Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: I saw four (4) whole movies in theaters in 2020, the Purgatory That Only Pretended to Be a Year on the Calendar. For those of us who didn’t live cocky, selfish lives, home video was our best possible escape hatch into other worlds, a lifeline out of this farcical fiasco of a reality, and our safest way to take a scenic cross-country walk in other shoes. And walk I did.
I don’t usually rank my home video viewing. I’d stopped keeping track of all that years ago because my posts about home video arrive with stats DOA. In 2020 I felt moved to devote full entries to a few key works, but by and large I watched them, I processed my feelings, I shut up, and I saved it for later. At long last, later is now.
I didn’t start keeping this list till late spring. I did my best to recall what I’d seen up to that point. One or two may yet have evaded me. Ranked here from Worst to Best are twenty-three films I watched across the spectrum of Netflix, Hulu, Kanopy, Disney+, Redbox Blu-ray, and one dense Xfinity Watch-a-thon weekend in November. We don’t have HBO Max or Amazon Prime, so their new releases can go rot into dust until and unless they migrate to a platform I can access. I don’t care if these 23 films were originally planning to hit theaters or not. This year they’re all created equal.
And now, on with the countdown:
23. Capone. If you thought Tom Hardy behind a mask was utterly unintelligible in The Dark Knight Rises or Dunkirk, get a load of Hardy as an elderly, senile, diseased, incontinent Al Capone barking in Italian while clenching a stogie between his teeth. This later-years biopic was supposed to be the Get Out of Director Jail Free card for Fantastic Four exile Josh Trank, but perhaps it was too soon to venture into the unasked question, “Instead of glamorizing a criminal in film, why not watch them at their worst as they decay into oblivion?” Maybe because a two-hour downward spiral of relentless despair isn’t the most engaging form of karmic justice to watch in slow motion.
22. New Mutants. A claustrophobic haunted-house bottle episode in which teen superheroes punch their worst fears, this cursed X-Men spinoff was postponed roughly 216 times until the newly Fox-free 21st Century Studios gave up and let it stumble out of intensive care like an eight-year-old crawling out of an incubator. Mediocre special effects and an imbalanced cast alienate different audience factions at each turn: comics fans who knew the characters could solve its central mystery in seconds, while newcomers likely had no idea why Illyana Rasputin had a non-mutant magic sword, non-mutant magic armor parts, and a non-mutant magic puppet. Frankly, the puppet was their one ingenious idea. Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy deserved a better launchpad.
21. Underwater. Another dusty remainder from a studio backlog, filmed years ago but released right before 2020 nosedived on us all. A handful of solidly creepy action scenes and a quick death for the since-canceled T.J. Miller enliven this ambitious B-movie in which Kristen Stewart takes on Cthulhu. The movie never identifies the spooky tentacled kaiju at its core, as if its name were a major spoiler for its sequel, but the Wikipedia plot summary clarifies all. If I have to follow up a viewing by going online and asking what the heck I just watched, the flick has failed at its job. (See also: Tenet.)
20. The Assistant. Julia Garner from Ozark is suitably anguished as a low-level employee in a NYC entertainment office ruled by an entirely offscreen Harvey Weinstein clone, like if Charlie Brown’s science teacher were actually a power-tripping lech. Garner’s days are filled with hints of impropriety, intermittent evidence of sexual shenanigans behind closed doors, and isolated moments of direct, unprofessional hostility aimed squarely for her when she doesn’t toe the line…and yet, she’s never a target of the worst parts. She’s held at a remove because she’s preemptively disqualified from harm according to the lech’s own code of dishonor.
At times I was reminded of certain (thankfully brief) time frames at my old job, where I felt uncomfortably powerless as other employees above a certain rank broke boundaries in their own ways when no one was looking, often to the eventual detriment of those below them. When Garner tries to save the day, like, somehow, one scene with an H.R. rep (Matthew Macfayden, realistically modulated) summarizes the inherent problems with this scenario in one unspoken sentiment: if it’s not happening to you, then there’s nothing we can do and who cares? Not that I want to watch Schmarvey Schmeinstein getting it on and physically or emotionally ruining actresses up close (no thank you times 3,000), but I’ve already watched bad tidings from a periphery, and kept waiting for the film to take a step or two farther and respond to that in some creative manner. I kept asking, “And then what? And then what?” And the film kept whispering back, “That’s it, that’s the whole story.” It was illuminating in its own way, but for me fell short of revelatory. It’s….I dunno, too real, I guess?
