8/25/2021

Film Movement Movie Review: Final Set (2021)


Opens Virtually & in NYC on 8/27


“If you'd won quicker, you'd suffer less.”
 
Watching her son, thirty-something professional tennis player Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz) apply an ice pack to his knee during dinner, Judith (Kristin Scott Thomas) can't help but ask, “why lose the first set?”
 
Having helped propel Thomas to early greatness as a young prodigy, Judith struggles to remove her coaching hat to support her son the way that a typical mother would. Coming from a place of not only criticism but also love – because to care for Thomas and the knee he'd had operated on multiple times in the past is to question why he still feels the need to try to compete against the top players of the world at his age – to say that their relationship is complicated would be an understatement. But understating it is precisely what makes their dynamic and everything else in French writer-director Quentin Reynaud's “Final Set” so real and compelling.
 
Minimal and precise, the dialogue between not only Thomas and Judith but also Thomas and his loving, supportive, but equally conflicted wife Eve (Ana Girardot) is spare throughout the work which boasts a quasi-documentary feel. Yet, delivered by this exceptional group of actors who can say so much with a look or tone, we feel the weight of one’s meaning even though the English subtitled lines are spoken in French. In fact, generating a great deal of conflict and depth from these micro-moments, it's a film where those inquisitive looks over dinner or cautious actions – even the way one character packs or carries a tennis bag – speak louder than words.


From the Australian Open in January to the ATP finals for the highest-ranked male players in November, tennis, more than most sports, is essentially played for eleven months out of the year. Unfortunately, with a ranking of 245, which is a far cry from the great hope he was supposed to be twenty years earlier when he choked during a grand slam, Thomas' respectable but still low stats keep him out of most major tournaments, which cater only to the top players in the sport. 

And while he would prefer to enter every competition he can, his wife – a former player herself who now handles the behind-the-scenes business decisions – has to gently remind her husband that when you subtract the travel, food, and lodging costs, far too often, the actual winnings from some of these events don't justify the expense. Supplementing the income he barely receives from matches he's allowed to enter by working as a children's coach at his mother's tennis club, while everyone around him is waiting for him to hang up his racket or join the over thirty-five tour, Thomas decides to make one last stand at Roland Garros.
 
Otherwise known as the French Open, at Roland Garros, tennis is played on courts of famous red clay where the surface of the terrain not only sticks to a player's shoes, socks, legs, clothes, and arms if they take a nasty fall, but as legends like Andre Agassi and Roger Federer are first to admit, it's also sheer hell on the knees. And if it's hard on those joints at any age, you know it's destined to be agony for Thomas whose prominent knee surgery scars, arthritis, ligament lesions, and osteoarthritis are shown and discussed within the first five minutes of Reynaud's movie.


Nonetheless, knowing he doesn't have a lot of time left but not quite ready to follow in his wife's footsteps and train for another career because – despite being a husband and father – a life outside of tennis isn't something he's ever considered, Thomas decides to make a run at the Open by playing several brutal rounds as a qualifier. Facing other players not lucky enough to get in via wild card or ranked highly enough, even though his wife Eve tells him to “have fun” before he leaves for a match, we know that for the serious Thomas, fun doesn't really enter the equation. No, in this quixotic, underdog run, it's just about determination, desperation, and the work.

Drawing a parallel throughout to a cocky, young, but exceptionally gifted seventeen-year-old phenom on the rise (played by real pro player J├╝rgen Briand), who even Eve admits reminds her of her husband, obviously, you know that eventually, the two men will have to square off at some point to achieve the dramatic potential of Thomas “playing himself” in “Final Set.” Still, it's in the authenticity of the film's battle to that battle – and particularly the amount of regret, guilt, excitement, frustration, and pain of both the past and present that flood our main ensemble from start to finish – that makes this film feel like something beyond just your typical inspirational sports drama.
 
Furthermore, the time that Reynaud takes off the court and how much trust he puts into this excellent trio of actors (with once again, Scott Thomas doing some of her best work both later in life and in French) makes his bold decision to spend the film's final twenty-five minutes on the court so incredibly effective. Set during a showdown between the two pros at different points in their life, Reynaud goes right for the greatest hits of dramatic tennis. 


Zeroing in on a five-set grand slam match between a David and a Goliath, which features a never-ending deuce, racket smashes, cramps, long rallies, and more, the film achieves something so thrillingly intense that for a long time, I actually forgot for a while that I was watching a movie instead of championship play. More than that, as someone whose TV is often left on The Tennis Channel, it was only after the movie ended when I was reading the film's production notes that I realized that the final match went on for nearly the length of a traditional “act” of a Syd Field screenplay.
 
Yet, similar to the way that I love a good football movie even if it isn't a sport I actually watch, this isn't to say that one needs to be an avid tennis fan or even know much about the sport to enjoy “Final Set.” Filmed at Roland Garros and using that tried and true blueprint of “Rocky,” which similarly spends a good chunk of the film's last half right in that boxing ring as we watch events unfold in what I'd call “hyper-real time,” Reynaud's film is wildly ambitious in its scope. Refreshingly, though, it's as invested in the human story as it is in its tennis, which comes through in the film's fully earned last shot. A superbly executed ensemble effort that plays out against a backdrop that's the stuff of modern myth-making, as we watch Alex Lutz's Thomas fight against time and his own body's wear-and-tear, we're right there with him, eager to battle it out to the very end.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

8/19/2021

Movie Review: Raging Fire (2021)


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One of my all-time favorite movie reactions is from Denzel Washington who was interviewed on a red carpet after he saw Brian De Palma's “Mission Impossible” in 1996. Recounting the film's many cloak-and-dagger reveals where people switch sides often while in pursuit of the all-important NOC List, Washington leveled with the reporter, joking, “I said to my wife, 'am I stupid or was that hard to understand?'” 

