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movies 2020

Top 8 movies of 2020:

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Nest

Dick Johnson Is Dead

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

She Dies Tomorrow

Totally Under Control

(Letterboxd list of top movies of 2020)


Top 9 movies I watched for the first time in 2020:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

French Cancan

The Wind

Apollo 11


Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Shape of Water

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Don't sleep on these movies I watched in 2020:

Sócrates4 Little GirlsFurieDrivewaysDivorce Italian StyleGraduation35 Shots of RumThe KillersAparajitoIrma VepCamerapersonThe PassengerL'ArgentHoneylandBabyteethThe LureThey Shall Not Grow OldThe Age of InnocenceThe Nightingale, The Vast of NightMidnight SpecialPain and GloryLa HaineIf Beale Street Could TalkThe Florida ProjectThe IrishmanMarriage Story1917Baby Driver

(Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2020)

what i watched

V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005). Missed this one somehow along the way. Not a great movie, but pretty good, and up my alley, so I have no idea why it took me 15 years to finally watch it. The Wachowskis adapted the graphic novel. Hugo Weaving from their Matrix movies plays the title character ("V") and does a great job without ever getting to show his face, which is hidden throughout by a Guy Fawkes mask. There are hints of 1984 and Mr. Robot, although in the case of the latter, the influence goes in the other direction, Mr. Robot coming out a decade after this film. Natalie Portman shines, and there's the usual who's who of British actors: Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt. Sinéad Cusack turns up for an emotional scene. Creative and dystopian, at least until what passes for a happy ending.

African-American Directors Series/Geezer Cinema: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020). Oscar bait, which in this case I don't mean as an insult. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's screenplay from August Wilson's play hits the high points, and the direction from George Wolfe gets out of the way of the great performances, which are the main reason to see the film. Those performances are noteworthy from top to bottom, but the ones you'll hear about are from Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as her trumpet player, Levee. Davis will likely get a Best Actress nomination, although she's on screen for less than half-an-hour. You can believe that all of the men are intimidated by her ... Davis carries a lot of power in her characterization. Boseman is every bit as good as you've heard, and yes, he'll get some nostalgic sympathy because this is his last role, but he doesn't need our sympathy. He almost overpowers the movie, not an easy feat when dealing with co-stars like Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo. Wolfe does everything he can to make the setting feel authentic, but he doesn't try too hard to "open up" the film ... he trusts Wilson's play enough not to mess with it. The result is too often stagy, and your appreciation of the film will depend in part on how much that staginess bothers you. I can't say I was bothered, but at times it did draw my attention away from what I should have been watching. Still, I've never held this against A Streetcar Named Desire.

Since my wife and I retired, we decided to have a weekly date at the movies. We call it Geezer Cinema. We take turns picking movies. We watched 32 (through Emma.) before the virus sent us to our living room.

Letterboxd list of all Geezer Cinema movies

film fatales #102: jane eyre (susanna white, 2006)

This is the fifteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 15 is called "Miniseries Week".

As we move into our holiday hiatus, I wanted to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on specific holidays this year, I want you to use this week (and the weeks in between this and the return from break if need be) to tackle a miniseries. They're essentially just long movies anyway. These things can range in length, from the runtime of your average film to over a dozen hours depending on what you're looking for. So don't feel too daunted with this challenge, and enjoy the break!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen miniseries. Try looking here or here for starters.

It's part of every adaptation of a classic. The first thing everyone wants to know is, who plays the main characters? Indeed, that's how we keep them apart in our memories. I've seen at least three Jane Eyres, and while I could distinguish them by year (1943, 2006, 2011) or director (Robert Stevenson, Susanna White, Cary Joji Fukunaga), I remember them as the one with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, and the one with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. The approach taken by the film makers matters, the use of the original text is crucial, but to some extent, this Jane Eyre, like the others, is about the casting as much as anything. And yes, there are other characters besides Jane and Rochester, but no one remembers the adaptations by the actresses who played Mrs. Fairfax (for the record, Edith Barrett, Lorraine Ashbourne, and Judi Dench).

