The Better Films I Saw in 2020
(film comments by Mark R. Leeper)

(Almost) every year the film industry makes a load of high-profile movies, many of them films of quality. Some are not so hot. I will see many and write reviews of some. I take the best films I have seen and write short reviews and then write a list of mini-reviews of those I consider are the ten best. That is the usual (unimaginative) routine. This year the circumstances are quite different, as I am sure the reader is aware. I have seen far fewer films and of those I have seen few belong on top ten lists. Some may have been really good, but not all were "top-ten-worthy." Here in my opinion are among the best I saw.

A CALL TO SPY: (no review written) Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)

THE PAINTED BIRD: Based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel, this film shows a boy traveling across Eastern Europe in shortly before World War II and seeing the cruelty of the peasants for one another. Filmed in black and white in a naturalistic style, it has long, slow, contemplative stretches. The title comes from a form of entertainment of the peasants: they paint a bird with bright colors and release it back into its flock, where the other birds peck it to death. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN: In this thriller, a 20-something woman looks to find revenge on acquaintances (and others) from her past for incident years before. At times the music overpowers the dialogue, but the twists and turns will keep you involved. Released 12/25/20. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)

RESISTANCE: This biopic about a little-known period in Marcel Marceau's life concentrates on moral decisions such as weighing the importance of saving Jews versus killing Nazis. It has nice art design for a low-budget film, as well as some striking camerawork. Jesse Eisenberg (as Marceau) and Clemence Poesy (of IN BRUGES) give outstanding performances. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)

TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL: This documentary takes a comprehensive and convincing look at COVID-19 from its scientific underpinnings to its political ramifications. Controversies are covered in detail, and there is a strong political dimension in the narrative. I will not say whether I agree or disagree (but somebody sure said something right). It did not waste time but came to the point and explained it. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)

AN ACCIDENTAL STUDIO--HANDMADE FILMS (2019 film seen in 2020): While George Harrison was performing for the Beatles he was also managing a movie film studio, Handmade Films. This is the story of Handmade Films. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY: This film is a documentary looking at vote suppression in the last century. Your attitude toward its arguments may vary. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

APOCALYPSE '45: This documentary looks like it uses colorized newsreel footage, but it is actually restored color footage. (There probably was some overlap between this film and the television series "World War II in Color".) It is a look from the beginning of the Pacific War to the end. Among other things, the film examines the motives of the people dropping bombs on civilians: are the victims evil because of what their government was doing or had them do? The largest segment of the film is saved for Okinawa, although Hiroshima was also covered at length. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

DA 5 BLOODS: This Spike Lee action and adventure film of four Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam in a sort of "Treasure Island" story seems to drag on a long time for a two-and-a-half hour film. It does have many clever film allusions. Overall, a large-scale production with gritty views of Vietnam people and countryside. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH--A LIFE ON OUR PLANET: Sir David Attenborough is 94 years old and has been traveling--and exploring--for 66 years. This "witness statement" (his term) has a lot of beautiful and familiar nature photography--familiar because it uses archival footage from his films from those 66 years. Attenborough fits his whole career into this framework, tracing the disappearance of wilderness (and species) over that time. It has essentially a very downbeat message; even his suggestions at the end fail to provide much uplift. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

DESERT ONE: This tells of the major event of the Carter presidency, the Iran hostage crisis. The film uses comic-book style illustrations to recount the events. It has a fairly standard documentary style, but at times the incidents are genuinely moving. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

FORD VS. FERRARI (2019--seen in 2020): This is a surprisingly engaging story of the competition of a designer from each car company. American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles comete in a race that will be determined at Le Mans. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

HILLBILLY ELEGY: Directed by Ron Howard, this is based on the best-selling novel of the same name. It keeps the viewer guessing about where the story is going, in part because it is not told in chronological order. Glenn Close plays the matriarch of the family and completely disappears in the role. The theme is summed up by one of her epigrams: "Family's the only thing that means a good goddam." Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

NEWS OF THE WORLD: Tom Hanks is working his way through all the filmgenres, and this is his first Western (playing a cowboy in the "Toy Story" series doesn't count). One thing noted immediately is that the clothing wardrobe is very different from what one usually sees in Westerns. We see the chaos of a Southern (Texan) town getting "civilized," but without the usual saloon fights. Hanks as a traveling news reader serving those who have no time to read the news, or are illiterate, is an occupation rarely or never seen in Western films. (It is reminiscent of that of lector in Cuban cigar factories.) The stories are less the major world or national events, but more human interest or entertainment stories of the sort in David Mamet's "The Water Machine". Hanks's character finds ten-year-old Johanna (played by Helena Zengel), who had been kidnapped by Kiowas six years earlier. After the Kiowas were killed, she is on her own and Hanks agrees to take her to her German relatives several hundred miles away. There are echoes of THE SEARCHERS, TRUE GRIT, OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and even MATEWAN in this film, which is not necessarily a bad thing. (Note: Texas was re-admitted to the Union in March 1870, so this must take place in January or February.) Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7: The title tells it all and it is in narrative form. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2021 Mark R. Leeper