I think we can all agree that this was a very strange year, and not just at the movies.
THE TOP FIVE
*The Human Voice*
THE HUMAN VOICE
You might say, “This movie is only 30 minutes long - - it’s not a movie, it’s a Short!” But hey, I paid cash dollars to watch it online, it’s by one of my favorite directors ever starring one of the greatest actors on the scene and adapted from a play by a great writer, I’m calling it a movie.
It’s directed by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Tilda Swinton, adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau. I can’t describe my reaction when I first heard about this project. I really and truly thought it was a dream. I can’t think of another project that would be so perfectly geared towards ME and my particular tastes. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Genius on every level and I love that he changed the ending to make it more empowered and upbeat.
Interesting that the five movies on my Top Five this year all seem to be small movies, movies that work well on TV and wouldn’t really have much more impact on the big screen. Good thing! *The Dig* was a charming little movie set in rural England in 1938. Could we call it an archeological family drama? Great performances by everyone, and first class storytelling. And what a treat to see Ben Chaplin in a juicy supporting role.
Hilarious adorable rom com starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. Fun, diverting, just what I needed.
Paste in my description from *The Lovebirds* above, but more my jam because of the added element of surrealism.
I knew I would love this because of the mix of professional actors and non-professional actors, and Frances MacDormand is such a treasure. And what a treat to see David Strathairn in a juicy supporting role. I’m not sure the movie would hold up so good on subsequent viewings, but it had a big impact when we watched it.
What a surprise to see a Jane Austen movie where the visuals are so candy box perfect but the core of the movie is somewhat sour. Let’s agree: Emma is really not such a nice person. Bravo to director Autumn de Wilde, writer Eleanor Catton, and actor Anya Taylor-Joy for making her so complex.
BEST CAMEO, FEMALE
June Squibb in *Palm Springs.* A tiny little performance, was it less than two minutes long? But the highlight of the movie for me, so full of warmth and tenderness.
BEST CAMEO, MALE
Michael Keaton in *The Trial of the Chicago 7.* Just the way the entrance of his character was set up, you knew it was going to be someone fantastic.
REMEMBRANCE OF MOVIES PAST
Richard and I watched *Prince Valiant,* the 1954 swashbuckling epic with Robert Wagner in the title role in January, a day or two before the attack on the Capitol. I don’t think one had anything to do with the other, but the movie certainly washed out the foul taste in my mouth. Bonus points for Janet Leigh as the girl, Sterling Hayden as the brawny dude, and James Mason as the villain.
MOVIE THAT NEEDS TO BE MADE
Maybe this is a little too experimental, but I’d love to see a movie made out of previews. Maybe the first ten or twenty previews would seem completely random and unrelated but eventually you’d see some repeating patterns and something like a narrative. It would be a real tour de force for some hot shot young director.
First and foremost, ANY movie in a movie theater. I will be getting nachos and a giant Diet Coke, and I will be in tears.
Can we please have *No Time To Die,* the new James Bond movie? I’ve been waiting so long.
*Butterfly in the Typewriter.* A movie about John Kennedy Toole and his struggle to bring *A Confederacy of Dunces* to print. Starring Dennis O’Hare as Toole, also Diane Kruger, Brad Dourif, Cary Elwes, Nick Offerman, Susan Sarandon, Aidan Quinn, Arliss Howard, and Roger Bart.
*Don’t Look Up.* That old story about a meteor hurtling towards Earth. Yawn. But look at this cast: Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Matthew Perry, and let’s throw in Gina Gershon. And Ron Perlman. And Ariana Grande.
Oh Lord I don’t know whether to be excited or terrified: another movie of *Dune.* This time directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed *Arrival.* Starring Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skargård, and wow, Charlotte Rampling. I’ll see it just for her.
David O. Russell (*I Heart Huckabees,* etc) is in post production on an as-of-now untitled movie starring Margot Robbie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Amanda Riseborough, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, John David Washington, Mike Myers, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, and Leland Orser. That’s what I call a Robert Altman kind of cast!
MOST DESERVING OF A COMEBACK
We haven’t seen anything from Billy Crystal in a while. I see what he was in a 2019 movie called *Standing Up, Falling Down.* I’ve put it on hold at the New York Public Library.