Both Wilson and Stephens look the part in this BBC mini-series version. Jane Eyre shouldn't be too pretty, and here Ruth Wilson is presented as a plain woman (which is no reflection on Wilson, a lovely-looking woman who is made up so her looks match the character). Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) is suitably brooding, and as with Wilson, he does a fine job in his part. It's Wilson's show, but Stephens keeps up throughout the four hours. Wilson's performance belies the fact that it was only her second on-screen role (the other being a supporting character in a television series).

The production gets most things right. The story is fairly faithful ... the early parts of the novel are offered in a rather hurried manner, but nothing crucial is missing. Screenwriter Sandy Welch, a mini-series veteran, earned an Emmy nomination for her work here. The film looks properly gorgeous, and while it's out of my field of expertise, the costumes were well-received.

My wife is the Jane Eyre super-fan in our house, and she proclaimed herself satisfied. This version rewards both those who have memorized the novel and those who have never read it.

underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night

music saturday

A day late. Hey, it was xmas.

Ross, 1974. I can barely remember them, such that I wasn't sure this video clip from 1975 was the same group until Don Kirshner tells us they opened for Eric Clapton, which is where I saw them at the Cow Palace. They don't seem half bad here:

Cecil Taylor, 1979? I remember Cecil Taylor, although I'm not sure if it was 1979 that I saw him. It was a co-headliner gig with Sun Ra, who I much preferred. Taylor's not my cup of tea.

New Order, 1985. I've told the story many times, of how New Order was always my favorite synth band, and "Temptation" by all-time favorite song, one that they have sung a billion times in concert. But when I saw them, they never got around to playing it. Here's "The Perfect Kiss" from that year:

GG Allin, 1989. It's probably best that I don't include a video for GG.

film fatales #100 and #101: two documentaries from 2020

Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger, 2020). Alex Gibney has dozens of credits as a director, including Enron, Going Clear, and Magic Trip. For Totally Under Control, an expose of the U.S. inadequate response to COVID-19, he called in two co-directors, because he wanted it to be finished before the 2020 election. Indeed, the film was finished just as Donald Trump tested positive for the virus, which was noted in the credits. The film makers had to deal with making a film during a pandemic, and one of their solutions was a complicated camera setup that allowed for interviews without fear of contagion. Totally Under Control is in the ripped-from-the-headlines school of documentaries, and it is impossible for it to tell the whole story, when that story isn't finished unfolding. Thus, the film, with its detailed timeline of events, will likely be more useful for historians looking to examine the period, than it is for us, who are living through it. Still, the movie is infuriating, as is intended.

Geezer Cinema: My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020). My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man, Craig Foster, adrift in his own life who discovers new meaning in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is a joy to watch, with beautiful underwater cinematography. Often I wondered how certain shots were achieved ... Foster is presented as a loner who swims alone, but clearly someone else has taken at least some of the photography. If you are like me, with limited knowledge of the world beneath the surface, just seeing the various animals is amazing. And I learned that some octopuses (most? all?) are rather small. This threw me off at times, because I assumed the star octopus was as huge as an alien monster, only to realize that it was much smaller than Foster. Foster falls in love with a particular octopus (there's no other way to put it), and in the process, learns about his life (hence, the film's title). Sometimes the film gives the impression that the octopus was only put on earth to illuminate the life of Craig Foster ... he does a lot of ruminating during the movie. But that's a bit unfair. The movie is properly titled "My Octopus Teacher" and not "Craig Foster Learns About Life", and Foster doesn't come across nearly as self-absorbed as I'm describing. In fact, he went on to co-found a project to protect marine life.

smith-rubio family xmas update, 19th annual edition

Our lives in 2020 were a lot like everyone else's during this pandemic. On March 11, we went to the movie theater to see Emma. We haven't been to a theater since. We've hardly been anywhere since, just a couple of visits to family in our "pod". We got refunds for the plane and apartment tickets for our planned trip to Spain. Boo hoo ... there are a lot of people suffering far more than we are. But we couldn't have predicted the direction our retirement would take. (That is a definition of the pandemic: no one could have predicted what life would be like.)

