Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Retrospective (Just the Movies, I Promise)

So, every year I do one of these "least-to-most-favorite" movie lists, usually using "theatrical release" as a litmus test for inclusion, though I've been slowly relaxing that rule for a while now. But seeing as theaters aren't really a thing right now, I'm going to drop it entirely.

That said, I'm still being somewhat selective in what I include here. I'm trying to maintain some sort of line between "feature film" and "TV movie," even when it's not entirely logical or consistent. I can't rationally defend some of these inclusions when I leave off Phineas and Ferb: Candace Against the Universe, but it feels right. Like these are all "real movies" while that's an extended episode. That's not a statement of quality - Candace Against the Universe would absolutely have landed above some of these - but it feels different.

Likewise, I'm not including documentaries. This mainly just means I'm not ranking Spaceship Earth, which I loved. Again, this is a subjective call - I just don't feel like it makes sense.

Also, in case there's any confusion, this list is entirely based on preference, not quality. 

The designs in Jingle Jangle alone are almost enough to bump this up a spot or two, but not quite. I can forgive the weak story and the dull characters, but the abysmal pacing and massive structural problems are just too egregious. It's a situation where the component pieces are really impressive but the sum total is, well, kind of awful.

I really wanted this to be good, and it just wasn't. 

While this is dead last on this list, I do want to acknowledge that's as much because its production values were enough to give it a place. I saw at least four other holiday movies I'm not including that would have gone behind this, but it felt unfair to include them at all.

19. Over the Moon
The hardest thing about Over the Moon is it's incredibly impressive as a visual showcase. This really does look at times like a Pixar movie, and that's no small accomplishment. But the problem with looking like a Pixar movie is it's going to make me want to be watching a Pixar movie, and the script for Over the Moon just isn't up to the job.

About a third of this movie is actually pretty good, but the other two-thirds are just a mess. Honestly, I considered leaving this all the way at the bottom of the list until I remembered the raccoon and bumped it up a few spots.

17. Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
It's weird looking back at movies released to Disney+ that were actually intended to be released that way. Timmy Failure is an example of a movie that's enjoyable to watch but doesn't really go anywhere. It's got some good characters and a great setting, but it could really have used a story.

16. Enola Holmes
This was fine. Like Timmy Failure, the production values were solid enough and the casting was inspired. But also like Timmy Failure, the plotting was unstructured, and it left me feeling unsatisfied.

15. Mulan
So, it's 8PM on New Year's Eve, this retrospective has been live for a few hours, and I just finished watching... this. I guess... maybe it goes here? Damned if I know.

I can forgive the stupidity, the awful dialogue, and the baffling premise... But most of this movie is just so boring. That said, there's some cool fight scenes, a bunch of ninja, and a couple warrior witches, so it's not a total loss. And for what it's worth, it's far from the worst of the Disney live-action remakes. Plus, I never actually liked the original, so it's not like I care a phoenix crapped on its legacy (was the phoenix actually there, or... never mind - forget I asked).

This was a bad movie, but unless you were dumb enough to pay Disney thirty bucks for the privilege of seeing it early, it's fine as a diversion they tossed on their streaming service.

14. The Willoughbys
I think this may have the rare distinction of being the only movie where I wish the baby had more screen time. I have to give The Willoughbys credit for putting in the effort. The movie throws a lot at you - a lot of B-plots, a lot of weird designs, strange details, story twists...

After a while it starts feeling like they're just tossing ideas at the screen in the hopes you'll like enough to keep watching. I'd say about a third worked for me, but then again I watched to the end, so... mission accomplished?

It was good enough, particularly for streaming, but I wish it had been better.

13. The Old Guard
The "not my boyfriend" monologue almost pushes this up a few spaces, but overall I found too much of this movie boring to sit through. While I like the idea of telling a story about a two-thousand year-old warrior's midlife crisis, the execution didn't work for me. Whenever they relaxed the drama, that changed, but the balance was off. This needed to be more fun and less self-important.