VIVA LA DIVA
Viola Davis in *Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.* Such a colossal performance. I saw an interview with her and she said she was inspired by a few Black women she knew as a child, the women who would come into a room and you would know that you were in the presence of a powerful force.
I adore the novel *Rebecca* and the Hitchcock movie that was based on it, so of course I was interested in the remake, it looked so promising: Lily James, Armie Hammer, and especially Kristin Scott Thomas were bound to give stellar performances, and director Ben Wheatley is something else. If you want to see a truly disturbing horror movie, see his first film, *Kill List.* Oh dear me, that movie did a number on me, in the best way. So I thought maybe he’d do something novel and exciting with *Rebecca.* He and the writers added a few things to plant their flag and make it clear they were doing something new, but their additions and changes were ill-considered. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but just as an example, they had the Lily James character wearing trousers in a number of scenes. This is not the kind of young woman who would wear trousers, she’s a dyed in the wool tweedy skirt person. Come on.
My brother Howard and I attended an online fundraiser for The Wooster Group, an avant garde downtown theatre company here in NYC. It was a conversation between one of the founding members of the group, Kate Valk, and the biggest star of the group, Frances MacDormand. The high point of that conversation was their friend Dennis, a cult movie buff. He talked at length about a 1967 Soviet horror movie called *The Viy* that had been an inspiration for one of the Wooster Group shows. And this is the glory of the internet: I did a Google search for “The Viy streaming” and found it streaming for free on a service I’d never heard of, Tubi. I added it to my panel on Roku and Richard and I watched it on my birthday.
The wacky thing is: it had no subtitles! Thankfully it was only 75 minutes long, and it’s a horror movie so I guessed that the dialogue wouldn’t be too notable or important. Plus I found a synopsis on Wikipedia (thank you again, internet) so I could fill in the blanks when something didn’t quite make sense.
It was visually stunning, like a live-action Disney movie from the dark side. It had an intense score by Karen Khachaturian, the nephew of the better-known Aram Khachaturian. Definitely worth checking out.
HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED IT?
Can you believe I’d never seen *Spaceballs*? I was surprised how much I loved it. I’m not sure I need to see it again, but what a delightful, hilarious movie.
BREAK-OUT PERFORMANCE, FEMALE
Cristin Milioti in *Palm Springs.* She has a wonderful offbeat energy. I didn’t think I’d seen her in anything before but I definitely saw her in *The Wolf of Wall Street* and in season 2 of *Fargo,* but I guess there were more prominent things to notice in both cases…
BREAK-OUT PERFORMANCE, MALE
Archie Barnes played the main character’s son in *The Dig.* The was the emotional core of the movie. Often child actors go nowhere (see *The Shining*) and not every kid is made out for a life in the business. I’ll be curious to see what happens to him.
The opening credits to *Emma* perfectly set the tone for the movie. Which is what credits are supposed to do, right?
(thank you to my friends David Jay and Tom for their help with this)
Top Five Movie Debuts, Female:
1. Barbra Streisand, *Funny Girl*
2. Cybill Shepherd, *The Last Picture Show*
3. Lily Tomlin, *Nashville*
4. Carrie Fisher, *Shampoo*
5. Jennifer Hudson, *Dreamgirls*
Top Five Movie Debuts, Male:
1. James Dean, *East of Eden*
2. Dustin Hoffman, *The Graduate*
3. Chris Sarandon, *Dog Day Afternoon*
4. Alan Rickman, *Die Hard*
5. Jason Schwartzman, *Rushmore*
I saw *The Jesus Rolls* on March 4, 2020. Who would have guessed it would be over a year before I’d be in a movie theater again? It was a pseudo sequel to *The Big Lebowski,* centering on the character Jesus Quintana, the Latino bowler played by John Turturro. It was written and directed by Turturro and let’s tell it like it is: it was just plain BAD. It was nice to see Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, and Audrey Tautou doing good work, and a nice juicy small part for Susan Sarandon, but what a shame that it was such a piece of crap. And a special shame that my last movie in such a long time would be a stinker.
*The Boys in the Band* was wonderful but I was a little disappointed because I saw it on Broadway with the same cast. It didn’t have the impact it had onstage but it’s great to have the movie as a documentation of that production. It’s such a fascinating period piece. Well worth seeing. Hard to believe the play came out a year BEFORE Stonewall.
