At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:
You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.
This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:
JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?
JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.
I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.
Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see LittleWomen, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.
But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.
My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.
This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)
A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)
6. First Cow
In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)
5. The Assistant
Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)
While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)
3. My Octopus Teacher
I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)
2. Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
1. The Vast of Night
The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes
Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round
Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:
Only Lovers Left Alive Magic Mike Kramer vs. Kramer A Night to Remember Margin Call The Firm A Hidden Life The Last Temptation of Christ Waves
He’s rich because all of Bedford Falls is dumping a veritable fortune on his table. He’s also rich—richer, I’d say—because of who is doing the dumping and why they’re doing it.
George had been offered a similar financial windfall earlier in the film when Potter tried to hire him, but he rebuffed it. Had he decided otherwise, he would have gained wealth of a kind, but also a kind of poverty that no amount of money could cure. He wouldn’t have had the same relationships with all the friends and family and townsfolk who filled his house with a different kind of windfall.
George was rich in the end because he remembered. He remembered the barrenness of his ghostly alternate life where he was never born. And he remembered—suddenly, when he wanted to live again—the meaning of all his family and friends and frustrating failures and small victories that had accumulated into something like a wonderful life.
Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) gets the last word in the movie with his book inspiration to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” Remember these friends, he’s saying, not because they’re currently making you rich, but because they already have.
Me and Little Man gathering snowballs, here at the end of all things 2020:
A lot of bad things happened in the world this year, but in my own little world there was mostly just good. Chiefly because I’m blessed to have a COVID-proof job that has let me work from home since mid-March.
This has also meant doing lockdown and social distancing with a toddler, which was simultaneously easy (he doesn’t know what COVID-19 is nor what he’s missing because of it) and challenging (*random shrieking and tantrums*).
Still, life continued to happen in spite of everything, as it is wont to do. Here’s what that looked like for me:
Made several home improvements, including adding can lights, getting a new front door, remodeling our house’s original 1956 kitchen (shout-out to soft-close cabinets and drawers!), and opening up a wall between the kitchen and living room
Grumpy Old Men has become one of the few movies I return to every Christmastime, along with The Family Stone and It’s A Wonderful Life. Though (or maybe because), like those other movies, it’s only partially about Christmas.
It’s schmaltzy to a fault, but also an hilarious showcase for the legendary comedic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, forged over decades of working together.
Matthau was open about taking the role only for mercenary purposes. His co-star Kevin Pollak talked about chatting with Matthau on the set before their first scene together:
I said, “So, Walter, script’s pretty good, huh?” And he said, “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie $2 million.”
You’d never know it though. Matthau and Lemmon fully commit to their acerbic, chops-busting banter, which is the core strength of the movie.
The movie also stumbles upon a few bits of wisdom that have stuck with me, most of which comes not from the titular men but from the people around them. Like Ariel, the free-spirited neighbor turned love interest played by Ann-Margret. Here’s what she said to acknowledge the death of a mutual friend:
“We can be thankful that we had the privilege of knowing him while he was still here.”
She also drops this doozy during an argument with Lemmon’s John Gustafson, whom she accuses of being too stuck in his ways:
“The only things in life that you regret are the risks you don’t take.”
Finally, Burgess Meredith—absolutely slaying in a supporting role as Gustafson’s horny, incorrigible father—lends this uncharacteristically reflective bit:
The first ninety years go by fast. Then one day you wake up and realize you’re not 81 anymore. You begin to count the minutes rather than the days. And you realize that pretty soon you’ll be gone. And that all you have is the experiences. That’s all there is. Everything! The experiences!
The experience of watching the movie’s combination of sincerity, silliness, and un-Christmaslike shenanigans (along with its wondrously snowy northern Minnesota setting) is what keeps me coming back every year.
Watchmen (TV show). This whole limited series is something special, but the three-episode stretch of “This Extraordinary Being”, “An Almost Religious Awe”, and “A God Walks Into Abar” is spectacular. I went into this basically as a Watchmen neophyte and came out a believer.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs. “If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.”
The Vast of Night. A fairly astounding debut feature. The Twilight Zone meets Pleasantville meets Super 8. Available on Amazon Prime, and I’d recommend learning as little as possible about it before watching.
I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.
The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.
The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.
Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.
Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)
The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.
Diving into the divine milieu
Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.
He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.
Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.
That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)
Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.
My toddler teacher
A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.
Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.
I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.
I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.
I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.
Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.
My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.
You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.
I recently rewatched The Patriot for the first time in a long while. I was big into this movie as a lad, so rewatching it as a thirtysomething dad was something of an experiment to see how my adolescent tastes hold up.