So... if the pandemic hadn't happened... they were going to release this to theaters? It's probably for the best this was streamed - I think the small screen experience probably helped, to be honest. I watched this with the lights out and without pausing, but - honestly - I think even that was a mistake. This might play better broken into chunks - say, a third at a time.

I respect the movie's decision to shift the tone closer to the 70's show and the Donner Superman series, and I really respect their decision to have Diana adopt a "no killing" rule. I'm less keen on the creative decision to make this a bad movie.

The structure and pace are a mess, the love story feels rehashed, Diana's arc feels forced... For me, though, I think the larger issue was the villains. They just weren't compelling, but the movie gave each of them a substantial story arc.

That said, there were some standout moments, like the invisible jet flying through fireworks or Minerva beating that guy to death. But as a whole, this movie was a disappointment.

11. Palm Springs
While I enjoyed Palm Springs, the ending left me a little underwhelmed. After subverting the genre for the first two-thirds, the movie changed gears and fell into typical romantic comedy tropes and patterns.

That said, I love how wholeheartedly it embraced its SF elements, exploring a more complex version of time travel than we typically seen on film. Ultimately, this was a good movie, but I wanted more.

10. Onward
This was a solid animated offering, but something felt a little off. Actually, make that "some things" - this movie had quite a few elements that didn't connect with me, starting with the baffling decision to cast two instantly recognizable Marvel stars in the lead roles. And don't get me started on recycling Star Lord's last moments with his mom. I'm still shocked that made it into the movie.

But it was still mostly fun and occasionally touching. Not to mention Guinevere's last ride: that moment was amazing.

This was ultimately a flawed film that was well served by events forcing the studio to move it directly from theaters to streaming, where it belongs.

This would be higher if it had stuck the landing. Even with underwhelming finale, the movie was still a fun, engaging adventure. Given that it was (I'm assuming) made on a shoestring budget, that's pretty impressive.

8. We Bare Bears: The Movie
This is a made-for-streaming movie wrapping up the fantastic animated series, We Bare Bears. I expected something good, but I'm not sure I was ready for something this brave. The movie explores xenophobia, racism, family separation, and the use of excessive force - pretty heavy subject matter for a kid's movie.

It's still funny, sweet, and ultimately optimistic, but the path to the happy ending goes through some dark territory. I'm not sure the impact would hit as hard if you haven't seen the series first, so that's one of the two reasons I'm suggesting you hold off on the movie until you've watched through the rest.

The other reason is that the show, like the movie, is damn good. Check them both out.

7. Soul
I'm having a hard time ranking this, because... well... it's damn near perfect. And I suspect it's not higher because I'm so used to Pixar churning out damn near perfect films (Onward notwithstanding) that this didn't hit harder.

But I think it's more than that. Soul is almost perfect for its premise, but that premise doesn't leave quite as much room for emotional highs and lows as we're used to from the company. I realize that sounds odd, considering it's fairly somber subject matter, but the story and themes are constructed in such a way the movie feels light and breezy. It's a feature, not a bug, that a movie about life, death, and purpose seems to have some of the lowest stakes we've encountered from the company, but it does mean the movie lacked the typical highs and lows. Again, not a problem, but it's the highs and lows that hit hardest and make a movie truly memorable.

The artistry in Soul is incredible, and the movie is an accomplishment... but it doesn't quite make it to the top of this list.

6. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
This is probably benefiting from low expectations, but that's how it works sometimes. From the limited marketing, I was expecting a one-joke vehicle for Will Ferrell to make fun of the Eurovision Song Contest. Instead, I got a loving tribute celebrating the joy of singing and camp. The movie was a pleasure to watch.

5. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
I won't pretend I wasn't bothered by the movie reinventing characters who maybe shouldn't be reinvented (I really want a comic accurate Cass Cain, in particular, and this moves us further away from getting that). Likewise, I'm not going to sit here and claim the last half didn't lose some energy.

But... wow. Just wow. The action, the style, the humor, the visuals... this was a hell of a movie, and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything to compare it to. This was an entertaining, engaging, and most of all unique film. I have a handful of quibbles, but I was glued to the screen. I loved it.

