Film School in a Box – Movie Special Editions and Why They Matter to Film Collectors and Fans

I’ve often written on this blog about the first couple phase of a film’s life, namely the creation phase of a movie and also the presentation phase.  But there’s one other phase of a movie’s life that I haven’t explored as much and that the final phase; home entertainment.  Sure, streaming has been discussed much lately and that falls under the umbrella of home entertainment, but what I want to talk about here is the unique culture that has arisen around the market of physical media, and how that has evolved over the years.  Movie aficionados like myself have our preferred ways of consuming entertainment, and it often is reflected in the ways that we also collect movies once they are available to purchase.  Home video started off as a niche market to begin with, but over time grew into one of the largest segments of film distribution within the industry.  Now with the rise of streaming, the home entertainment market has changed once again and it has in many ways diminished physical media as an essential part of the life cycle of movies.  But, that doesn’t mean that physical media has disappeared all together.  Instead, the home video market has shifted more into a specialty mode, with physical media carrying more of a prestige than it once did, and as a result, a higher value as well.  But what makes physical media stand out when compared to what someone might find on Netflix or Amazon for instance?  What makes buying a movie take on more of a value than either renting or streaming it?  In many cases, it not the movie itself that matters, but the way that it is packaged and presented that gives it more value in the physical media market.  Movie collections often become just as beloved a part of someone’s personal belongings than anything else.  In many ways, it’s something that connects us closer to the movies than any other form of media consumption that is offered up by Hollywood.

For me personally, my journey as a film buff has been largely tied to the way that I collect movies.  It goes all the way back to my childhood even.  Instead of asking for video games or sports equipment as gifts from my parents like my siblings would on birthdays and Christmas, I always wanted movies on video tape to add to my growing collection.  I grew up in the 80’s, when VHS cassettes were coming into their own as the primary form of physical media for home entertainment.  And the company that took advantage the most out of this growing market in the 1980’s was Walt Disney Pictures, which naturally I was the target audience for.  I remember receiving Lady and the Tramp (1955) as my first movie on video tape when I was 5 years old, and it left an immediate impact on me.  In the years after, Disney began releasing their back catalog of titles, and even began using their new Home Video label to bring their brand new classic films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), to a home audience.  As I collected more movies, I began to self teach myself about the history of the Disney company, and how every movie had a canonical place within the timeline of the studio.   This was largely due to the fact that every box labeled the movies in the chronological order that they fit within the Disney canon.  By the time I had reached high school, I had every Disney movie on VHS cassette, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all the way up to Hercules (1997), which marked 35 movies in total.  But, what started as a childhood collection for me extended beyond just wanting to have each one of those movies as a part of my collection.  In retrospect, I see those movies as the key to helping me deep dive into the history of film itself, through the lens of one studio.  By knowing everything there is to know about the body of work of a single studio, it allowed me to see the incredible mark that cinema leaves in general, and it sparked my interest to explore beyond just what Disney ended up making and look at the history of film as a whole.

Apart from the entertainment value that I would get from the movies I owned, I also have realized over the years how much the aesthetic of physical media matters as well.  In many cases, a well packaged movie plays just as important a role in selling a movie as anything else.  One of the things that I liked best about the Disney movie collection on VHS was the way that they were packaged.  For the most part throughout the history of VHS cassettes, the majority of movies that were released by the major studios packaged their films in flimsy, cardboard sleeves with artwork printed on the front, back and spines.  Disney, however, opted to package their films inside insulated, plastic clam shells, which to a young collector like me made them feel a little bit more special than the other movies for sale.  And when I had them all on my shelf at home, they often looked to me like books in a library, with each title specially designed to stand out.  Aesthetics mean a lot to collectors no matter what the item may be, and the best producers of home video packages were well aware of how each of their title would look in the consumer’s home.  By the end of the VHS era, box sets had become a niche market that had come into it’s own, with movie fans willing to pay the extra little bit to have a movie on their shelf that not only was important to them, but could even stand out as a work of art on it’s own.  One other thing that I always found interesting in that era, which in turn also helped me to expand my interest in film, was the aura of the double cassette boxes.  These were usually made for movies that were so long, that they had to be split up into two cassettes, which to me made them feel even more special.  In that time, it was movies like The Ten Commmandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Dances With Wolves (1990), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997) that were given this treatment, and the fascination that I had with movies that were too big for one tape became a big part of what pushed me into exploring beyond just what I knew about films from Disney.  If movies weren’t packaged the way they were like they had been in the VHS era, I wonder if I would’ve still gone down the road of film fandom that I ultimately did.

