, the lack of steadiness in the camerawork becomes more and more apparent. While the first two acts are extremely well-written, the final act falters as the conclusion does not wrap up most of the issues up in a clever or satisfying way, which is my greatest complaint. Though never terribly profound, Another Round manages to communicate a serious message in a palatable and humorous manner and is enjoyable from start to finish,. Hopefully, adults looking for how NOT to handle a midlife crisis will consider braving subtitles to watch this movie.
5. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci (screenplay by), Simon Blackwell (screenplay by), Charles Dickens (novel)
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton
Runtime: 119 mins
MPAA Rating: PG
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a loose and whimsical adaptation of the semiautobiographical Charles Dickens’ novel by writer-director Armando Ianucci (In the Loop, Death of Stalin). Set in the Victorian Era, the story follows David Copperfield (Dev Patel) from birth through a troubled childhood to an emergent adulthood depicting his relationships with a recurring cast of peculiar characters. Though Ianucci’s straight-faced and fast-paced style of British humor might not be for everyone, I enjoy the rapid-fire wit to be found in his films’ scripts; The Personal History of David Copperfield is no exception as I found myself frequently chuckling at ridiculous lines of dialogue, often fully or partially drawn from the source material, which get treated seriously and passed over quickly without a second thought. Additionally, the awkward character idiosyncrasies and the frequent sight gags serve as hilarious secondary diversions. Dev Patel energetically portrays the amicable David though the supporting cast often steals the spotlight. In particular, Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi give entertaining performances often serving as comic relief to the comic relief. The characters all have comedic chemistry and play off each other well; in general, the more characters on screen interacting in a given scene, the funnier the movie is. Though I greatly enjoyed the humor, atmosphere, and Dickensian character progression, the plot elements are strung together a bit haphazardly and with odd pacing which is a consequence of the story’s extended timeline, reliance on voicover narration, and a lack of smooth editing. As a result, a lasting holistic connection to the character of David Copperfield never really formed for me though I enjoyed the individual interactions throughout his life. The film is weakest when it is broadly reflecting on David’s life rather than showcasing the comedic and dramatic vignettes therein. If you are not amused by the humor, this film will most likely be a fairly dull experience for you, but if you have enjoyed any of Iannuci’s past films or enjoy British humor in general, I highly recommend this movie.
4. Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Writers: Darius Marder (story & screenplay by), Abraham Marder (screenplay by), Derek Cianfrance (story by)
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Runtime: 120 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Dropping you into the life of metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) as his hearing rapidly deteriorates, The Sound of Metal is the most poignant character study of the year. Inside Ruben’s headspace, you come to understand how his life is held together by routine and positive passions, namely his music and his supportive girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), and that structure is what prevents him from descending into drug addiction and self-destruction. When this overwhelming disruption to his life separates him from that structure and his pscyhological fragility becomes clear, you know Ruben is in dire straits. Fortunately, he gains access to an enclosed community run by deaf veteran and former alcoholic Joe (Paul Raci) for deaf recovering addicts. Watching Ruben progress through his grief cycle and then slowly come out of the other side is what is most fascinating. Riz Ahmed adeptly portrays the anxious and vulnerable Ruben as he gradually gains resiliency. He is able to capture Ruben’s conflicted nature as he earnestly wants to maintain a healthy lifestyle free from his demons but is in denial about what will bring joy back into his life. You actively root for him to make positive life-affirming decisions and are genuinely saddened when there are setbacks. Like sign language, the film capably communicates feelings and ideas without the use of words. The careful attention to the sound design connects us with Ruben’s sonic perceptions allowing you commiserate with his sensory plight. You connect with his frustration at the hearing loss when the muffled audio reflects his distorted reality. The way sound and lack of sound is used throughout the film informs the viewer of Ruben’s emotional state far more efficiently than words could ever do. I suggest all adults sit down with this character piece as it is a profound examination of how life can without warning force you down a different path that exposes your human flaws and how one must ultimately face your demons and adapt or else be destroyed from within.
Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Writers: Will Collins (screenplay), Tomm Moore (story), Ross Stewart (story), Jericca Cleland (story and script consultant)
Starring: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean
Runtime: 103 mins
MPAA Rating: PG
Vibrant, hand-drawn artistry brings 17th-century Ireland to life in this animated children’s folk tale about a ferocious wolfpack who keep the residents of Kilkenny living in fear of the local woods. However, the precocious daughter of the brave hunter dispatched to exterminate the danger discovers these wolves may be more than mere wild canine prowlers. Every frame is meticulously crafted, and the creative direction maximally displays the artistic skill as vivacious foreground character dynamics occur atop dense and richly colored backgrounds. The distinctive artistic stylization imbues the film with a storybook innocence that is entirely disarming and marvelously immersive. The charm of the 2D animation is upheld by the likeability of the bright-eyed main characters and a well-paced story that takes several exhilarating twists and turns. Wolfwalkers more than succeeds at being a memorable children’s film by making it effortless to stay engaged with the world of the story and root for our well-intentioned protagonists to triumph over the destructive antagonist. Though light-hearted at points, it never devolves into silliness and actually holds a bit more of an edge than most animated features. Unlike so many children’s films, there are severe stakes and characters are in real peril. As a result, characters’ decisions are consequential, and you are actually invested in how the story plays out. As a technical spectacle alone, the film is brilliant, but the storytelling propels it to greater heights. If you have kids (the littlest ones might want to sit this one out) or prefer more innocent and fanciful storytelling, definitely check out Wolfwalkers; it is certainly better than anything Pixar has put out in the last decade.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (written for the screen by), Iain Reid (based on the book by)
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette
Runtime: 134 mins
MPAA Rating: R
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, we are taken on a wintery car ride with a city girl (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) as they go to meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) for dinner on their rural farm. Immediately, you know things are not quite as they seem, and it is a fascinating ride from there as that fact becomes more and more apparent. The presentation is captivating as it is constantly shifting your expectations and dropping in new and intriguing peculiarities. All the performances are dexterous, the script is nuanced and complex, and the shot composition is purposeful to a fault. Though the meaning of the film is never explicitly spelled out at any one point, piecing the bits and pieces together is a feasible and ultimately rewarding task. That being said, much of the meaning can be largely intuited through feeling rather than purely deduced, which is why I’m Thinking of Ending Things is such a profound experience and not just a frustrating self-referential knotted mess that you are forced to watch multiple times in order to unwind (see my #1 pick for that). Upon completion, I very much wanted to rewatch the film to make sure I caught much of the nuance I might have missed in my first viewing. I cannot fault virtuoso writer-director Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa), who based the film on an Iain Reid novel, for much besides teetering on self-indulgence, but that is hardly a complaint when every aspect is so masterfully executed. As expected, Kaufman has made another super meta movie, one that is to be avoided if you are incapable of retaining subtle information from previous scenes. For everyone else ready to mentally engage their minds and deal with some emotional heft, I’m Thinking of Ending Things should be a thoroughly satisfying experience.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 150 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Christopher Nolan: “I’m going to make a James Bond-style espionage thriller where people and things will be moving both forward and backward in time all at once. It is going to make no sense to even the most attentive viewers on a first watch, but it is going to look totally awesome. In fact, going back and taking a second/third/fourth/… pass at the film is entirely in line with the story’s constitution.”
Here are several more films that did not quite make the cut but I still think are great. Check them out if they sound like your type of thing. The honorable mentions are listed in alphabetical order.
Children of the Sea
Directors: Ayumu Watanabe
Writers: Daisuke Igarashi (manga), Hanasaki Kino (screenplay)
Starring: Mana Ashida, Hiiro Ishibashi, Seishû Uragami
Runtime: 111 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (probably would be PG or PG-13)
I am not entirely sure of all that was happening as a melange of aquatic elements migrated past my eyes in this feature-length anime adaptation of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea manga series. While unexplainable oceanic phenomena mysteriously occur throughout the world, a young girl whose dad works at an aquarium becomes friends with two amphibious boys, allegedly raised by dugongs, living in the aquarium. I am not going to be much help storywise aside from those details so you will just have to decide if you want to enjoy 111 minutes of stunning animation. Though I cannot recall a coherent plot, I do remember being transfixed by the film’s mind-bending climactic sequence in which a flurry of astral and pelagic imagery is stirred together in a bedazzling display as the main characters attempt to do something with a meteorite. As stated, I did not have a tight grasp on plot specifics, but I am fairly certain I was also given a metaphysical explanation of the existence and connection between life, the ocean, and the universe. The scale and craziness of this visual progression is reminiscent of the endings to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Check this one out if you are a fan of trippy Japanese anime knowing you might have to read the manga to have a tighter grasp on what is actually happening.
Director: Michael Angelo Covino
Writers: Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin
Starring: Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino, Gayle Rankin
Runtime: 98 mins
MPAA Rating: R
The Climb drops us into a conversation between two friends on a bike ride moments before an unsavory violation of trust gets bluntly revealed in comical fashion…and it gets both worse and funnier from there. Functioning as a sort of dark comedy, the script’s humor lies in the irony of how terribly family and friends are capable of treating one another. The brilliantly delivered deadpan humor frequently crosses the line into the absurd for maximum effect while most everything gets lightly played off as an ordinary part of life. Some of the funniest moments occur when non sequiturs are used to divert attention away from a serious interpersonal issue such as when one of the main characters falls through ice into a frozen lake while walking away from an argument. Unfortunately, the serious underlying relational issues cannot always be ignored since the film stays fairly grounded, and, as a result, many humorous moments come across as more sad than funny, weakening the experience as a whole. I want to believe that the writers, who play the main two characters, are attempting to accentuate the fact that many people caught up in toxic relationships can go to ridiculous lengths to rationalize the toxic behavior as normal and healthy. Even still, I enjoyed and I recommend The Climb for its efficient construction and humorous performances. Be aware that the content in this movie skirts towards the harder side of the R rating.