There’s good (John Williams’ score, Mel Gibson as likeable movie star) and bad (how benign slavery is depicted in colonial South Carolina, a lot of the writing and acting to be honest).
But there was one aspect of The Patriot I appreciated completely differently than before, and that’s the depiction of fatherhood. I also noticed just how much the movie shares in common in that regard with an entirely different movie: Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar.
(Here be spoilers.)
There were two moments in The Patriot that kinda breezed past me before but totally annihilated me this time around.
“We named him Gabriel”
The first act finds Gibson’s Benjamin Martin as a kindly if emotionally distant father butting heads with his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who joins the Continental Army against Benjamin’s wishes, and his second-oldest, Thomas, who’s eager to join once he’s old enough.
When the British kill Thomas and capture Gabriel, Benjamin enlists the younger sons, Nathan and Samuel, to ambush the British unit and rescue Gabriel. All three sons survive but then witness, a bit stunned, their father’s repressed brutality unleashed in a fit of rage and grief for Thomas.
Benjamin and his sons respond to this differently. Gabriel rejoins the war effort. Nathan expresses pride in the ambush. The younger Samuel withdraws into a post-traumatic cocoon. And Benjamin succumbs to shame: for failing to protect Gabriel and Thomas, for subjecting the younger boys to the terrors of war, and for letting his violent past overcome him.
Yet the ambush earns him a serendipitous (for my purposes) nickname: the Ghost. It’s fitting for his subsequent militia fighting style, with its emphasis on guerrilla tactics and ability to evade capture. But it also signifies his presence—or lack thereof—in his children’s lives.
He carries all of this and more into the climactic battle, where he finally avenges the deaths of Gabriel and Thomas at the hands of the ruthless Colonel Tavington. Before heading home, Benjamin says goodbye to his friend and fellow soldier General Burwell (Chris Cooper), who tells him that his wife recently gave birth to a son.
“We named him Gabriel,” he says. It’s such a simple moment, elegantly delivered by Cooper, that manages to avoid mawkishness and serve as an emotional capstone to Benjamin’s long journey, which included losing two sons and his home.
“Papa, don’t go!”
Back on the daughter side of the Martin family, Susan is the youngest child and most distant to Benjamin. She refuses to speak to him, whether due to her still grieving the loss of her mother or being resentful of Benjamin’s long absences. Even after he visits the family while on furlough, she continues to stonewall him.
But when he sets off yet again, she finally lets go:
Papa! Papa, please don’t go. I’ll say anything. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.
Reader, I cried. It’s a wrenching moment of a father and child equally longing for connection before yet another separation. I couldn’t bear to consider such a moment ever befalling me and my son—now a rascally and wondrous 18 month old.
It didn’t matter to Susan that Benjamin was riding off to avenge his sons and fight for a political cause. Her Ghost was disappearing again, and she finally had something to say about it.
And this is where Interstellar comes in.
(Again I warn of spoilers.)
“Ghost of your children’s future”
A key motif in Christopher Nolan’s near-future, time-bending space drama (a recent subject on Filmspotting’s Oeuvreview, a series I helped coin) is the “ghost” that young Murphy claims is haunting her room and sending her messages in Morse code. Her pilot father, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, is leaving on a mission that will take him decades in Earth-time to complete, but the despondent Murph insists the ghost’s message is telling him to stay.
In a heartbreaking scene, Cooper comes to her room to say goodbye and offers a bittersweet reflection on parenting:
After you kids came along, your mother said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ And I think that now I understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Cooper’s prophecy comes true when he completes his mission and then, in another heartbreaking scene, watches years’ worth of messages from his kids, who bitterly rue his absence:
We also discover that the ghost in Murph’s room was actually Cooper himself, trying to communicate with Murph from across spacetime.
And that’s where Benjamin and Cooper—an 18th-century soldier and a 21st-century astronaut—also have now magically linked across spacetime: as fathers desperate to return to their children, and not merely as phantoms of themselves. They even share their goodbyes:
Benjamin to Susan: “I promise I’ll come back.”
Cooper to Murph: “I love you forever, and I’m coming back.”
A Hollywood cliché? Maybe. Would I say it and mean it to my own child? Absolutely. Which is not something I would have predicted as a youngster.
Perhaps that’s the benefit of rewatching movies at different life stages. As Roger Ebert wrote about why he loved La Dolce Vita so much: “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life… It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”
Having been working from home since mid-March, I’m incredibly lucky to have had more time with my son that I would have otherwise spent away at work or on my commute. “Kids spell love T-I-M-E,” my own dad has said. It’s an insight that The Patriot and Interstellar have made ever more resonant.
A friend of mine recently posted: “Let’s stir up some controversy: What are your thoughts on The Lion King?” I replied that a certain song on that soundtrack was a top-5 Disney song, and it wasn’t “Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata”.