Things did change in the turn of the millennium, when VHS gave way to a new form of home entertainment; DVD.  Instead of cassette film, DVD’s encoded movies onto compact discs, thereby opening the world of cinema up to the digital age.  The same technology had been used for years prior on the laser discs, but DVDs were more economical to make and own and fit much easier on a bookshelf.  The picture quality also put VHS to shame, which of course led to a significant downturn for VHS production.  But what may have been the most significant contribution of the DVD era was the implementation of bonus features as part of the package.  Another carryover of the laser disc format, bonus features reached a new level of popularity with the rise of DVD.  Ranging from making of material to alternate audio tracks and even alternate cuts of the movie, DVD bonus features really raised the overall value of the movie that a person was purchasing.  And often the success level of a movie on DVD could be determined by the amount of bonus features that it offered as a part of the set.  This also led to the first instances of people buying a movie in a new format that they already owned in another.  I certainly am guilty of that many times over now.  I have probably purchased the movie The Lion King (1994) five times now across four different formats; VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (twice), and now 4K.  And why is that?  For me, whenever a new special edition of a movie is released on home video, I weigh my choice of purchasing on whether it offers anything more that the other editions did not have.  A lot of films don’t do this, and usually I’ll find that I make one lifetime purchase with said films when they become available.  But there are certain offers on new re-issues that I can’t pass up and I’ll pay that money again, even though I have owned the movie before.  Disney, the clever marketers that they are, have their so-called “Disney Vault” release plan, where their movies stay in circulation for a short time, then go back into the “vault” and out of distribution, thereby driving more demand for the film, which they’ll then re-release again in a big new, specialty package.  Sure it’s market manipulation, but it works, and it’s gotten me every time.

But there is one thing that I as a consumer really found myself valuing with the introduction of bonus features on the DVD format, and that was the in depth making of material that were found on certain special editions.  Not only did they spark my interest as a film history buff, but they even inspired me to want to work in the world of filmmaking itself.  Perhaps no other film release on the DVD format left a bigger impact on me as an aspiring filmmaker than the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Filmmaker Peter Jackson did the extraordinary thing of having cameras roll behind the scenes the entire time while he was putting together his epic film trilogy.  He invited behind the scenes documentarian Michael Pellerin to document every level of production, from the script phase to the final picture lock, and the whole complete wealth of material ends up eclipsing the movies themselves in length.  In keeping with the Tolkein theme, the collection of documentaries that Pellerin and his team compiled together are known as the Appendices on the special edition, and many film collectors will tell you that the entire package feels like having a film school master class in a box.  Peter Jackson would continue to pull back the curtain and reveal all the tricks of the trade in his follow up movies King Kong (2005) and The Hobbit trilogy in what he described as Production Diaries, and it could be said that an entire generation of filmmakers were inspired solely because of the documentaries on these DVD sets.  Even aesthetically they were pleasing to the eye, emulating volumes of books much like the ones the movies were based on.  Peter Jackson and Michael Pellerin certainly didn’t invent the DVD bonus feature, but they raised the bar high for the decade that followed, and as a result, the DVD era saw a flourishing of in depth making of material as a necessary element in home entertainment.

But, for many home video collectors, quality can sometimes be valued over quantity when it comes to all the bells and whistles.  One label in particular has made it their mission statement to deliver movies as a prestige product above everything else, and it’s one that I’ve talked about so much on this site that I devote an entire series to them; the Criterion Collection.  Criterion not only puts a great amount of work into presenting the movie itself in the highest possible quality, but it makes the package you buy it in just as much of a prize in itself.  The Criterion Collection caters to the film collector specifically, with the aesthetic of the box art given it’s own special consideration, knowing full well that the person who is buying a title in their collection likely owns a few more of their titles as well, so they’ve got to make it feel worthy of the label.  Each Criterion title maintains that aesthetic integrity from the box art all the way to the disc menu, and that’s part of the appeal of the Collection to most film aficionados.  There is a prestige to their presentation that you don’t find from most other publishers.  This includes a booklet found beside the discs that includes scholarly essays that gives the consumer a richer view of the movie that they have just purchased.  The bonus features from Criterion, many of them made in house, also illustrate the “quality over quantity” idea behind prestige entertainment.  Special Editions straight from the studio often package as many EPK materials as they can onto the disc and believe that it fulfills the criteria of a “special edition.”  But Criterion opts to in depth analysis into a film’s making and it’s themes on a larger sense.  Often, the total number of features may be less than the studio label, but the quality will be much more enriching.  When a movie receives the Criterion treatment, it’s seen as a badge of honor, and that is what has helped to make Criterion a valuable brand in the home distribution market.  And that special level of prestige is likewise what makes it less embarrassing for film nerds like me having to rebuy a movie that we already own.