*Wonder Woman 1984.* Fun but forgettable.
The screenplay for *The Trial of the Chicago 7* was both its strongest asset and its downfall. It had all of the markings of Great Writing for an Historic and Important Motion Picture. I have nothing against great writing, and as fan of Aaron Sorkin, I have an appreciation for his often theatrical tone. But this movie felt bloated and a bit airless. And maybe this is baked into the story, but it was such a testosterfest, or sausage party, if you prefer. No thank you.
*Mank* was another self-important movie. Very strong performances, like *The Trial of the Chicago 7,* but even though it was more enjoyable, its deadening tone sunk it. Plus this same story was told with such style and grace in *RKO 281.* Did we need this movie?
*The 40-Year Old Version* is a cute movie about a 40-year old African-American female playwright going through a crisis and wondering if she’s really meant to be a rapper. It’s written by, directed by, and starring Radha Blank. It was a little amateurish, unpolished, and maybe not fully realized, but it was more engaging than
*The Trial of the Chicago 7* or *Mank* because it felt like the work of a young artist full of promise, rather than an established artist making a piece of Oscar bait.
*The United States vs Billie Holiday* was very strong but something was a little off. Great performances, especially by Andra Day as Holiday, but it didn’t quite land for me.
*The Prom* didn’t have the impact that the Broadway show had, but wow, it was still a lot of fun. And it so beautifully conveyed producer Ryan Murphy’s mission and aesthetic.
This isn’t exactly a guilty pleasure but let me explain: *Gambit,* 1966, with Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. I love this movie but having seen it recently I now see that maybe it’s not a very good movie. I showed it at one of my birthday double features years ago - - I paired it with *Carnal Knowledge* on a Fabulous Redhead double feature. Karen Miller (a fabulous redhead herself) had two observations. First, MacLaine had brown hair in the movie. Second, and I quote her, “For a caper, the pace was rather…sluggish.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT
I go back and forth on *Pulp Fiction.* I was CRAZY for it when it came out, I think I saw it three times in the theater. I won’t give you any spoilers, but the scene when Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames wake up in the basement, that was one of the most shocking moments in any movie ever. I never could have seen that coming. Richard and I watched all of the Tarantino movies as a ramp-up to *Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood* a couple years ago and I was surprised that *Pulp Fiction* had lost some of its verve. It seemed a little too smug and cocky to me, like the work of a young director showing off. Nothing wrong with that, but maybe it doesn’t age so well? But then we watched it again recently and it had gained back some of that magic. Who knows.
BEST USE OF A POP SONG
I wasn’t surprised to hear “The Look of Love” used in *The Boys in the Band* but I don’t believe I’d ever heard of the person who did the recording, Som Três. Tasty.
*Circus of Books.* Such a touching little movie, about a married couple who own and run a gay porn store in West Hollywood. It would be uncharitable to call them “square,” but I guess I’d call them “straight but not narrow.” As a bonus the movie is directed by their daughter. It adds something to the impact.
Would you believe that I still haven’t watched all of the Bruce Lee movies? There are only FIVE movies. Come on, Chris Ryan. Get on with it already.
A NEW INVENTION CALLED “TELEVISION”
I’m a Jeopardy fan from way back in the 80s. My best friend Jenni and I would see each other in homeroom in high school every morning and discuss the Jeopardy episode that had aired the night before. The teen tournament would always do a number on my nerves.
ME: These kids, they are so stupid! I should be in the teen tournament.
JENNI: And you know what would happen? The categories would be Bodies of Water, Potent Potables, and other things you know nothing about. And you would say, “Alex, I realize it’s not on the board, but I’ll take Easy Opera for $500.”
Richard and I watched it together fairly often over the last few years but since the pandemic started we’ve watched every damn episode. Is it possible we’re getting smarter? It was a special treat to go so deeply into the show when Alex Trebek died, it gave an added layer of meaning.
NEW CATEGORY: BEST PREVIEW
I don’t like to call it a “trailer” because that term is based in the idea that it came AFTER the movie. A good preview is a cinematic art form in itself. My winner for this year is the trailer for *The Human Voice.* I went coo coo nutty when I saw it.