I bring this up because just this week, I had a similar reaction to "Raging Fire," the final film of the late great director Benny Chan. After it began, for at least a good twenty minutes, I was in a constant state of confusion. It's not a great feeling. Nobody wants to admit that they have no idea if they're watching a flashback, a jump forward, or if a character who seems like a villain actually is, and in this case, I think my uncertainty was exacerbated by the fact that at least in the screener of the film I was playing, the subtitles were far too small and flew by at the speed of a John Woo bullet ballet. Unsure if this reaction was my issue alone, before I could even pause "Fire" to ask an avid foreign film buff I was watching with if they understood what was going on, they turned to me and said they were finding it almost impossible to keep up.

Until it eventually all came together in a long-overdue burst of exposition, I simply fell back on my love of Hong Kong action movies, which frequently revolve around the duality of a cop and a robber, and how the two characters really are two sides of the exact same coin, “Infernal Affairs,” “City on Fire,” or “Hard Boiled” style. And luckily, that really helped me out in "Raging Fire," which star Donnie Yen readily admits does go right for that old beloved trope of cops and robbers that film fans have cherished since the days of the western in the west and/or samurai tales in the east. 


In Chan's movie, Yen stars as an obsessive, dedicated police officer who finds himself pursuing his one-time protege on the force, now turned villain played by Nicholas Tse. Feeling like he was hung out to dry just for - in his eyes - following orders, after spending time in prison, Tse reemerges hell-bent on revenge. I'm giving you the succinct version of the set-up here because, as merely a fan of all involved, I went in completely blind and had trouble sorting it out. 

Yet while the film's first act is missing a much-needed sense of flow, which is a recurring problem in Hong Kong movies that often begin with a concept, which only gradually evolves into a script involving these favorite character archetypes, thankfully Benny Chan knows how to direct action. And with his final work, “Raging Fire,” he is there to distract us from the small subtitles and confounding goings-on. 

Only in a Chan film will you have the determined officer played by Donnie Yen tell his squad to go home after a twenty-hour workday and after they leave, he decides to go to an inner-city lair where he fights roughly twenty-five guys at once. It's an insanely wise decision for "Fire," because, I mean, Yen is “Ip Man” after all! Ultra stylish in that glossy Hong Kong way where even the ultraviolence is beautiful, in “Raging Fire,” our two incredibly photogenic leads duke it out in the rain (among other places) and Edmond Fung's cinematography is so vivid and urgent, you can't help but want to reach your hand out to see if you can feel a raindrop hit your skin as well.
 
Drawn to the movie because, as Tse said, he knew it would be a rare chance to do real old-school, contemporary Hong Kong action that nobody seems to be making anymore due to the danger and expense, “Fire” is filled with rapid shoot-outs, explosions galore, and hand-to-hand combat, including a final fight sequence so intricate that it took nearly two weeks to film. Featuring incredible wirework and death-defying stunts that glide by like Gene Kelly tap-dancing in an MGM musical, in one of the film's most memorable moments, we see a motorcycle vs. car duel play out in traffic with blows landed and thrown through an open window and sunroof that must be seen to be believed.


Proof that sometimes plot (or coherence) is overrated, although, even when you figure it all out, the film's storyline is forgettably threadbare, for action lovers, “Raging Fire,” is a full “turn your brain off and just enjoy the ride” throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema in the late '80s and '90s when films like Benny Chan's “A Moment of Romance” reigned supreme. 

While not as masterful as the Hong Kong classic "Romance," it's still a spectacle of human achievement executed by a film crew who will literally risk being executed to dazzle you. Made with true affection by Yen, Tse, and company for the late director they loved so much, even if the first half-hour of rapid-fire subtitles and scene jumps in “Raging Fire” made me feel – in Washington's words – “stupid,” the entertainment value of Chan's film isn't hard to understand.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

7/05/2021

Blu-ray Review: Last Train From Gun Hill (1959)


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Originally purchased in 1954 by producer Hal Wallis as a potential western vehicle for either Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston, although those efforts stalled, five years later, Wallis was able to see his dream of a big-screen adaptation of TV writer Les Crutchfield's thrilling story "Showdown" come true.

Sharing production duties with star Kirk Douglas's own company Bryna Productions, Hal Wallis reunited with the cast and crew of his 1957 Paramount hit "Gunfight at the OK Corral" two years later for the briskly paced, startlingly gritty, taut, high profile VistaVision release "Last Train From Gun Hill."

Directed by John Sturges and shot by gifted versatile cinematographer Charles Lang the exact same year he lensed "Some Like It Hot," he fills "Gun Hill" with a mixture of dark noir shadows and an at times luridly bright, flammable color scheme of reds, oranges, and yellows to almost expressionistic effect. This visual motif serves as an ingeniously bold yet still subtle depiction of the fiery aggression of its core cast of characters and helps the emotional core of the film remain ever-present from start to finish.



After U.S. Marshall Matt Morgan's Native American wife is raped and murdered by two young sadistic cowboys in front of their young son, the lawman (played by Kirk Douglas) vows to do whatever it takes to bring the killers to justice. Discovering their connection to his old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), thanks to a distinctive saddle on one's horse that his son was able to use to escape the villains, Matt journeys to Craig's Gun Hill with his gun and badge, even though he's advised that those things won't be welcome there.

"You work for Craig Belden?" Matt asks when he gets off the train, before, in a half of a line that fans of 1993's "Tombstone" know very well, he lowers the boom. "You tell him I'm coming."

However, it seems that Quinn's Craig Belden is in for a rude wake-up call as well. Having been told by his son Rick (Earl Holliman) that his horse and saddle had been stolen by thieves and that the garish scratch Rick's suddenly sporting on his face came from a lusty encounter, once Matt arrives and asks his old friend for help, Craig realizes that his son and friend are the ones responsible for the heinous crime.

And when Matt comes to the same conclusion as Craig, the shocked but proud man implores Matt not to arrest Rick, warning him that he not only runs the entire town but also the police. Informing Craig that he aims to bring Rick and Lee back to face charges on that night's last train leaving from Gun Hill, Matt embarks upon a lonely search throughout the corrupt town to track them down. And soon enough, he deduces that the only thing the people of  Gun Hill value less than the life of a Native American is that of a Native American woman.


Although it's reminiscent of "High Noon" in Matt's one against the world quest, which, like "High Noon" manages to work in a female ally as well in the form of Carolyn James, the tale that "Last Train From Gun Hill" seems to have the most in common with is ultimately "3:10 to Yuma," based on the 1953 Elmore Leonard story.