19. Dick Johnson is Dead. A documentary filmmaker tries to cope with her father’s possible dementia and potentially worse fate to come by staging and filming a series of whimsical alternate deaths or afterlives that could happen to him instead and would be far more stylish than simple encroaching decrepitude. One way to cope with degradation or death is certainly for loved ones to laugh in its face and draw strength from that united front, and yet at the end of the film a dress rehearsal for his funeral grinds to a halt when his best friend tries to deliver a eulogy and breaks down sobbing for long, painful minutes. It’s a powerful moment that reminds us grief can overwhelm us even when we think we’d steeled ourselves for it, but as the camera stayed on him, I felt like an intruder crashing the family’s very private affairs, and I began to wonder if anyone had told the best friend that Dad wasn’t actually dead yet. Fictional grief is one thing; lingering on someone’s real grief for too long is not my favorite kind of voyeurism. Also, the reviews had led me to believe the deaths would be funnier and there’d be more of them.
18. Bloodshot. A surprisingly entertaining “so bad it’s good” B-movie. When your star is like a guitarist who only knows one chord, the trick is to surround him with a decent band. The visual effects maintain a Doctor Who level of fun adequacy, evil scientist Guy Pearce learns from his Iron Man 3 mistakes, and props to The Black Guy from New Girl for strapping Act Three into a backpack and hefting all of this across the finish line like Sam toting Frodo to Mount Doom. But honestly, if superhero filmmakers insist on entirely artificial action scenes without a single live human or practical element in them, you might as well make the entire film animated. A consistently unreal palate is more honest and less distracting than jerky gearshifts between real-world chitchat and video game cutscenes.
17. Mank. David Fincher and his father co-wrote a largely fictional love letter to Herman Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who either wrote or co-wrote Citizen Kane depending on which parties you believe. The fantasy unravels if you look into what really happened and where this supposition came from, but Fincher’s painstaking recreation of Olde Tyme Hollywood is as detailed and immersive as I’d hoped. Gary Oldman performs all the expected Gary Oldman things while confronting the menace of the Red Scare, but he’s surrounded by MVPs such as Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies (a good listener and smarter than she lets on) and Tom Pelphrey, among the few highlights of Marvel’s Iron Fist, as Herman’s brother Joseph, who went on to make one of the absolute greatest entertainment-industry takedowns ever, All About Eve. Mank loses steam as it chugs along to its inevitable corporate-screw-job ending, pausing for one last major highlight — a closing speech from The Crown‘s Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, telling Mank a parable of chilling truth about creative types who don’t realize that just because everyone applauds what they do doesn’t mean they have true power where it counts.
16. Palm Springs. R-rated sex farces are emphatically not my thing, but curiosity bested me about this updated take on the iconic Groundhog Day concept. New twists add deeper wrinkles to the veneer, with Andy Samberg as a guy who’s already been trapped for thousands of repeats when Cristin Milioti trips into his single-day world and has to learn the ropes, all while evading the hostile intrusion of J.K. Simmons as an equally strung-up puppet of fate who blames his woes on Samberg and keeps coming after him like a dangerously competent Elmer Fudd. Whereas Bill Murray’s endless holiday was the result of forces unknown leading him to a repentant reckoning, here Our Heroes lean two different directions. For Samberg, it’s still about a slap-happy selfish dude learning life lessons, but requiring several hundred more tries than Phil Connors did; for Milioti, it’s a matter of hunkering down and figuring out how to science their way out of this mess. Both approaches diverge and then reunite for a differently poignant dramedy about what we really should be wishing for when we wish we could do it all over again.
15. Soul. I want to give every Pixar film an A or higher, especially when they’re anchored with as heart-rending a performance as Jamie Foxx’s is here, not to mention that undeniably snazzy soundtrack, but when you look too closely into its seams and begin recognizing elements from past animated products (from the astounding Inside Out to even their second-tier stuff like Monsters University and Cars 3), the undeniable signs of filmmaking-by-committee flake everything with rust and dispel some of that prized Pixar magic. It also shared several elements with other films that I saw first and ranked much higher up the list. Maybe if I’d skipped all other movies and watched this one first, I’d be more in lockstep with everyone else’s raves
14. I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I watched writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s curious head-trip immediately after finishing his other big 2020 release, Antkind, his 700-page head trip of a novel. They pair aptly as a double feature about emotionally stunted dudes who think they’re more awesome than the world does, who have no self-awareness beyond their own wants, who define their lives by their propensity for super-liking the right movies, and whose lifelong miseries are entirely the doing of their own shortcomings. Antkind was a challenging read, but at least I could take breaks from its unreliable non-hero, who’s like if New Yorker film critic Richard Brody were hit on the head with a copy of Antkind and brain-damaged into thinking he’s actually The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy. With Ending Things there’s no escape from Jesse Plemons as a schmuck whose existential chokehold on the film’s reality is easily diagnosed in one scene straight out of The Usual Suspects that gives away the whole game and leaves viewers despondent that his date/prisoner Jessie Buckley is not, in fact, the main character after all, which I would’ve vastly preferred.