But, like a lot of other aspects about the film industry, home video collecting is changing in the wake of the rise of streaming.  Indeed, home video sales have plummeted over the last decade since the heydays in the 2000’s.  And that’s in large part due to streaming taking over so much of what was the backbone of the home entertainment business.  Home video rental houses, like Blockbuster, are pretty much extinct now, and movies are readily accessible to buy, rent, and stream digitally from the comfort of home.  In the aftermath of the end of the rental market, and the declining sales of disc based media, we are starting to see how little of a market movie collecting really is.  When people were buying up movies by the dozens from their local video store, it was because there was no other option available for movie ownership.  Now that streaming has made it easier to access movies from the safety of home, more and more people are drifting to the option that is far more convenient and adds less clutter to their book shelves.  What’s left are the die hard movie collectors that want to have that physical movie to hold in their hands, and it’s a market that is likely going to grow smaller in the years to come.  As a result, the physical media market is changing to appeal to the niche market once again.  Movie studios are keeping their inventories lower on new releases due to the smaller demand, and in the process, the movies themselves are becoming a more elusive commodity.  Labels like Criterion are still thriving, because they’ve always operated this way, but the major studio labels are having to rethink what they should invest in when it comes to physical media.  Extra special editions, like those that include not just the movies , but special collectibles as well are becoming more prevalent, but also at the same time, more rare and expensive.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy even put out an $800 special edition set that included the Hobbit movies, all packaged in special leather bound boxes and stacked on a special, hand carved wooden shelf.  It’s a high price for a movie set that most people already have, but for what it is offering, it becomes less about the movies themselves and more about the exclusiveness of the package itself.  It may seem outlandish, but it could also mean the future of physical media in the long run.

It’s hard to know at this moment what physical media in home entertainment will look like a decade from now, but there is no doubt that the market is changing.  We may not see the likes of the incredible Lord of the Rings Extended Editions box sets again, but I also believe that very few people are ever going to through their original copies away either.  There’s just something to be said about a complete, aesthetically pleasing special edition package of a beloved movie that holds a special place in the hearts of film lovers.  It may be the end of a movie’s life cycle, but it’s also the phase that connects a movie to it’s fan more than any other.  When you hold the movie in your hands, it means a whole lot more to you; it’s yours to watch forever.  The Criterion Collection understands this, and they cater to what their audience wants by making each film feel special.  They have even remarkably convinced streamers of this as well, as Criterion has become the physical media home for films from Netflix, like Roma (2018), Marriage Story (2019) and The Irishman (2019).  If Netflix can be convinced to put their high profile, exclusive movies on physical media, then there is still hope.  I for one am an undeterred film collector, still buying some of the same movies over and over again.  I’m particularly a completionist with Disney movies, having own each canonical film on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, with 4K well on the way next.  And yes, they are all organized in chronological order, just like I did with my VHS tapes back when I was a child, because that’s who I am.  Even still, if a movie catches my eye in the sadly shrinking video sections at Target and Best Buy, I will make it a part of my collection that is now numbering in the hundreds.  I consume digital media as well without complaint, but a part of me will always desire a hard copy above all else.  It may be long past it’s glory days of filled to the brim special editions, but physical media has found a devoted fanbase that continues to support it, and it’s one that I hope continues to hold these movies up to a high standard, with quality standing above all else.

