A College Kid Reviews Movies Called 2020’s Best
By Hannah Pruitt
To quote Anton Ego, the critic from Pixar’s Ratatouille, “in many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement.”
The box critics often put art into can become stiff and outdated. As art evolves new generations should get to contribute their voices. With no shortage of entertainment critics screaming into the void, it’s important to lend platforms to people from all different demographics, backgrounds, and perspectives.
There are certain things a normal college student can bring to the conversation a professional film critic misses out on. As a college student, I know little to nothing about developed plot lines, color symbolism, screenplay faux pas, and directing styles.
I just love movies.
When I review a movie I want to communicate how the movie communicates its message and if it’s worth watching. This group of movies emerged during a year with limited theater space, slowed production, and an over saturation of media content. Even given the circumstances, these films provided a wide range of emotions and experiences that revealed worlds where even a pandemic can’t infect.
Sharp cinematography and quiet moments define Chloé Zhao’s 2021 film, Nomadland. Starring Frances McDormand as a widow, Fern, who recently lost her job and home during the Great Recession, the movie follows McDormand as she travels the country in a van. Fern finds community in fellow nomads and introspection in the vast landscapes she drives through.
Slow shots of national parks and rest stops linger on screen long enough for the earth’s great scale to sink in. Nomadland is in no way glorifying living out of one’s car, yet it lifts the veil of demonization that surrounded this way of life for so long. With the recession forcing millions of people from their homes, the film gives a voice to a group of people often cast out and overlooked.
“No, I’m not homeless, Fern says. “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
Zhao explores the nuanced definition of home through soft glances and subtle interactions. She delves into the paradox of how we’re told to walk through life and what truly living can look like.
David Fincher returns six years after his thriller, Gone Girl, with an entirely different black-and-white drama, Mank.
The film stars Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz, a writer recently given the task of writing a screenplay for Orson Welles. Coping with alcoholism and a recent car accident, Mank delves into the dark parts of Hollywood he both experienced and contributed to. Eventually unfolding in the movie heralded as the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane, Mank unfavorably characterizes those real life, powerful Hollywood players. Oldman never underperforms and he doesn’t start now.
Amanda Seyfried plays the astute Marion Davies, a comedy actress with more depth and intellect than she is given credit for. But Oldman is the center of every scene and he mightily carries that burden for the entire 131 minutes. However, when the pair share the screen Seyfried gives Oldman a run for his money. Her charisma and presence contributes light-heartedness to an otherwise more serious mood.
Fast interactions and sharp dialogue keeps the audience locked in until the end credits. Not only does the film pay homage to Citizen Kane, but it gives context and gravitas to other beloved films of the 40s.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Intense speeches and stark visuals embody Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah.
Standout performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal garner for both nominations for supporting actor at the Academy Awards. It’s no wonder why. Each actor injects gritty soul into the already emotional dialogue. They show their range through the film’s boisterous scenes to the quiet exchanges between characters.
The film reimagines the biblical allusion outlined in the title to be as if Judas had a character arc. The FBI enlists O’Neal to gain the trust of Fred Hampton, the newly deemed Black Messiah. Suave and verbose, Hampton has plans to unite members of all marginalized groups to form a “rainbow coalition” to overturn the system that oppresses many. As O’Neal and Hampton grow closer, the ultimate betrayal becomes cloudy and complex.
The film looks down the barrel at racial relations and the power dynamics that persist even now. Where the film lacks in full character development and insight it makes up in its acting and screenplay.
Sound of Metal
Poignant use of sound and a lack thereof move the audience in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. As a heavy metal drummer learns he is rapidly losing his hearing, he must face many demons previously drowned out by music. Riz Ahmed owns the film from beginning to end with his powerful presence and subtle facial cues. The film’s story moves fast but is defined by slow moments where the audience sees the emotion, denial, dread, fear wash over Ahmed’s face.