13. Vampires vs. the Bronx. A new holiday classic fit for any annual Halloween B-movie lineup for older kids, in which area teens strike back at a clan of vampires who move into the Bronx to suck blood, to rule the neighborhood, and to usher in a new era of evil white gentrification. Because as we learned from season three of The Wire, murderers and gang-bangers can’t compete with the machinations of evil real estate developers. It’s a smaller-scale Attack the Block that earns bonus points for its teen heroes who hopefully have long careers ahead of them, Method Man from The Wire as the requisite Catholic priest, and Shea Whigham, MCC’s very own Patron Saint of Character Actors Who Make Everything Better, as a vampire familiar who begins to suffer the same doubts about his arrangement as Guillermo from What We Do in the Shadows. And the constant Blade references cracked me up. Every single one of them.
12. Enola Holmes. The controversial film that the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t want you to see! Millie Bobby Brown rolls with her first starring vehicle as the resourceful kid sister of Henry Cavill’s manly yet wishy-washy Sherlock Holmes and Sam Claflin’s terrifyingly uptight Mycroft. Neither male oppression nor dastardly ne’er-do-wells stop her from solving riddles, perpetrating ruses, setting off action blockbuster explosions, or winking at the audience while being tortured, all for the sake of helping some tousle-haired boy secure his birthright in whatever dour Victorian novel he was kicked out of. Brown’s sprightly YA misadventures lose a full letter grade from me because her deadbeat mom was let off far, far too gently.
11. American Utopia. A David Byrne concert film springing forth in part from his eponymous 2018 album in all its aging, peace-mongering, unifying wonder upon a glassy cubic set and accompanying musicians from across the globe. Older fans will smile at the old Talking Heads hits sprinkled in between the numbers from his solo career. Spike Lee wasn’t the most obvious choice for a director, but he maximized the unique performance space and keeps the camera angles shifting from unexpected corners while joy sparks all around. Lest Lee go too chamelonic, two moments vividly point toward him — a requisite knee-taking that’s probably obligatory on stages nowadays, as well a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” replete with BLM photo montage and vociferous chants. Throwing the emergency brake on a film to make A Statement for slower viewers at home isn’t a new tactic for Lee, but what feels synced-up in BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods, and even Bamboozled is some striking tonal whiplash here.
10. Showbiz Kids. Former child star Alex Winter directed this documentary about the Hollywood system that chews up child stars and vomits out their tattered remains, from Baby Peggy to a Disney Channel star who died not long after his interview for this. Kid-actor flame-outs have been covered at length by other sources over the past few decades, but apropos of tragedy, there never seems to be a shortage of new cautionary tales to mourn. Winter adds new perspectives from a pair of wannabe child stars — one with a sizable recurring TV role on her IMDb page, the other still trying to get his foot in the door — each chasing the auditions that might one day make their dreams come true, bring a steady income, validate their parental micromanagers, inflate their egos, and set them up to crash and burn either at the hands of sexual abusers or at the bottom of a bottle. Nevertheless they persist, because hey, that’s showbiz.
9. The Old Guard. The best new superhero film I saw this year was based on an Image Comics project that I’ve somehow been overlooking all this time. Charlize Theron rules yet another action pic as a jaded warrior who’s spent centuries playing do-gooder across continents and eras in tandem with a ragtag team of fellow near-immortals. Just when her world-weariness is at its nadir and she wonders why she keeps doing this, along comes KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) as a newly murdered U.S. soldier who’s just transitioned into their covert world. Old-school/new-school mini-demigods argue whether or not it’s worth the time and effort to save a world that’s bent on self-destruction, until things come to a head courtesy of Chiwetel Ejiofor as a manipulative friend and Harry Potter‘s Harry Melling as an evil Big Pharma-bro who sure isn’t a Martin Shkreli doppelganger. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood allows for a plethora of quiet moments and brings a fierce energy level to the fight sequences, more practically styled and immediate in impact, as opposed to farming them out to a major corporate animation team directing them for her. The authenticity makes a world of difference.