Made into a film at Columbia Pictures in 1957 from director Delmer Daves (after which it was remade by James Mangold in 2007), fans of "Yuma" will see a lot of similarities between the plight of Matt and Van Heflin's in "Yuma" as well. And this is especially evident when a fair amount of action in "Hill" plays out at a hotel after Matt manages to capture and subdue Rick, despite knowing he's surrounded by gunmen ready to free Craig's son (which we saw in "Yuma" with Heflin and Glenn Ford) before they can board that train.

While "Gun Hill" admittedly places a good deal of its emphasis on action whereas "Yuma" involves far more scenes of mental chess played between the two men, "Hill" is still a psychologically thrilling work as it presents Matt and Craig as two flip-sides of the same coin who've grown further and further apart in their attitudes of right and wrong over the years.


Using the same type of approach he used to balance the moral, internal struggle of his characters with terse, tense, temper driven bursts of prideful masculine violence that he employed so perfectly in 1955's masterful "Bad Day at Black Rock," Sturges, along with his crew, lends a real sense of artistry to the film. Elevating it above its otherwise predictable "B" revenge western feel, the 94-minute movie not only flies right by but also helps foreshadow the career that the director would have in the early '60s, helming "The Magnificent Seven" (with some of this film's collaborators) and “The Great Escape” as well.

Given an impressively vibrant 6K transfer to Blu-ray (plus an HD digital copy) as part of the Paramount Presents series of titles, "Last Train From Gun Hill" might feel like something of a forgotten western from the era. But like Matt stalking through the alternating reds, oranges, yellows, and dark shadows in order to get his men before things ignite, this is one film that's well worth tracking down.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

5/18/2021

Movie Review: The Dry (2020)

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From the desolate, sun-drenched terrain of beige, brown, and yellow as far as the eye can see to the constant threat of bushfire thanks to the dryness of the environment and its unforgiving temperatures, the moody mythos of rural Australia is perfectly suited to western noir storytelling.

Not quite John Ford and not quite John Dahl – to audiences in the American southwest watching director Robert Connolly's new adaptation of Jane Harper's award-winning first novel “The Dry,” the film's overwhelmingly massive landscape seems equal parts foreign and familiar as it spools out before us onscreen.

Easily the most important character in this slow-burn thriller, in the hands of Connolly, his co-scripters Harry Cripps and Samantha Strauss, and his gifted lead actor Eric Bana (who also produced), the setting serves as a terrific allegory for the internal battle playing out in the mind of our main character as well.

As Australian federal police officer Aaron Falk, Bana's conflicted protagonist leaves his residence in Melbourne to return to his rural hometown of Kiewarra for the first time in over twenty years in order to bury his best high school friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) who killed his wife and young son in an alleged murder-suicide. Unwilling to believe that their son could do such a thing, after visiting with Luke's parents, Aaron promises them that he'll look into his family's deaths, even though he has no jurisdiction or any real link to the man his former friend had become after all this time.

An intelligent, evocative look at the way that the past and the present can coexist simultaneously, as Aaron investigates the present-day crime alongside a young sergeant (played by Keir O'Donnell), the film reveals more about his complicated history with Luke, including the suspicious death of a beautiful young woman they knew in high school that still haunts Aaron to this day. Feeling like the two cases are inextricably linked (or perhaps just needing them to be in order to find closure), just like the dry tinder of the ground beneath his feet that could catch fire at any moment, Aaron must figure out what is and what is not in his power to control.

A methodical actor who's at his best when playing contemplative characters who keep their cards close to their chest while embarking on external missions that wind up having to do more with what's going on internally than anything else, “The Dry” boasts one of Bana's strongest and most introspective turns in years.


Shot four-and-a-half hours outside of Melbourne in the flat, dry landscape of the Wimmera region of Victoria with its wide-open spaces that convey both mystery and danger and the secrets of a small, deceptively close-knit community beginning to come undone, “The Dry” feels like a western neo-noir descendant of “One False Move” and “Flesh and Bone.” But like an existential mystery made by a post-“Paris, Texas” era Wim Wenders, “The Dry” is much more intrigued by the psychology of its people rather than the traditionally plot-heavy machinations of a '90s thriller. Richly atmospheric and decidedly deliberate, it's the best Australian film of this type since director Ivan Sen released the brilliant sequel to his breakout hit “Mystery Road” in 2016 with “Goldstone.”

Taking time to develop, as we meet the people of Kiewarra, we aren't quite sure who and how many of these citizens and threads might prove to be connected in nefarious ways. One of those films where you find yourself following Bana into a small-town bar, look around and instantly know that every single person onscreen has an unpredictable story to tell, while a few of its supporting characters – including Aaron and Luke's old friend Gretchen (well played by Genevieve O'Reilly) – are a bit shortchanged by the narrative as a whole, it's a truly effective sleeper overall. Preferring to take the long way around in such a way that the film's first hour requires the patience of a prestige TV mystery series, once “The Dry” finds its footing, everything clicks into place.

Building up energy as it continues like a cyclone whipping around dust in the Victorian flatlands, as Aaron works to solve both cases using his heart as well as his head, the film reaches a conclusion as shocking as it is true. Surprisingly stellar in its deployment of red herrings and misdirection, in offering viewers a brainy, unexpected respite from mindless studio ventures, “The Dry” strikes a match against celluloid and brings the heat of summer movie season directly to the screen.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

5/13/2021

Movie Review: Riders of Justice (2020)


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After making a striking first impression in his earliest screen role in Nicolas Winding Refn's gritty and groundbreaking feature filmmaking debut "Pusher" in 1996, actor Mads Mikkelsen became a sensation in his native Denmark. And although Refn's film had more in common with say, Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" than it did with the newly launched naturalism based Dogme '95 film movement from directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Mikkelsen evolved into one of the most internationally recognizable stars from this school of filmmaking, thanks to a vital, early collaboration with writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen.