Top Ten Movies of 2020

How do we sum up what will undoubtedly be the most chaotic year of our generation.  Apart from all the chaos, one thing that will mark the year that was 2020 was the impact that it had on cinema.  Movie theaters faced near extinction as their doors remained shut and streaming took an even stronger foothold.  And with all that upheaval, the platter of releases that were supposed to mark the previous year all of a sudden were un-moored and moved to the next year, leaving the movie landscape of 2020 pretty barren.  So, when contemplating what would make up a top ten list of the movies of 2020, a critic like me is finding the end result to be a little different than I would have expected from the outset of last year.  For one thing, I had to rely upon streaming a lot more to be able to watch enough movies this year to compile a strong enough list of the year’s best films.  And even with streaming access, I still didn’t watch a number of films that are being touted as Awards season favorites, like Nomadland (2020), Minari (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), before the end of the year.  So, my top ten list for the year would have probably looked a lot different under other circumstances, especially if there was no pandemic that uprooted so many movies out of their place on the calendar.  Even still, I’m holding to my guideline that only movies that I saw within the year 2020 will be on this list, so the latecomers that will likely big big awards winners will have to wait until my 2021 list to be recognized.  And, one other thing you’ll notice is that streaming movies mostly dominate this years list, though there are a couple that I did also catch in theaters when I was able to.  If there is anything this year taught me is that even when presented with a more convenient streaming at home option, I will still venture out and watch movies on a big screen first, because it’s just my preferred way of first experiencing a new film, even when that option is more difficult.

Before I dive into the list itself, I do want to spotlight the movies that I did enjoy over the year that just missed my top ten.  In no particular order: Emma, Onward, First Cow, Greyhound, Hamilton, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Ammonite, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. So, with that out of the way, let me now count down my choices for the top 10 best movies of 2020.

10.

PALM SPRINGS

Directed by Max Barbakow

It’s strange to see the Groundhog Day (1993) scenario become it’s own subgenre over the years, but that’s something that has surprisingly emerged over the last three decades.  Whether it’s used in an action film like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or a horror comedy like Happy Death Day (2017), the premise of living the same day over and over again in an endless loop has proven to be surprisingly malleable.  It’s also a hard plot to get right too, because it requires a lot of plot mechanics to make it work and a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with it all.  Many writers have tried to do this and have failed.  Believe me, I’ve tried to write this kind of script myself.  Palm Springs is another example of the formula done right, and it’s mainly because it puts all the focus on the characters themselves.  The actual reason why the time loop is happening is just a formality, but the movie also surprisingly gives us a clear explanation of how it works too, and it’s not even far fetched.  But what I especially like is that unlike other films of it’s kind, it doesn’t focus on one individual’s struggle to break the loop, but rather it shows multiple perspectives.   One character, played by Andy Samberg (who I’m just as surprised made my best list this year as I was that Adam Sandler made last year’s) has been in the loop a long time and has resigned himself to it, while the other character, played by Cristin Milioti has only just arrived.  Through their shared circumstance, they form a bond and also allow their interactions to shape how they’re going to deal with their predicament, and it makes for a really endearing story.  It’s also very funny, and uses it’s time loop device to great comedic effect, much in the same way that Groundhog Day did too.  In a bleak year such as 2020, Palm Springs was a refreshing bit of sunshine brought to us courtesy of Hulu.

9.

SOUND OF METAL

Directed by Darius Marder

Moving over to Amazon now, we have this fascinating indie drama that brings the audience into the headspace of a man suddenly confronted with a disorder that will forever shape the rest of his life.  Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom) plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who suddenly loses his hearing while in the middle of a multi-city tour with his rock singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  With his sudden deafness, he has to enter rehabilitation that will enable him to adjust to a new way of living, but his own self-destructive tendencies make it much harder for him to cope.  It’s a really fascinating character study which Riz Ahmed does a spectacular job of portraying.  His role may run into criticism because he’s another able bodied performer playing someone with a disability, but there is nothing that feels false about his portrayal here, and he is after all playing someone who is newly disabled and trying to readjust.  The rest of the movie’s cast does include real life deaf actors, and its a great bit of exposure for these performers who are often not allowed the opportunity.  But what’s especially brilliant about this movie is the incredible sound mixing, which does simulate exactly what a deaf, or near deaf person’s sense of hearing would be like, and just the emptiness it creates, especially for someone whose life is constantly in the world of sound.  If you listen to this movie through headphones, as I did, you would almost feel the alarming sensation that you’ve lost your hearing as well, and it is illuminating.  Like the best movies that tackle the overcoming of disabilities, this movie treats the condition with the utmost serious and removes the stigma that has often unfairly marginalized people with this condition.  And best of all, it makes us the audience care more about those with the condition itself by putting us in the headspace of one who’s living through his disability and what the world indeed sounds like when all the noise is gone.