Sorry We Missed You
Director: Ken Loach
Writers: Paul Laverty (screenplay)
Starring: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone
Runtime: 101 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (would probably be R)
Sorry We Missed You is a serious portrait of a post-Great Recession Irish family struggling to make ends meet in burdensome financial times. It starkly shows the practical ramifications of an economic downturn and the resuling internal and external forces that can pull a family apart. This movie has it all: an exploitative, excessively punitive employer who works low-wage employees to the bone leading to frustrating fatigue and resentment, constant stress and long hours of separation leading to rifts in a marriage, and lack of active parenting leading to childhood neglect and teen delinquency. While not a real pick-me-up and certainly not groundbreaking, Sorry We Missed You is effective at instilling empathy by putting a magnifying glass over the microscopic effects of a macroscopic economic cataclysm. If you are in the mood, check this one out as most everyone should be able to commiserate with this family on some level.
Weathering With You
Directors: Makoto Shinkai
Writers: Makoto Shinkai
Starring: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri
Runtime: 112 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
A beautifully animated story about a teenage boy, Hodaka, striking out on his own in near-future Tokyo which is afflicted by incessant rainfall. By chance, he meets a girl, Hina, who is able to petition the sky to grant temporary localized respite from the deluge, giving her the moniker “sunshine girl”. The overwhelming dreariness of a city underneath aqueous oppression is masterfully depicted from both bird’s eye and street-level points of view. The sparse rays of sunshine that Hina can provide are a powerful contrast to the pessimistic emotional atmosphere of the city and Hodaka’s life. Writer-director Makoto Shinkai sets up a compelling conflict that rests on you empathizing with the plight of civilization as well as the personal relationship between two likable teenagers who grow increasingly close together. The visual construction and character developments keeps you invested in this story to the end, but the payoff is underwhelming and trite considering the stakes of the conflict. Unfortunately, the film is unable to stop itself from verging into saccharine territory, and overbearing emotional music choices reinforce this quality. The top-notch visuals, intriguing plot, and touching central relationship make this an excellent choice for those who enjoy more mature animation and for those who would not otherwise venture into foreign films.
THE SO-BAD-IT’S-GOOD AWARD
Wonder Woman 1984
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins (story & screenplay by), Geoff Johns (story & screenplay by), Dave Callaham (screenplay by), William Moulton Marston (based on characters from DC Wonder Woman created by)
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig
Runtime: 151 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
DC just could not wait to chew up and spit out their only semi-edible confection. While Wonder Woman (2017) did not floor me by any means, it is a coherently crafted experience with likable leads, and, most importantly, it is not overwhelmingly dour in atmosphere like its sibling films in the DC universe. Now, Wonder Woman 1984 keeps the mostly bright colors and throws coherency out the window as the sheer level of silliness gets piled on scene after scene. The film’s progressive ridiculousness is best embodied by the character of Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig). In Act I, she is a shy, homely nerd picked on by all her coworkers with the exception of Diana. In Act II, by removing her glasses, straightening her hair, and wearing less baggy clothes, she “transforms” into an alluring, confident female professional who can now clean-and-jerk 300+ pounds and has to brush off compliments from coworkers. In Act III, she morphs into an enraged feline monster who insists that her coworkers respect her as an “apex predator”.
Do not get me wrong, a dumb movie can still work if it continuously leans into its own preposterousness, but Wonder Woman 1984 insists on spastically transitioning from scenes of comical absurdity to Diana either carrying on a romance with the miraculously resurrected Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) or intently investigating the latest plot thread. The relationship between the two leads is a jarring regression from the chemistry they had in the previous film as most of their interactions feel entirely inorganic while the script is hellbent on using them to inject cringeworthy humor. Ironically, whenever the script attempts to be intentionally humorous, it is the least funny. Most of the movie is just Diana and Steve hopping from point to point to fight waves of bad guys in action set pieces while unraveling the master villain’s outrageous world-destroying scheme. The hyperactive barrage of absurdity that assaults your senses while getting played off as serious development prevents any possible chance of you buying into the grim stakes that the writers set up.
Speaking of the master villain, I would be remiss not to mention the entire reason this movie is able to shoot the moon from bad to “good”. Pedro Pascal as the crazed, fidgety businessmen Maxwell Lorenzano gives the funniest display of overacting I have seen in a terrible movie since Eddie Redmayne’s performance in Jupiter Ascending (2015). In a quest to save his business, Max tracks down a magical wish-granting stone and wishes to become the stone itself so that he can in turn grant wishes (don’t ask questions). The ensuing scenes in which he attempts to solicit wishes from numerous people by acting like a madman hyped up on stimulants and getting all up in their personal space to eagerly plead for their strongest desires are among the films most laughable. His personality, facial expressions, gestures, line deliveries, laughter, exclamations, and the way he makes his body tremble are so far over-the-top that it takes you out of the rest of the movie to a better place when he is in the spotlight.
The runtime is north of two-and-a-half hours, and I am quite certain they had even more nonsense filmed that they were unable to stuff into the final cut. The chances of me sitting through this film ever again are next to zero unless it is an abridged supercut of Pedro Pascal’s best moments. If you have nothing better to queue up, turn Wonder Woman 1984 on, but I am not sure it qualifies as a recommendable experience.
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