Following Jensen's 1998 Oscar for Best Short Film, fresh off the heels of having been nominated in the same category the two years prior as well, Mikkelsen's alliance with the filmmaker began with Jensen's feature directorial debut "Flickering Lights" in 2000. But their partnership really reached the height of its power in the films "Open Hearts" and "After the Wedding," which Jensen co-wrote with their director Susanne Bier (and the latter of which garnered Bier her first of two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film). The global success of those films, along with some which made Mikkelsen the muse of other Dogme vets led directly to his Hollywood crossover and subsequent popularity as a franchise favorite with turns in new Marvel, James Bond, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones properties.

Unwilling to leave his friends, language, and country behind, the loyal chameleon regularly alternates between huge studio tentpoles and the latest films from those he first found success alongside decades earlier. And this is not only true of Vinterberg, for whom he just starred in the Oscar-winning "Another Round," but especially Jensen, who has written and/or directed Mikkelsen in some of his most surprising fare over the years, from the morality tale "Adam's Apples" to the western "The Salvation" (for director Kristian Levring) to the new unorthodox holiday revenge dramedy "Riders of Justice."


Playing a recently deployed soldier who's sent home to care for his teenage daughter after she survives the train explosion that claimed the life of his wife, Mikkelsen's Markus is given an unexpected outlet for his rage when he's visited by two statisticians, including a survivor played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who was the last person besides his daughter to see his wife alive. Presenting Markus with evidence indicating that her death might have been part of a coordinated attack to prevent a man from testifying against the head of a notorious street gang, after a colleague in facial recognition manages to narrow down a suspect, these three odd wise men join forces with their new soldier friend.

Having neglected to figure out precisely what they should do once they confront the man, when their first interaction impulsively escalates into murder, the motley crew decides they're not done just yet and soon find themselves in the midst of a war with one of Denmark's deadliest crime syndicates.

But rather than give in to the basest instincts of the revenge genre and turn the film into something resembling "Death Wish," by setting the film around the Christmas holiday and populating it with social misfits just out of step with society, Jensen takes the opportunity to explore the questions of faith, chance, fate, and human connection that have fascinated him throughout his entire career.


While not entirely successful, most likely owing to differences in culture and translation, Jensen's tendency to weave startling bits of humor into the plotline, ranging from a recurring focus on weight regarding the teenage daughter of Markus or the blunt handling of a Ukrainian male sex slave they liberate makes the film hit a few discordant notes here and there. Still, with this talented cast, including men like Mikkelsen and Kaas – who've worked together for decades – once again able to add new layers to these at times tonally uneven yet undeniably complex characters, it works much better than you fear it will early on.

Culminating in a thrillingly photographed violent western-style showdown in the snow where the wounded and outnumbered men must figure out how to get out of this situation alive, Jensen punctuates his final act with a few true surprises as his characters struggle to figure things out amid the chaos.

Though unable to authentically balance its swings from sardonic to brutal to funny to sad without the film feeling the least bit artificial, Mikkelsen and company ensure that although – like their characters – they always remain ready to battle, the real thing that sets "Riders" apart is in the ensemble's journey towards one another and away from revenge. Of course, having proven it again and again over the years, it seems as though that kind of loyalty is more than just a plot point, in the end, it's the Mikkelsen way.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

5/06/2021

Movie Review: Wrath of Man (2021)


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With his mischievous wit, jaw-dropping athleticism, and old-fashioned charm seducing us right from the start of his very first movie – writer-director Guy Ritchie's auspicious 1998 feature filmmaking debut "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'' – enigmatic British actor Jason Statham taught viewers to expect the unexpected whenever he hit the screen. But, unable to be pigeonholed as one specific thing in an industry that thrives on packaging people like products to be marketed, sold, and moved with the same felicity as a bottle of salad dressing, Hollywood has never quite figured out what to do with the unique skill-set of Jason Statham.

Equally at home in comedic, dramatic, and action-focused fare, Statham's ease and dexterity in conveying emotion and information both verbally and nonverbally have, in the years following his last film with Ritchie in 2005's "Revolver" made him something of a half Cary Grant, half Jackie Chan, twenty-first-century unicorn film star. Serving up different sides of himself in everything from "The Bank Job" to the "Fast and Furious" franchise to "Spy," while he's consistently done good work, the 2010s found Statham playing a few too many interchangeable smartass badasses as he coasted from one hit-or-miss action movie to the next.

Having left the clever ensemble oriented crime dramedies that first put him on the map behind, as it turns out, Statham's situation is remarkably similar to the one faced by Guy Ritchie who's struggled to put his own stamp on summer studio tentpoles like "King Arthur" and "Aladdin" in recent years. Now, with the two old friends who first hit fame alongside one another a generation ago agreeing to re-team for a smaller and more intimate, but nonetheless compelling character-driven action film, they've both made the bold decision to address their creative habits and strip their work back to its essence in the stealthily efficient '70s style heist revenge movie "Wrath of Man."


Based upon the 2004 French film “Le convoyeur” aka “Cash Truck” from director Nicolas Boukhrief, which Ritchie adapted alongside his frequent screenwriting collaborators Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, “Wrath of Man” is a sharp left-hand turn for the British helmer away from the hyper-kinetic brand of filmmaking most synonymous with his name.

Gone here is Ritchie's obsessive kid in a candy store aesthetic of near eye-twitching levels of fast-motion stimuli, which at its best, dazzled viewers and worst, drove us to distraction right along with his penchant for camera trickery. In in its place, he's placed greater emphasis on his man-on-a-mission character-centric storytelling, which makes sense for this tale about a mysterious man (Statham) who walks in off the street and gets a job working for a frequently hijacked L.A. armored car company, only for us to discover that his reasons are far more personal than they are professional.

Taking an unexpectedly understated approach, for the film's first act, I could barely distinguish the U.K. based director of this film from men like Steven Knight or Simon West who'd helmed other vengeance fueled works of this type like “Redemption” and “The Mechanic” for Statham in the late aughts to early '10s. And while initially, it feels more like Ritchie is a director for hire than say, the man that made the newest versions of “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Man From Uncle,” I like how secure he is as a more mature filmmaker to know that the last thing this film needs is a bunch of sudden jump-cuts or shots from the point-of-view of bullets being fired from a machine gun. Ritchie’s strength here is in knowing who, what, and why we’re watching and getting us so lost in the story that when he finally decides to let us behind the curtain, we’re hooked.