Favorite Films of the Year

I'm not going to cheat with a four-way tie, but know I seriously considered it. Everything left is a movie I seriously considered for the top spot.

4. Hamilton
I haven't written anything about Hamilton until now, not even a short blurb in any of my "catch-up" posts. You can probably guess why - the play has been around for a while, and the version released this year is literally just the play with a couple swears cut out. Everything everyone's said about the play is true of the recorded version, with the caveat that seeing these live always has more of an impact.

In other words, the only thing I have to say about Hamilton is that everyone's right - this thing is awesome.

By rights, I shouldn't be including this on a list of movies. It's at a massive disadvantage, since it's being plucked out of its medium. It has to make do with the limitations of a real set, an audience, live performances, and so on and so forth). It shouldn't be expected to compete "as a movie" with actual movies.

But here we are. Because despite those setbacks, and despite absurdly high expectations, it was that [expletive removed by Disney's censors] good.

3. Blow the Man Down
Okay, I... I think this counts as 2020? When I stuck it in one of my "Catch Up" posts, I listed it as 2019, because that's when it technically came out. But that was just a festival premiere: the movie wasn't available to a wide audience until last March, when it started streaming on Amazon. If this had gone from festival to theatrical, I'd use the theatrical release date, so I think it counts.

And damned if it doesn't matter, because this was one of my favorite movies I saw last year. Honestly, depending on when you ask me, it might even slide up another spot.

Some of that might be because I grew up in Maine. This doesn't get the accents right (no one ever does), but it captures something more important. I captures the sense of existing in a place built for an age that's past, the feeling of living in a ghost town that never realized it was dead.

The movie builds a sense of the supernatural without ever so much as touching that barrier. I have no idea how this will play to people who didn't grow up in the Northeast (though I suspect it'll still be a really enjoyable film), but for me... it was magic. Dark magic, to be sure, but still magic nonetheless.

Speaking of magic, Cartoon Saloon created a beautiful, haunting, incredible film inspired by Irish lore. Again, I mean. They've done that twice already, and this is a third.

Stylistically, the movie is gorgeous. Auditorily, it is gorgeous. Olfactorily, it is... okay, I can't actually smell the movie, but it does manage to depict smell visually really well, so I'm assuming that's gorgeous, too.

Officially, this wraps up Tomm Moore's trilogy, but I really hope he just says screw it and makes like a dozen more of these.

Back in the golden age of cinema, some of Hollywood's best movies were romantic comedies. That didn't last - really, by the 60's or 70's, they'd faded, and the 80's and 90's mostly offered pale imitations. The romcoms I grew up watching were mostly campy, poorly, conceived dreck. There were a handful of exceptions, the most notable being When Harry Met Sally, but overall, the genre seemed to be dying. Then it seemed to be dead.

I'm not surprised it's making a comeback. The rise of streaming platforms has opened the door for mid-budget productions that no longer made sense on the big screen. I've been expecting them to start showing up again. I'm not even surprised to see some good or great ones.

But if you told me a year ago a Christmas romantic comedy would come out that was on par with the ones from Hollywood's golden age, I'd have told you that you were crazy. But here we are.

Look, I say it every year - this isn't a 'best of' list. This is based entirely on personal preferences, and I'm a guy who likes giant monsters, superheroes, wizards, spaceships, and all that. Do you have any idea how good a romantic comedy has to be to show up here? To not just impress me but outright win me over?

Yeah. This good.

I understand this movie is controversial in some circles. A lot of fans (or would-be fans) wanted something less complicated, less nuanced. They wanted a simple story about simple characters with simple problems - basically a generic romantic comedy where the leads are both women.

And those fans absolutely deserve that movie. They deserve ten of that movie and ten where both leads are men. This genre has been dominated by heteronormative depictions of love for far too long (see also every other genre, but it's even more egregious when the genre in question is defined by romance).

But that's not an issue with Happiest Season - it's an issue with Hollywood. Taken on its own terms, this movie is incredible, and I sincerely hope it gets the accolades it deserves, preferably sooner rather than later.

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