In a film that could have easily become trite, Marder produces something with emotion that feels unique. Silence dominates the film and the uncomfortability of silence is made plain to the viewer. The pain of deafness is nuanced and nearly impossible to empathize with. Ahmed’s character, a recovering addict, learns to cope without the distractions that come from using our ears. His performance brings the audience to a mirror and asks, “what demons are you trying to drown out?”
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s revenge comedic satire comes saturated in color and 2000s era pop songs. Carey Mulligan plays Cassidy, a cynical med school drop out who has one particularly interesting hobby. On weekends she goes to different clubs or bars, pretends to be drunk, and waits for a “nice guy” to help her home. The helpful guy making unwanted advances soon finds out the girl he thought was an easy target is actually stone-cold sober.
The film takes an overt look at the layers of sexual assault and the mysoginistic lies used to justify it. Following closely behind other “#MeToo” labeled films like Bombshell (2019), Promising Young Woman exposes the underbelly of the beast. For rape culture to persist, there have to be bystanders and those who allow accountability to fall short. The Crown actresses’ directorial debut stands out for its innovative screenplay and heart amidst sexual assault.
A film’s beauty comes not only from the setting, score, and dialogue but through the introspection of its characters. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari succeeds in all of these areas. Minari follows a korean-american family trying to find their home in a new place. Steven Yeun plays an ambitious father who wants to start a farm to sell korean fruits and vegetables. The family finds themselves in rural Arkansas where hardships in the form of finances, identity, and mortality have them questioning the notion of the “American Dream.”
A simplistic storyline allows for a pacing that builds without feeling rushed. Alan Kim, the youngest member of the Yi family, steals every scene and has already been made into an internet star. Youn Yuh-Jung gives delicacy to the film’s already gentle demeanor. While every performance stands out, Yuh-Jung and Yeun hold the piece together.
After last year’s monumental win for Parasite, Minari proves once more that international films should be given more attention and weight. We can all heed Bong Joon Ho’s advice, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
The Trial of the Chicago 7
An Aaron Sorkin screenplay nearly never goes unnoticed and unnominated. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is no different. Depicting the trial that followed the Chicago protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Sorkin takes a simultaneous birds-eye-view and a deep dive into the characters involved. A difficult feat given the necessary attention to the events and the desire to spotlight each person in an ensemble cast.
We follow closest the characters played by Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the real center-piece is the governmental control and corruption hanging over the film. Hinging on cutting courtroom quotes and intense riot scenes, the film gives texture to an infamous historic event.
Different groups of protestors converge on Chicago to protest at the DNC leading to widespread violent altercations with police. The government puts the leaders of these groups on trial together for conspiracy to incite violence. With clear political motivations at play, it is clear the trial is a front for a deeper dispute.
The film does a lot in a short amount of time, and while most of the story is fabricated or exaggerated it still works to reveal a recurring theme in the American political social sphere. There have always been people fighting for justice and there have always been consequences intended to thwart it.
A film about a trial too many people must experience, The Father, directed by Florian Zeller, portrays the mind of an 80-year-old man that is deteriorating from dementia. Compared to other films centered on forms of dementia, the film uniquely brings the viewer into the man’s mind.
Anthony Hopkins plays the father losing himself to his cognitive decline. Hopkins’ consistent ability to provide a wide range of emotion both through boisterous outbursts and precise facial cues grounds the film. His performance is equaled by Olivia Colman, his on-screen daughter, who bears the burden of watching a family member fade away.
While heartbreaking, the film often feels like a warm blanket. As Hopkins navigates the world as he perceives it, the viewer is with him as the film editing shape shifts objects and characters before your eyes. It is the ever famous “can’t trust the narrator” bit, but it’s not because the narrator has any malintent. He just actually can’t remember. Zeller’s screenplay coupled with the two powerhouse acting leads bring a certain dynamic quality to a film that could very easily be too hard to watch.