Unwilling to mug for the camera or flash that megawatt smile that sometimes makes it impossible to separate a Statham character from the man himself, Ritchie's more restrained technique compliments the quiet power of his leading man very well. Uncovering the real reason why Statham's protagonist joined the armored car company, when the film finally abandons its early over-reliance on male bravado as its employees (played by Holt McCallany and Josh Hartnett) try sizing up the new guy, we begin to see “Wrath of Man” for the bare-bones revenge film that it is.


A terrific director of actors who's known for his ability to attract stellar talent from all corners of the globe, one of the best things about Ritchie's latest work is the trust and patience he places in his cast to reel us in. Developing slowly like a Polaroid that Ritchie's unwilling to shake, once “Wrath” introduces its second group of characters led by Jeffrey Donovan (who's been tacitly doing some of the best work of his career recently elevating even B-movies like “Let Him Go” and “Honest Thief”), we see precisely why everyone said yes to this remake. 

Becoming as involved in Donovan's morally complicated plight as we are in Statham's as though they're two flip-sides of the same coin, it's the actors who invest us in watching what (on paper, at least) would otherwise be an admittedly standard heist drama unfold. Featuring a chilling turn by Scott Eastwood (visibly relishing the opportunity to star in the kind of film his father would've certainly gravitated to in the '70s), “Wrath of Man” is a crackerjack B-movie that works so much better than it should because of the A-talent involved on both sides of the screen. And as one of the film's screenwriters, Ritchie understands this well.

Reuniting with his old friend Statham who, in shifting from one genre to the next over the years, lives to astonish, “Wrath” finds the two in the mood to reevaluate just what it is they can and should bring to a film when they're planning a stripped-down heist as opposed to an over-inflated tentpole.

Relatively straightforward both stylistically and narratively, save for a few flourishes because Guy is Guy after all and he loves to turn a straight line into a maze, “Wrath of Man” might not be what most people would think of when they hear the name Guy Ritchie, but this only works to the film’s advantage. Playing against audience expectations Statham-style, while this is one stellar vehicle for the movie star he put on the map, the biggest surprise of all in “Wrath of Man,” is that twenty-three years after “Lock, Stock,” Guy Ritchie is introducing himself to the world once again, saying, “Okay, you've seen that. Now, look what else I can do.”
 

Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

4/29/2021

Movie Review: The Virtuoso (2021)



Now Available


As we watch him execute his target at the beginning of the largely lifeless “The Virtuoso,” Anson Mount's unnamed hitman regales us with tongue-twister levels of alliteration. In his clunky voice-over narration, Mount describes the tricks of his trade. This means that for professional killers hoping for pristine, precise hits, it’s of paramount procedure to follow the protocols of planning and position in order to persevere. I'm paraphrasing, of course, but as Mount punches those alliterative words with purpose – undoubtedly trying to make sense of it all – it's hard not to feel like you're getting hit in the face by the “P” key of an old-fashioned typewriter for how often they're used.

Following up one surgically precise assassination with a rushed hit that goes wrong almost as soon as it starts, writer James C. Wolf's “Virtuoso” screenplay loosens up after that. Abandoning the emphasis on “P,” as though one consequence of the botched job was to cause the pages of Wolf's thesaurus to become unstuck, we watch as our virtuoso killer is lured away from his rustic, self-imposed isolation in the woods by his trusted employer (a game yet wasted Anthony Hopkins).

Making a horrifying meal out of a matter-of-fact monologue about the time his character was ordered to slaughter men, women, and children in Vietnam, Hopkins proves why he and he alone is the film's true virtuoso. Dropping in like a veritable hired gun for a few scenes before he presumably goes off to work on grander fare like “The Father,” Hopkins is easily the best thing in this self-important mess of a B-movie.


Sending Mount on a cryptic assignment where the quarry is given a code name like he's The Riddler in a Batman movie, our virtuoso ventures to a country town in the middle of nowhere. After a chance run-in with a few suspicious strangers at a gas station, he suddenly finds himself in a diner full of shady figures he's supposed to covertly assess as potential targets. Forgetting his lofty voice-over protocols of planning and precision, illogically, Mount just starts running the code name past people, quickly becoming the most conspicuous man in town.

One of those films with classic or neo-noir ambitions that at times you think might've been attempting to strive for “Key Largo” or even “Identity” like atmosphere and tension with its ensemble cast of characters in a small setting, the most surprising thing about director Nick Stagliano's muted, muddied “Virtuoso” is just how unsurprising it is from start to finish.

Almost as soon as one particular stranger is introduced, genre conventions tell you precisely where this thing is headed and like its hitman (well, in the first hit anyway) it doesn't deviate from its plan. Saddled with wooden dialogue and zero chemistry between the leads, “The Virtuoso” spends the rest of its 110 minute running time trying to make you believe another twist is coming. Sadly, it doesn't take long to realize that, despite the film's allusions to the contrary, Mount's visibly bored main character is many things but a virtuoso is not one of them.


Hoping to stack the deck, the movie is loaded with terrific character actors like the aforementioned Hopkins as well as Abbie Cornish, Eddie Marsan, and David Morse, some of whom appear for only the briefest of scenes to hopefully follow Hopkins' lead to show up, do the work, collect the paycheck, and get the hell out.

Still, whether it's with its talented cast, the film's few bursts of violence, or its near-bookended, gratuitously clinical depictions of nudity/sex which only call attention to themselves, no matter how hard “The Virtuoso” tries to command our attention, it's impossible to camouflage just how dull it is overall.

Bowing into theaters in some markets (including Phoenix) only five days after Hopkins garnered his second Oscar and four days before it bows onto DVD and Blu-ray, since curiosity over Hopkins' involvement is sure to drive some people to see this on the big screen, the timing of the film couldn't be better. Reinforcing Mount's words about the importance of his many professional “P”'s, what “The Virtuoso” lacks in pristine precision, its marketing team more than makes up for with their plan to persevere with a little help from gold.
 

Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

3/17/2021

Movie Review: The Courier (2020)


Now Available


Feature films are not documentaries. Regardless of what a title card reads at the beginning of a biopic, period picture, or other work “based upon” or “inspired by true events,” by now most film lovers know that you shouldn't consider a movie historical Cliff's Notes. If you want to know what really happened, it’s best to pick up a nonfiction book instead. 

Discovering this, it becomes harder to judge fictionalized “true stories” for when and where they decide to adhere to or deviate from the real turns of events or players involved. A valuable rule of thumb for me personally, but as the internet likes to say “your mileage may vary,” is that even when minor details are changed or new subplots are added for dramatic effect, it still has to feel true within the cinematic world where the story exists. Namely, any fictional changes made in a movie should not pull you out of the overall narrative. 

Unfortunately, this is one of the major ways where director Dominic Cooke's otherwise superbly acted faux true-life Cold War drama “The Courier” goes so wrong. A film about a British businessman (Benedict Cumberbatch) who's recruited to transport top-secret documents from a Soviet officer asset (Merab Ninidze) back to his MI6 and CIA handlers in the UK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Courier” is utterly fascinating on the page but only mildly successful on the screen. 

Anachronistic at best, the filmmaker’s decision to cast the unquestionably gifted Rachel Brosnahan as a young female American CIA agent working with MI6 to run foreign operatives in Russia in an era where the people doing so were men feels primarily like tokenism. And indeed, in the film's production notes, even “The Courier” screenwriter Tom O'Connor admits that “casting another male wasn't the most compelling version of the story to tell these days."


Reading this acknowledgment is annoying to me for several reasons. As women, we have our own worthwhile stories to bring to the screen and don’t need “The Courier” to shortchange the roles we played in the given period just because we weren't running international spy-rings. 

Yet even if O'Connor and Cooke weren't trying to be overly trendy in the post-Me Too era, which most female filmgoers are quick to see through, Brosnahan's CIA agent in “The Courier” feels so inauthentic that her mere presence – and the talented actress's strong performance – makes her minor character far more interesting than everyone else's. Obviously, this couldn't have been the filmmaker's intention all along or they would’ve centered the film on Brosnahan instead of “The Courier.” As soon as she appears onscreen, she easily overshadows Cumberbatch's rather dry everyday businessman, the woefully underwritten Greville Wynne who is purported to be the protagonist. But when it comes to the film's eponymous courier, in this regard, we quickly deduce that she is far from alone.

A weak main character as written, further research reveals that Greville Wynne is a relatively blank slate. Following the events of the film, it seems that not only did MI6 not thank the businessman or disclose much about his international pursuits but the real Wynne wrote two different memoirs that have been largely debunked, likely owing to a mental decline following his harrowing days as a citizen spy.

Although he’s undoubtedly an unexpected British hero worthy of greater study, Wynne is done a disservice in “The Courier,” once we’re introduced to Cumberbatch's enigmatic counterpart in the form of Merab Ninidze's Russian officer Oleg Penkovsky early on. Immediately engaged in the plight of this man putting his family, career, and life on the line for his principles on his own accord, not only does Penkovsky steal focus from our British courier throughout, it becomes painfully clear that he would've made a much more gripping main character overall. Of course, the stakes are similar for Wynne but being that Penkovsky is mostly in Russia makes his dual role vastly more terrifying.


Imbued with an intentionally dull visual palette, which has a lethargic effect on the film as a whole, despite Cumberbatch's immense range as an actor, whenever “The Courier” follows Ninidze's Penkovsky instead of Wynne, Cooke's work roars back to life. Sadly, however, these moments are as short-lived as they are few and far between.

An altogether underwhelming, workmanlike endeavor, the film marks a disappointing sophomore effort for the director of the impressive '17 sleeper “On Chesil Beach.” Helmed by a man with an extensive background working with actors in the theater, “The Courier” is augmented by the strength of Cooke's ensemble cast, including Jessie Buckley as Wynne's stylish wife who brings a bit of vivacity to the film’s visually dour proceedings.
 
While on the one hand, it's perhaps worth watching for viewers who are curious about Cold War foreign policy and international relations, on the other, what we have here doesn’t really work as a film. Despite being content as ever to look the other way for the sake of artistic license, the faux factual "Courier" just doesn't entertain us enough to warrant being trendy, UK-centric, and safe rather than unapologetic, international, and real.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

2/09/2021

A David Morse Reappraisal: Down in the Valley (2005)




Introduction: 

For my latest DVD Netflix actor's spotlight article, I chose five outstanding performances by character actor David Morse. One of the films I analyzed for the piece was this 2005 sleeper but unfortunately, the independent film studio went bust and the DVD is no longer in production or available to rent from Netflix. However, as of this post, "Down in the Valley" is available to stream from a variety of services (check the site/app Just Watch for current details) so I wanted to share this reevaluation of the film here for you today. 


"Down in the Valley"

Writer-director David Jacobson's “Down in the Valley” is as eerily dark yet disarmingly gentle as the potentially dangerous modern-day drifter cowboy Harlan Fairfax Curruthers that Edward Norton plays in the flawed yet fascinating film. A psychologically compelling character-driven contemporary western that plays on the genre archetypes of good and evil, the film focuses on the aimless wanderings of two kids coming-of-age in the San Fernando Valley. 

As a restless teenager on the cusp of womanhood, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) spends most of her days with friends or being followed around by her equally bored brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). A maternal figure standing in for their mother who's out of the picture, in the way that Lonnie gravitates to Tobe, we begin to realize that – although Jacobson barely fills in the details for most of these characters – Wood's Tobe is a girl who has grown up much too quickly. 

 And just like we see in Norton both darkness and light, casting the precocious Wood (who'd first made a splash playing characters thrust into adulthood early), ensures that Jacobson brilliantly uses people as iconography in “Down in the Valley.” 

Ogled by Norton's handsome, much older Harlan as he fills her friend's car with gas, Tobe boldly eyes the stranger back and impulsively invites him to accompany them to the beach. Quitting his job on the spot, he jumps feet first into the ocean and headfirst into a relationship with Tobe. 

