There are no movies of 2020, so why not go back? I’ve often found that my thoughts and opinions on movies change a lot in the year-or-so since I first see them, which makes the idea that a review is most valuable when a movie is out in theatre quite frustrating. Anyway, here’s what I’ve come to think of some of the most popular movies of last year. I would like to apologize for the negativity in advance. If you want a more positive outlook on movies, let me suggest my Best of 2019 post.
Bong Joon-ho did something I thought was impossible; he made a leftist movie wrapped around the perfect Hollywood package. It’s something the director had tried before, but Snowpiercer was too blunt and extravagant for modern audiences. Parasite, however, is a sort of perfect object in terms of how effectively it deploys the pyramidal dramatic structure that has come to dominate Hollywood (and popular international) cinema. But the movie’s unprecedented success brings a big question: if this is such an anti-capitalist film, how come everyone loves it? Is it that its narrative is too satisfying to resist through ideological means? Or is it that its message is being mistaken by reactionaries and conservatives? Maybe its message is not as revolutionary as some of us thought it was? In any case, the movie is so enjoyable I would gladly watch it many times in order to answer these questions.
It’s time to admit, as irritating as it may be, that Joker ended up the most emblematic movie of last year. Unlike Parasite, whose clear left-wing message might have been misread by audiences, the political ideology Joker – if it has one – is completely indecipherable. I must admit I was caught up in the outrage that preceded the movie’s release, which regarded the idea of an “incel Joker” as an ideologically repugnant idea. After watching the movie, I felt deeply embarrassed. “Really? You think this lame-ass movie is gonna break the world?” It’s not like Joker is devoid of interesting ideas – it is the only Batman-adjacent movie that sees Bruce Wayne’s fortune as a problem – but the movie is less interested in coherent politics than it is in empty provocations. Take for instance how the fact that Arthur Fleck is failed by a crippling public network that denies him healthcare is grossly muddled by the fact that the social worker who cuts off his meds is played by a black woman.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
I wrote extensively about this movie and focused mostly on how it felt like the closest we’ve come to an autobiographical view at Tarantino – the thesis being that DiCaprio’s neurotic has-been represented the director, and Pitt’s violent stuntman stood in for his oeuvre. I pointedly avoided talking much about the historical context of Tarantino’s recreation of 1969 Hollywood on the eve of the Manson murders partially because QT’s vision feels at best disjointed and at worst offensive. Debate over the movie’s depiction of Bruce Lee, or its violence against women is a non-starter when we are dealing with an author who feels to be living in a fantasy world of his own creation – one ruled exclusively by his ego-centric cinephilia. Case in point, Tarantino’s most obvious attempt at social commentary became his most unwatchable movie.
Without a doubt the most overpraised movie of the year. I can’t say I’m surprised that many well-meaning liberals were taken by this movie’s faux-progressive messaging. A supposedly pro-immigrant movie, Knives Out casts Ana de Armas as the ‘ideal immigrant,’ white-passing, impossibly kind-hearted, passively accepting of the capitalist system. Almost as frustratingly, this woman’s success is derived from the actions of a noble, well-meaning millionaire who can see past his noxious family and recognize the most deserving heir. A paternalistic fantasy about Trump growing a conscience? Perhaps. But a good movie? Come on.
The Avengers travelled back in time and for a moment I forgot that Disney and other giant corporations have effectively colonized the cinema screen and are slowly enslaving us all.
I mostly stand by my Letterboxd review of the time, which I’ve slightly edited and re-posted below:
The best thing about Jojo Rabbit is its opening credit sequence. Set to the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” we see a montage of documentary footage showing the fanatical devotion of nineteen thirties Germany to Adolf Hitler. Comparing Beatlemania Nazi fervor isn’t mere juvenile provocation. The chill of seeing these joyful people waving and smiling at the sight of hatred and evil promises a movie ready to grapple with the grotesque reality that people will very, very easily fall in line with hateful ideologies as long as they feel like everything is in order. Sadly, Jojo Rabbit is not that movie. [Edit: I thought the footage shown in the movie was exclusively German, but a lot of it is literal Beatlemania footage, which strips this sequence of some – though not all – of its power]
A movie that truly deals with the realities of Nazi indoctrination would be incredibly dark – if it were a comedy, it would risk coming as off as truly repugnant (Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers comes to mind). Taika Watiti does not want to risk coming off as repugnant. Instead of going for pitch-black satire, Waititi goes for uplifting sentiment, ending with a movie that is distasteful in a completely different way. This is not the story of Nazi indoctrination, but of a boy who is told by society to be a Nazi, but saved by the courage of his resistance-friendly mother and the Jewish girl she is secretly hiding in their attic. Because it wants to “inspire” people, Jojo Rabbit ends up focusing on the Germans who didn’t believe in Hitler. The Germans who fought back. You see, when it comes to Nazi fanatism, it is much more comfortable to deal with the fact that there were exceptions than with the reality that most people followed the rule.
War is hell… but it looks so beautiful when photographed by Roger Deakins! Based on how Sam Mendes has found a second wind in his career by ripping-off Christopher Nolan, I expected a Dunkirk knock-off. Instead, the aesthetics of this movie fall much closer to The Revenant including a mix of increasingly ridiculous set pieces and straight-faced self-seriousness. What we have here are two protagonists making their way through a meticulously designed no man’s land in which the rotting corpses are perfectly arranged for maximum aesthetic pleasure paired up with bellicose sentimentality about fallen brothers and families back home. It might not be as reactionary and Nationalistic as Dunkirk, but it comes close!
For quite a few years I’ve been down on Scorsese. This was based on deep indifference for Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, but recent encounters with The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull, have made me reconsider. Scorsese’s recent work, however, keeps leaving me cold. I am not particularly opposed to either the de-aging effects or the length of the movie, but more disappointed by the fact that the movie ends up being totally fine and unremarkable. Much more alarming to me is Netflix’s involvement in the whole thing. I hope those who see the streaming giant as a sort of savior of cinema for its continuous financing of major movies by major auteurs are aware that Netflix will be more than happy to abandon Scorsese as soon as it is able to produce its own MUC-like franchise.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
A movie so bad it had me writing treatments on how I would have fixed it. I remain in disbelief at the absolute creative calamity of Disney’s sequel trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels, but they were movies about things – about entitled rage-filled boys, about the end of democracy, about George W. Bush. Even in its best moments, this sequel trilogy is about nothing except Star Wars itself. What’s more, the prequels were undoubtedly the product of one man’s vision – each was different from the other, and detoured to whatever (often misguided) path George Lucas wanted to go down next. The fact that Star Wars, one of the most powerful brands in the world, was synonymous with an individual’s thoughts and visions sounds idillic now, doesn’t it?