8.

TENET

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Truth be told, this movie is a lesser film from one of our current greatest filmmakers, and in another year, this probably might not have made my list at all.  But given this was 2020, and there was a significant lack of blockbuster sized entertainment this year, I do want to recognize Tenet for being the most impressively crafted movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan’s narrative for this film may have been on the convoluted side, but his ability to craft spectacular set pieces are still second to none.  In particular, the way he uses the Inversion gimmick  within the movie, where objects and even people move forwards and backwards through time in the same space, is done to incredible effect.  And like every other movie he’s made, Nolan takes pretty out there concepts and works them into a familiar genre.  Just like how Inception was essentially a heist movie that took place within people’s dreams, Tenet is a spy thriller with a time travel element thrown into the mix. It’s essentially Christopher Nolan’s take on a James Bond movie.  A lot of it may go a little too far over people’s heads, but for me I just enjoyed the ride and in a year like 2020, which took away so many blockbuster thrills that we normally get to enjoy on the big screen, I was just so happy to at least have this one.  It also proved to me the lengths that I would go to so that I could watch a movie like this.  I drove down to San Diego, California (120 miles from where I live) just because it was the closest location that had the movie playing in IMAX.  It may have been a bit too obsessive, but I’m still happy I made the trip because I feel like I would’ve missed out on the ideal experience if I hadn’t.  Watching this on a small TV screen just doesn’t cut it, and Tenet makes a strong case for there to be a return to big screen entertainment again once this pandemic is all over.  Some movies ae just made for the big screen, and though it was a risky gamble this year, I’m glad we were still given the chance to watch Tenet the way it was meant to be seen.

7.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This surprisingly effective reimaging of a horror icon had the briefest of theatrical runs early in the year before the pandemic shut down all theaters, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it stuck in my top ten for the year all the way to the end.  This chilling retelling of the H.G. Wells horror classic brings the concept into the 21st century with a clever reversal of perspective.  Instead of focusing on the titular monster himself, the movie actually tells the story through the perspective of one of his victims; in this case, his abused wife.  It’s a reimaging that puts the story firmly in the #MeToo era, and shows a frightening scenario where an abusive husband continues to torment his tortured wife through invisibility and she has a hard time proving that he’s really there and is not losing her mind.  The movie works spectacularly well because of Elizabeth Moss’ unnerving performance.  She perfectly captures a woman on the edge, burned by all the emotional scars of an abusive relationship and the terrified belief that she knows her husband is still stalking her despite not being able to see him.  The movie does a good job of building up that sense of dread around Moss’ character, and it feels exhilarating once she does manage to overcome the monster and gain the upper hand.  It’s a brilliant way to frame the struggle that many people go through when trying to overcome spousal abuse, where the victim is often too afraid to come out with the truth, or is seen as too crazy to be believed.  It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the old Invisible Man narrative, taking the perspective away from identifying with the monster himself, and instead looking at how terrifying it would be to have a really psychotic individual using that kind of power.  Without question the year’s best and most chilling horror movie, and a brilliantly subtle new interpretation on an age old story from the revolutionary horror movie makers at Blumhouse.

6.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Directed by Jason Woliner

I definitely need to explain something about why I placed this movie here.  Initially in my review of the movie back in October, I gave this Borat sequel a mixed review, knocking a few points for not having the novelty of the original.  But, in retrospect, and after some subsequent re-watches, I may have indeed been a little too harsh on the film.  One thing that really has come into focus for me about the film is that out of all the movies that I have seen this year, if I were to pick one that captured the year that was 2020 in bottle completely, it would be this one.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the definitive 2020 movie.  No other film captured the madness of this year better; whether it was the political turmoil, the widespread effects of the pandemic, or just the absolute lunacy of just the culture at large, it was all captured in this absolutely insane movie.  It is quite remarkable that 14 years after Sasha Baron Cohen turned his goofy little sketch character into a box office smash that he could even attempt to do it again, and deliver something just as hilariously wild.  While some of the stunts don’t quite land as hard as in the original, the movie more than makes up for it with a surprisingly touching narrative of Borat forming a stronger bond with his daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova in a spectacular breakout role.  It’s their budding relationship that I really think elevates this movie above what it could have been, and makes it really one of the most uplifting movies of the year too, which itself is mind-boggling.  Sure this movie will be remembered for Cohen’s death-defying trolling of a far-right wing rally, or for that now infamous run-in with Rudy Giuliani, but I think the father/daughter storyline is what ultimately will help it soar far beyond it’s place within the madness of 2020.  Even still, it’s a hilarious dissection of the year that was, and miraculous and unexpected comeback for a comedy icon that we honestly didn’t know we needed at this time.