8. Tenet With Subtitles: The Very Different Motion Picture. Well, it is. After the initial letdown showing at our favorite theater, I waited till the very week it came out on Redbox to give it a second chance. Yes, the explosions are smaller and the jump-cuts from IMAX shots to non-IMAX shots are just as annoying as they were in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but the subtitles cut through the accents and the rumbling backwards orchestra and the airplane engines and the other obfuscations that were ostensibly intentional and surely took into account the probability that the audience themselves would drown out long portions by constantly asking each other repeatedly, “Who’s that guy? What did that guy say when I said ‘Who’s that guy?'” (While keeping in mind they’d also have to shout their questions through their pandemic masks.) The weapons-dealer hierarchy makes more sense, inverted entropy is incrementally less preposterous, we can make out more of John David Washington’s paucity of quips, and we can better appreciate Robert Pattinson’s charismatic turn as River Song.
7. Miss Juneteenth. Longtime MCC readers may recall that time Nicole Beharie got robbed on national TV and we were there to roast the offenders. This was the first time I’ve caught up with her since then, which is my own fault, but it’s great to see her again. White guy’s disposable sidekick no more, Beharie is a former Texas beauty queen trying to recapture her glory days by coaching her daughter to jump through the same hoops. Mom is working two jobs to make ends meet and too distracted or starry-eyed to notice she’s having to drag her sullen protege through the process. Rather than a generation-gap meltdown, the two try to find a better middle ground, one that’s untenable till daughter applies her own talent set on her terms. Mother/daughter dramas usually end with much screaming followed by years of lifelong silence, so it’s refreshing to see a different, more level-headed road taken.
6. First Cow. 19th-century life in the Oregon Territory is a cesspool of wilderness scrounging, poor hygiene, and complete lack of enticing delicacies to break up the culinary monotony. Then along comes a perfect convergence of opportunity and materials — a displaced pastry chef (The Big Short youngling John Magaro) and an extreme rarity out on the frontier: a milk cow. Problem is, it’s not his cow. In this lackadaisical milieu of poverty and beavers, he and a Chinese fugitive conspire to make top-secret milk runs in the dead of night, cook biscuits from scratch, and make a mint selling them to frontiersmen yearning for the sort of goodies Mom used to make. It’s low-key high-stakes suspense when Our Thieves skulk about like Skyrim thieves with dairy farming on their mind, only to turn around and sell fancy desserts back to cow owner Toby Jones while holding their breath and praying he doesn’t figure out the secret ingredient. It’s like a gentle, naturalistic heist flick set inside a Bob Ross painting.
5. Bill & Ted Face the Music. A pair of indefatigably optimistic musical youths set out to save the universe from metaphysical self-destruction by uniting all humankind through the righteous powers of rhythm and melody as channeled through one heck of a cross-time supergroup…with some help from their dads who used to be big rock stars. Its old-fashioned message of Setting Aside Our Differences for World Peace may feel even quainter and more tone-deaf today given the headlines of the past week and its ludicrously unmitigated terrors, but those happened in 2021, not 2020. For purposes of a 2020 ranking I’ll make allowances for the year’s best hyper-nostalgic comfort-food flick to emerge from a curiously untainted chrysalis of positivity, because sometimes positivity is a welcome and necessary relief from all the world’s bitter pills. Apropos of not much, I just noticed this is the only sequel on my list.
4. The 40-Year-Old Version. Writer/producer/director/star/main character Radha Blank is nowhere near over-the-hill in her feature debut, a razor-sharp roman à clef satire about an artist waist-deep in midlife crisis. Once upon a time Radha was an up-‘n’-coming playwright ready to take on the world. Then ten years flew by. Now pushing 40 (oh, you dear young thing), she’s a has-been teaching playwriting classes to mostly appreciative teens in between failed attempts to recapture the promise she once had. Fate sends her on two quests at once — she’s following an impulse to try her hand at making a rap record (the results aren’t half bad), while at the same time she’s finally found a buyer for her latest play…if she’s willing to sell out and rewrite to the sensibilities of off-Broadway’s most dedicated patrons: rich, elderly whites who love them some Black poverty-chic drama, especially if gentrification is a major plot point. Echoes of Mank and Pixar’s Soul resonate up and down the 2020 through-lines (chasing lost dreams, artistic compromise, Pyrrhic victories, and so on), but Ms, Blank’s hilariously scathing send-up of her own life and arts buries both of those. And next time I watch an art-house film or urban TV drama where the specter of greedy gentrification looms large, I am gonna laugh myself breathless and it’ll be all her fault.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7. While everyone else was flocking around Sacha Baron Cohen’s big catch over on Amazon Prime, I settled for marveling at the other role he was born to play. As legendary antiwar gadfly Abbie Hoffman, he’s the most magnetic standout in this lightly fictionalized retelling of the 1969 kangaroo court that convicted multiple protest leaders from different factions of the heinous crime of Badmouthing America’s Entire Vietnam War Handling. Because then, as now, government leaders will pay lip service to the treasured First Amendment while seeing how many boundaries they can impose around anyone who says things they don’t want to hear.