Oh, Spot wasn't much affected by the virus:


Count your blessings and all that.

I started using a CPAP machine:

Cpap shadow

Another sign of the times: almost every picture we took in 2020 was of cats, since we didn't have to leave the house to take the photos:

Starbuck robin 2020 edit

Of course, when everything else brought us down, there was Félix:

Robin félix 8th birthday

What does it mean that the musical moment that had the biggest effect on me in 2020 came from the performance of a James Bond theme song for a movie that because of the pandemic has still not been released? When Billie Eilish suddenly dug down and expanded her voice as if she were Shirley Bassey, she gave the lie to everyone who thought she could only whisper. Fool me once, fool me twice, are you death or paradise? Now you'll never see me cry.

film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

music friday

This week, all four acts were openers when I saw them.

Robert Gordon, 1977. Gordon was the lead singer for the Tuff Darts, a punk band from New York that appeared on a early live compilation recorded at CBGB. He broke off and teamed up with guitar legend Link Wray for his debut album, which came out in 1977. Part of the rockabilly revival of the time, Gordon was already 30 when the album, Robert Gordon with Link Wray, was recorded (Wray was almost 50). I saw him on a bill at Winterland headlined by J. Geils. "Red Hot" got most of the attention on that first album.

A few years later, he turned up in a skit on SCTV:

English Beat, 1982. Another revival, this time ska in England. They opened for The Clash at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. Known simply as The Beat in their home England (renamed for the States, as there was already a band called The Beat here), they had released three albums, and while their popularity in England was dropping, they were more popular than ever in the U.S.  They broke up in 1983, spawning General Public and the Fine Young Cannibals. Singer Ranking Roger died of cancer last year at 56. "Stand Down Margaret" is a favorite of mine from their first album ("Margaret" being Thatcher): "I see no joy, I see only sorrow. I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow. So stand down Margaret, Stand down please, Stand down Margaret."

Malcolm McLaren,  1984. Also opened for The Clash at The Civic, only this time, it was what I think of as the Faux Clash, after Mick Jones had left. McLaren, of course, had a varied career, only part of which was spent making his own music. I can't remember a single thing about his performance that night. His music wasn't insubstantial, including this blend of opera and R&B:

Jewel, 1995. Finally, there's Jewel, who opened for Liz Phair at the Warfield. I wrote about that show earlier this year. She closed that night with "Chime Bells", which she still sings today.

geezer cinema/film fatales #98: she dies tomorrow (amy seimetz, 2020)

This is definitely an Amy Seimetz film ... she wrote it, produced it, and directed it. She was dealing with her own anxiety issues and says "I was spreading my panic to other people by talking about it perhaps too excessively." That she took her own situation and turned it into a movie we can all relate to is an achievement in itself. That it comes to us during the pandemic, which she could not have predicted, and becomes a movie eerily appropriate for our time is a mystery.

She Dies Tomorrow can be frustrating ... just ask my wife, who watched with me but did not, it is safe to say, warm to it. The first part of the film is confusing even for those of us who liked it. Nothing seems to be happening, there is precious little dialogue, the camerawork is quirky for no clear reason. If you came in thinking you were watching a horror movie, you'd probably be checking your watch.

But She Dies Tomorrow sneaks up on you. First we learn the basic premise ... well, "first" is a bit of an exaggeration considering how long it takes to get us there. Then, after a short while, we learn the real premise, which will connect with those horror fans who are still with us. And when that real premise begins to expand, I admit I was laughing. If I had to put this movie into a genre, I might choose Comedy before everything else.

Of course, you can't put it into a single genre, because Seimetz is using a kitchen sink approach to genre. She isn't trashing genres, not at all. She just isn't limited by genre.

And so a character feels anxiety. And it spreads to other people. There are hints of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it feels very familiar to anyone watching in 2020.

Plus, as Kurt said, just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you. Seimetz leaves everything unexplained. Absent the easy answers, we can dismiss what we are feeling. But the anxiety of watching She Dies Tomorrow doesn't leave you.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

A Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.