That inspired me to consider how I would actually rank the best Disney songs. My needlessly arbitrary rules:
only one song per movie (live-action or animated)
from a movie that’s actually a musical where characters sing songs, not just a movie with a lot of original songs (sorry Tarzan)
judging the song itself, not the movie it’s from
Let’s get to it.
Just missed the cut
“The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book (1967), “Under The Sea” – The Little Mermaid (1989), “Not in Nottingham” – Robin Hood (1973), “Love Is An Open Door” – Frozen (2013)
I must admit that seeing the superior Broadway stage version has made me partial to that version of the soundtrack (both of which were composed by Disney music maven Alan Mencken). But for the purposes of this list I have to go with the opening number, which ably and jauntily establishes the setting and characters in under five minutes. (Runner-up: “Seize the Day”)
To be honest I barely remember Mulan and most of its songs, so the fact that this one stands out so much is a testament to its enduring appeal. The a cappella chorus towards the end is a nice touch. (Runner-up: None)
Happy to show some love for Randy Newman since his Toy Story work is ineligible. The soundtrack as a whole (which I have a history with) is a great showcase for jazz, zydeco, gospel, and blues—and this song is probably the most danceable on this list. (Runner-up: “Almost There”)
Nothing but respect for “The Rainbow Connection” from the original Muppet Movie, but this reboot and its music by Flight of the Conchords alum Bret McKenzie really surpassed (at least my) expectations. I favor the finale version of this song, which includes the entire ensemble. (Runner-up: “Pictures In My Head”)
For a long time this was my stock answer for best Disney song. It’s an Alan Mencken joint, after all, and I’m a sucker for a soaring strings-melody combo. (Also Jasmine is the most attractive Disney princess.) But it just kept getting pushed down the list as I considered other songs. (Runner-up: None)
This whole soundtrack is up there in terms of all-around quality. No surprise since it’s another Alan Mencken production. Just an explosion of gospel/soul ebullience. I went with this song over the runner-up because it sticks with one tempo and, as the finale, brings some extra zest. (Runner-up: “Zero to Hero”)
Guess who again? I swear I wasn’t tracking the composers when making this list, though I could have told you beforehand that Mencken would dominate. Anyway, this song rules. (Runner-up: “Happy Working Song”)
Like Hercules, this is one of the stronger soundtracks top to bottom. Even the villain song isn’t terrible. This particular track—while not the best sung given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s less-than-professional voice—is propulsive and buoyant like an ocean wave. Of the two iterations I’d have to pick the first, but the finale version provides a nice punch. (Runner-up: “Where You Are”)
(Spoiler warning on that link as this song ends the movie.) To date, this is the only Disney song that has given me goosebumps and tears at the same time. I now watch Coco every Dia de Los Muertos while thinking of my ancestors, and this song is a hell of a climax for such a tradition. (Runner-up: “Un Poco Loco”)
I think I’m as surprised as you are. As I mentioned above, “A Whole New World” was my #1 for a long time. But listening to this one recently, I was struck by an epiphany that it’s really just an amazing bubblegum pop song. Goofy, sure, but with a killer guitar/flute (?) hook, colorful bass lines, and an inspired chord progression. I once played a stripped-down acoustic guitar cover of it at an open mic and still worked brilliantly. Think I’m getting wildly out of wing? Nah—this is my finest fling! (Runner-up: “Circle of Life”)
Songs for Singin’ by the Okee Dokee Brothers. My eager anticipation was rewarded with this double-album’s worth of characteristically clever, catchy, and joyful tunes. I may have teared up during “Jubilation”.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, there are few regrettably ’80s moments and music cues, but it’s nevertheless one of the most effective and creative reimaginings of the Jesus story I’ve encountered. (See also: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.)
Da 5 Bloods. It’s simultaneously: a long movie that flew by, an epic that felt intimate, a didactic history lesson that felt urgent, a legendary filmmaker’s 24th feature that felt fresh, and a movie meant for theaters that still works on Netflix.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhuntby Steven Johnson. My reading was already in a slowdown before COVID-19, and then it got worse. But I blew through this one, which is yet another Johnson gem and changes everything you think you know about pirates.
A Hidden Life. Back on the Terrence Malick train, baby, which I think has been wayward since 2012’s To The Wonder. Malick exhibits some uncharacteristic but welcome restraint with the camerawork and narrative structure (i.e. actually having one). Gorgeous Austrian countryside setting and soundtrack by James Newton Howard too.
Triple Frontier. Makes an accidental but fun double feature with fellow Netflix jungle action buddy drama Da 5 Bloods.