Guileless and relatively innocent (at least initially), although it's Harlan who has several years on his new girlfriend, after their first afternoon together quickly escalates into sex, it's surprisingly Harlan who wants to pump the brakes a bit and court her '50s style. Asking her younger brother if it's okay that he dates Tobe, in that moment we sense the “aw, shucks” Jimmy Stewart style nervousness that attracted Tobe to Harlan in the first place. Unfortunately for the kids, however, it takes a man closer to Harlan's age to see right through it. 


An overprotective stepfather to the two children who once again (with his natural “cop's face”) is cast as a man of the law, when Morse's Wade comes home and sees his stepdaughter wearing a dress that the man she's about to leave home with bought her, alarm bells start to go off in his head. Sizing him up but soon backing down, he lets the two go out, which indicates to us that Tobe must be of age (or else he's just that trusting). Things quickly change, however, first when she begins staying out all hours and again when she gets arrested for stealing a horse after former ranch hand Harlan lets himself onto another man's property to “borrow” a white horse and bring Tobe for a joy ride. 

In medieval romantic literature and movie westerns, the chivalrous heroes of the genres are the ones on white horses donning white hats. But even before Jacobson lets us see how white-hatted Harlan spends his days playacting gunfights (with real guns) when Tobe's not around, we start understanding why Wade instinctively knew that when it comes to this cowboy, something is definitely off. Pulled into the melee after the horse's owner (Bruce Dern) calls the cops and tells them that despite Harlan's insistence to the contrary, he's never seen him before in his life, Wade lays down the law that she needs to stop seeing this strange man. 

Soon a standoff develops between the two in the meandering third act when Morse – donning a black hat, clothes, and riding a dark horse as well – forms a posse with others to locate and arrest Harlan for a shocking crime. And the film's genre symbolism truly comes full circle when they wander onto a western movie set. 


Refusing to give us any answers about the drifter's background or mental state as the character of Harlan takes on some De Niro in “Taxi Driver” like properties when he aspires to “rescue” the kids from their domineering stepfather, the film finds its one true moral center in the complex heart of Wade. A cautionary tale about the dangers of fantasy, which – despite offering a sense of escape – can be taken much too far, Morse's Wade is the prickly voice of reason when the kids are charmed and seduced by Harlan. 

Knowing he's too strict with Tobe and frighteningly pushes her away, there's a sense of heartbreak and unease in Wade's behavior throughout the movie. We sense this both when he tells Lonnie not to sleep in his sister's room so much because he wants to toughen the sheltered boy up and also when he struggles to discipline a young woman at her most emotionally and hormonally confusing time. He's ill-equipped for his role as their guardian or single father and he knows it. 

Raising questions about masculinity, which admittedly need additional fleshing out to give Morse more to work with and the audience a better sense of their home life, Jacobson's script weaves in a few key lines of dialogue about Wade that are uttered by the other characters. Wanting to impress and bond with his new friend and sudden role model Harlan, Lonnie describes Wade's background in the service as a war veteran. Showing Harlan Wade's collection of vintage guns that he won't let Lonnie touch until he's at least sixteen, Wade's concern over their deadly intent – even when he draws down on Harlan midway into the movie to scare him off – admirably contradicts the casual, frightening way that Norton's character plays with weapons like they're mere extensions of his hand. 


Like his work in “Dancer in the Dark,” Morse's role in “Down in the Valley” is a relatively small one compared to co-stars Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood (whose portrayal of a young woman under the spell of a dangerous older man at a time that she actually was makes it quite harrowing). Still, via Morse, Wade's new stateside war between wanting to protect his stepchildren from potential harm but not drive them away in the process becomes one of the film's most underdeveloped yet subtly moving plotlines. So caught up in Tobe's relationship was I the first two times I saw the film, this reading of Wade only came to me recently in a rewatch. Intriguingly, although he has a fraction of the screen time, Morse's Wade is the one you'll find yourself contemplating much more after it ends, even though he's far less mysterious than Harlan. 

And while the film's insistence to put a bow on the ending as two characters reflect on Norton's troubled cowboy takes something away from “Down in the Valley”'s overall ambiguity, it's a curious film that's elevated by its talented quartet of stars. Likewise, it's one where the innate goodness of Norton and Morse's screen personas in other movies make their work here even richer and more subversive than it is on the page.

Read About 4 More David Morse Films & Performances on DVD Netflix here.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

1/06/2021

The 30 Best Films of 2020

The 30 Best Films of 2020
by Jen Johans



An Introduction

For me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that while I love reading lists, I hate making them. Coming up with a quick and dirty Top 5 in the company of friends can be a fun conversational tool to stir debate among film geeks but the prospect of actually sitting down to make a definitive ranking of titles is about as appealing as deep cleaning my refrigerator. 

No two lists are alike, just like no two “three-star” movies are alike. I'd much rather champion or critique films in longer pieces throughout the year to inspire greater thought than rely on the quick stars I slap on a film on my Letterboxd account for record-keeping.

It all boils down to taste and criteria, both of which differ wildly from one person to the next. Should you choose your favorite films or the ones you think of when you hear the word best? When asked to explain the difference between the two, the example I always give is Martin Scorsese, whose “Raging Bull” I consider to be his greatest masterpiece yet “Goodfellas” is the picture of his that I watch the most. But when it comes to best, is the technical side of filmmaking more important than the theme of a movie if its cinematography and editing aren't quite where they should be to match the film's script and performances? When should you let the shortcomings of a film slide and when should you more harshly judge another one?


As I began to look at the rather unscientific list I made in 2020 of my favorite new films, I thought about what I looked for in end-of-the-year lists back when I was just a casual fan signing onto “The New York Times” or Roger Ebert's site each December. I realized that while I knew that the more times I came across titles like “Yi Yi” or “In the Mood for Love” on the web, they moved higher up on my list of films to seek out, the thing I loved even more than anything was discovering something new that represented an individual critic's personality in a stance that broke away from the pack.