All the defendants — differing in backgrounds yet united on the causes that matter most — have their exemplary moments (especially Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther Bobby Seale, sticking to his unheard yet truthful defense of “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”), but Cohen’s droll impatience and wealth of complexities make me wish this had been a miniseries so we could’ve hung out with him more and allowed more time for the rest of the cast. There’s also something about writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s accelerated verbal density that unlocks parts of my brain that lay too dormant too often nowadays and make me want to rush back to the keyboard and start typing my own works as quickly as I can before the boost subsides. And yet… I had this at the top of my list for months, but when I sat down to write about it tonight, I realized large portions have disappeared from memory and now I’m doubting my commitment to it. So I docked it a few points for the frustrating second-guessing.
2. Da 5 Bloods. “We ALL have PTSD!” shouts Clarke Peters from The Wire at a best friend who’s lurching down a dark path. He could be describing everyone who escaped 2020 alive, but in the immediate moment he’s one among a cadre of Vietnam vets who’ve returned to the old battlefields for the delayed gratification of stashed treasure, payback for their hellish wartime service and the draft system that gamed them into it. The Year’s Best Spike Lee Joint confidently reveals the steel cables that tie America’s tarnished past to its increasingly disheartening present like an anchor that drags us down into murkier depths the more we strain against it. A compelling, unwavering ensemble charts a downward spiral from friendships forged in fire to abject chaos when one man falls apart and the center cannot hold. It’s also one of Chadwick Boseman’s two deeply emotional posthumous farewells, reminding us of his unfathomable loss from which many have yet to recover.
1. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And here’s the other. The August Wilson play is a devastating duel between two musicians at very different points in their careers and lives, each trapped at different ends of the white man’s corporate music machine. In one corner is Viola Davis’ haggard yet queenly Ma Rainey, an established singer who may need the record company to sell her albums for her in a primitive era where you couldn’t just start up your own indie record label or flaunt your wares on YouTube, but she knows which parts of the biz are under her control, and she will not relinquish those powers. In the other corner is Boseman’s cocksure upstart trumpeter Levee Green, who just bops into her rented studio time and tries to rearrange her songs to suit his tastes, because he thinks he’s on the rise and fame, fortune, and total creative control will soon be his. Boseman practically shreds himself raw to bare the heart and soul of a young Black man who fancies himself a self-made escapee from the white man’s oppression that’s left deep scars on him in every possible way, all while Ma Rainey stands her ground and shakes her head at this swaggering fool and the comeuppance that’ll flatten him soon enough.
…and that was my 2020 with the movies, all on a smaller box but nonetheless appreciated for being there for us.
Bonus postscript: I dearly wish the following films had not been excluded from this list, but their experiences were not to be (yet):
Thank you v. much for taking the time to write this up and share it w/the world! It’s certainly given me a number of movies to add to my ‘To Watch’ list.
(P.S. My own viewing of Sorkin’s film was enhanced by a subsequent look at HBO’s earlier attempt to dramatize the same proceedings — featuring not just a recreation of the trial with actors Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Robert Carradine, Michael Lembeck, James Avery, Robert Loggia, Carl Lumbly, Barry Miller, David Opatashu, Ron Rifkin, Martin Sheen, Harris Yulin, Billy Zane, AND MORE but also the very defendants themselves — which I felt was, on the whole, a better representation of the trial’s meaning. The director has placed the film online here.)
(P.P.S. : ‘resouceful kid sieter’? Sister, surely?)
(P.P.P.S. I have noticed that I have neglected to correctly spell the word ‘resourceful’.)
(P.P.P.P.S. And that I may have possibly hallucinated the original misspelling? If so, sorry!)