5.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of politically relevant movies starring Sasha Baron Cohen, we had this exceptional dramatization of one of the most consequential political trials of the Vietnam Era.  Cohen plays the notoriously outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman, who along with 6 other co-defendants, was put on trial for inciting the destructive riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The movie features an exceptional ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul Mateen II alongside Cohen.  But, the real star of the movie is the exceptionally well written script from Aaron Sorkin.  His screenplay for Chicago 7 is right up there with his best work, and it was a long in the making project for him as well.  Written over the course of 13 years, with directors like Steven Spielberg at various points attached to it, it is probably the most polished and well-constructed of Sorkin’s screenplays.  And even with all those years he had to work on them, the fact that it finally made the light of day this year could not have been more fortuitous.  Sadly, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a timely movie in this tumultuous year, and it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and the right to protest that are key to our survival as a republic, in addition to our faith in a fair justice system.  The movie also marks a strong step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a filmmaker, taking the role behind the camera for only the second time showing much more skill and confidence as a director as a result.  Sure, it’s fairly conventional as trial movies go, and it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, but man does that screenplay sing beautifully and the cast delivers their performances with an astounding amount of authenticity.   And in a year where we are all trying to collectively understand the right path for our nation, this movie offers a very engaging and sobering history lesson.

4.

WOLFWALKERS

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

In a year that saw Pixar release not one but two movies, even with the turmoil of the pandemic, I too find it shocking that the acclaimed animation giant didn’t land on my top ten for the year, nor did they deliver my favorite animated movie of 2020 either.  Both Onward  and Soul are exceptionally well made and fun movies, don’t get me wrong, but both also felt a notch below what I believe are Pixar at their best, and thus they both missed my list.  What did make it here, however, was an animated movie that took me completely by surprise and left me thoroughly enchanted.  Wolfwalkers is the fourth film from Ireland based Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and it is their most ambitious and artistically rich movie to date.  Whenever you hear someone describe every frame as a painting, this is one of those movies that comes to mind.  Taking inspiration from both medieval Celtic design and English wood carvings, this movie is from beginning to end a painting come to life.  It has been a constant in-house defining style for Cartoon Saloon in past films, but here they take it to another level, almost competing with the likes of Disney Animation at the height of their hand drawn dominance.  The highly stylized animation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) comes instantly to mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers took a bit of inspiration from it when making this.  In an era dominated by computer animation, it’s refreshing to see hand drawn animation still at work somewhere in the world, and done with some sense of ambition.  While Pixar spent the year playing par for the course, Cartoon Saloon swung for the stars, and delivered the most visually and narratively alive animated film of the year.

3.

MANK

Directed by David Fincher

This movie seems like it was made solely to appeal to deep rooted cinephiles like me.  An ode to old Hollywood, dramatizing the creative process that went into the making of what is largely considered to be the greatest movie ever made; Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941).  And sure enough, it worked.  David Fincher’s movie is so heavily detailed in it’s reconstruction of the era that it takes place in, that even the way it’s presented evokes how movies looked back in the 1940’s.  The sound mix makes the movie feel like it’s being played in a large, cathedral like movie house complete with an omnipresent echo (ironic given that it’s a Netflix original).  And though it was shot digitally, it’s been given a grainy texture that evokes old black and white film from the era, complete with reel change markers on the corners of the screen.  If it weren’t for the use of four letter word profanity and contemporary movie stars in the cast, you would swear you were watching a long lost classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But apart from Fincher’s technical wizardry behind the camera, he still manages to tell this richly layered character study of an unsung legend within the history of the industry; screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played with gusto by Gary Oldman).  While showing this incredible whirlwind life journey of Mankiewicz (or Mank as he was often called) as he interacts with legendary power players like William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Meyer, the movie also brilliantly captures the process a writer goes through in crafting a story that come from a personal place, even in exorcising his own demons as a result.  Through this we see what went into the crafting of the great American story and show that indeed Herman Mankiewicz was more of it’s author than anyone realized, with his own life being just as cinematic as anything else he could have written.