Some films are, of course, objectively great, and that is the first criteria I used when compiling my list. Starting with the query to list the films that I consider the best of the year, I went with that “Raging Bull” vs. “Goodfellas” dynamic in listing unequivocally excellent films first but once those were out of the way, I started to play. I moved them to various locations in the rankings, by considering other questions as well.

Namely, which films spoke to me the most on a personal level as a 39-year-old disabled woman with my particular worldview and set of experiences? Which ones perhaps meant more to me in 2020 than they would've just one year earlier? If I'd never seen any of the films from 2020, which ones would I want a friend to tell me to see first? 


I meant to make a Top 20 of '20 list but my first draft went well past 50 films so I arrived at 30 as a means of compromise. The last movie that I saw in a theater was nearly a year ago and while I miss that communal experience, even without the theater, some truly amazing films were released last year. There are a handful of titles on this list that I watched more than once, including the top film, which I loved so much that I watched it twice in one week. Similarly, there are others you will see here that I found so hard-hitting that I know it will be a long time before I'm able to revisit them. I'm limited to the works that I have access to and/or have seen so far so this list might be right for today but it will inevitably shift with time and greater access to more movies. And as my whims change, something I currently have in my Top 5 or 10 might drop to my Top 20, and vice versa, and others might fall off this list completely.

While working on this project, I quickly realized that I shouldn't write about each film on this list individually for two reasons: the first being that I'm so passionate about these movies that it would be several thousand words long, and the second is that I want you to have that same sense of discovery that I had when I finally sat down to watch, say, 2002's “City of God” for the first time.

My advice to you is don't read too much about these films ahead of time before you push play. My friend, the veteran critic, and screenwriter Drew McWeeny argued on my podcast Watch With Jen that reading film criticism should be saved until after you've watched a movie and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I love and respect film writing and do my best not to spoil any plot points in my pieces but I know that as a consumer in my own right, I do the same thing as Drew. I save the reviews I want to read until after I've seen the movie and have sat with it for a while. 


It's incredibly valuable to bring other points of view into my relationship with a movie, whether I agree or disagree with their critique. Honestly, back in the "before times" when press screenings were safe to attend, I opted not to discuss new films very much with fellow critics and chose to instead think about it privately for at least twenty-four hours before I wrote my piece to avoid hyperbole or a rush to judgment. I didn't start out like this of course, because it took some time for me to learn that it's okay not to know what to think about a film right away.

It's said that the legendary critic Gene Siskel would leave the theater rather than see the trailers for upcoming features back when he was writing for “The Chicago Tribune.” While I've never gone that far, I do find myself only watching thirty seconds or so of a YouTube trailer to get the feel of a movie I might agree to review without the disappointment of inevitable spoilers. I love going into a movie knowing little to nothing about it.

Now that we're all home during the pandemic and so much great cinema is available with the push of a button, I encourage you to try something new. Check out films from genres you normally don't embrace and be sure to explore titles from other countries as well. View movie-watching as a new adventure. After all, it's a way to safely travel in the comfort of your own home in 2021. I know that having the ability to go to Greece and swim in the sea with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is a big part of the reason that I ranked their newest “Trip” film so highly on this list. Yet even though the rest of the movies I included aren't comedic travelogues, they do offer you the chance to escape reality for a while by going back in time or walking in the shoes of someone you'd never expect to meet in your everyday life. 


Like seeing a “you are here” sticker on a map, a majority of the best movies of the year opted for a neorealistic approach to storytelling. They aim to drop you directly into the world of their protagonist and lose you for a while. From blue-collar workers going wherever they need to go for work as modern-day nomads to heavy metal drummers or farmers doing the same, most of these films use blisteringly compelling first-person or small ensemble narratives. Concentrating on individuals living their lives on the fringes, we encounter the uncelebrated souls of people just getting by, the un-Coogan and Brydons, if you will.

When writing about what these movies have in common, some critics preferred to zero in on the Me Too aspect apparent in many of 2020's best features and it is definitely there. The popularity of this vital theme, along with the fact that over a dozen of the films in my unedited list of '20 favorites were made by women cannot be understated when evaluating the year's best works. However, I think the real story here is that in a largely (and thankfully) superhero-free year, filmmakers have argued that the real superheroes are the ones who are not “the best” genetic specimens but rather, the ones who get up and do the best they can, regardless of race, gender, or ability. 


Navigating wrongs as they're able while also knowing that they still need to put food on the table, in many of these movies, there's a recurring question of who has and what it means to have power. Many of our main characters are backed into a corner and forced to reconcile what it is that they need in this life with what they want. The desire to simplify, to make a connection, and to find meaning even in a world where things aren't fair is felt throughout all of these works, regardless of who the film's subjects are. We see this when we tag along with guests to a 1980s West London dance party, when we watch a Czech artist find a new friend and muse in the Norwegian thief who stole two of her paintings, and in a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker in Italy trying to come to terms with his own demons and desires.

A combination of “best” and “favorite” movies, including the ones I immediately recommended to others and the ones that kept me up nights, when given the impossible task of making a list, I took a cue from these films and found my own meaning as well. In the end, don't ask me to explain it. Just enjoy the movies because then it’s time for you to decide. 


Jen's 30 Best Films of '20

1) “David Byrne’s American Utopia” 
2) “Sound of Metal” 
3) “Minari” 
4) “The Trip to Greece” (full review)
5) “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” 
6) “The Nest” (full review)
7) “I’m Your Woman” (full review)
8) “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” 
9) “The Assistant” (full review)
10) “A Sun” 
11) “Nomadland” 
12) “Another Round” 
13) “Babyteeth” (full review)
14) “The Painter and the Thief” (full review)
15) “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” (full review)
16) “Black Bear” 
17) “One Night in Miami” 
18) “Saint Frances” 
19) “First Cow” 
20) “Herself” 
21) “News of the World” 
22) “The Burnt Orange Heresy” 
23) “Da 5 Bloods” 
25) “Time” 
26) "The Vast of Night" 
27) “Driveways” 
28) “Alone With Her Dreams” (full review)
29) “Tommaso” 
30) “Corpus Christi” 
Note: I will continue to update this list on Letterboxd as I see more movies and/or revise the order of the titles. You can visit the list in progress here.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.