2.

DA 5 BLOODS

Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is ever the troublemaker when it comes to bringing politics to the big screen, but he’s also someone with an unparalled command of the cinematic language as well, making his movies resonate regardless of it’s message and target audience.  With Da 5 Bloods, he finds a universal story about racial identity and the crippling effects of warfare in this incredible story about four Vietnam vets turned treasure hunters.  And it is perhaps his most compelling film since Malcolm X (1992).  With very subtle to overt homages to movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Lee has crafted one of the most compelling character studies of his career, as each of his central characters carry with them some burden put on them from their experience in the Vietnam War, with one in particular never really have been able to shake off the emotional wounds, even decades after the war ended.  Delroy Lindo delivers without a doubt my favorite performance of the year as a deeply unnerved Nam vet named Paul, a MAGA hat wearing hot head who grinds against the other members of his team like flint over a pile of wood.  While some other movies might judge a character like him harshly, Lee surprisingly gives him a great deal of depth, perfectly encapsulating how some people never leave the battlefield and how it often clouds the rest of their life.  The movie also features a touching supporting performance from the late Chadwick Boseman as a fallen soldier that brought the titular 5 Bloods together.  The beloved actors untimely passing shortly after this film’s release now brings a whole new resonance to his performance here, and along with the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was a great swan song year for Chadwick as he sadly left us too soon.  And just on a technical level, this is Spike Lee in his prime, making the most of his already definable style, but done so with ambition that had been missing in a lot of his more recent work.  Along with 2018’s Blackkklansman, it’s nice to see Spike Lee getting back to making ambitious, but still revolutionary movies again, and Da 5 Bloods is absolutely him at his very best.

And finally, the best movie of 2020 is…

1.

KAJILLIONAIRE

Directed by Miranda July

Yeah, I know this is a strange choice to make, but, for me this was the most satisfying cinematic experience that I had all year, and I’ll tell you why.  One thing is that I managed to watch this on a big screen during a brief window when movie theaters were open in the LA metro area, which was definitely a bonus.  But more importantly, in a year that was such a sour pill to swallow for so many people this year, Miranda July’s sweet story of adversity was like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Truthfully, there is a bit of buried relevance to what this year was like within the narrative of Kajillionaire that I was not expecting, and I’m sure that Miranda July probably never intended it that way either, but it was still hard to miss.  It’s about a socially stunted young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) who is dragged around by her scam artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) to basically scab off of other people in order to make a living, until an outsider named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into her life and shows her a different way.  A narrative about freeing oneself from the influence of grifters and con artists and finding renewed purpose in life; gee, I wonder why this resonated in 2020.  Regardless of what meaning I projected onto it, it’s still a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of heart and it just was so refreshing to see something positive for once in this very dark year.  Evan Rachel Wood does a great job of balancing the character of Old Dolio, doing a good job of making her feel real and not a cartoonish creation.  And Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger do a magnificent job of portraying two of the worst parents in cinema history.  Miranda July can sometimes be too aloof as a storyteller, but Kajillionaire is without a doubt her most assured and universally appealing movie to date, and it’s twist and turns are some of the most clever plotting that I’ve seen from a movie this year.  We definitely needed a movie like this in 2020, and hopefully it gets discovered by a wider audience in the years to come.  For this critic, it was the sweet, soothing treat that I sorely was needing in this foul, disgusting year, and I’m grateful that I even got to experience it on a big screen as well.

Of course, there was a lot of bad to go along with the good in 2020, and that’s a bit of an understatement.  Even watching mostly from home I was not immune to being exposed to some bad movies this year.  So, in addition to my best of the year, I also have my Bottom 5 worst movies of the year.

5.   THE TAX COLLECTOR – When disgraced, self-destructive actor Shia LaBeouf is the only good thing in your movie, that’s not a good sign.  This convoluted, Scarface (1983) wannabe is full of tired drug cartel movie clichés and features one of the least charismatic protagonists I’ve ever seen in one of these kinds of movies.  Another low point for the once promising director David Ayer.

4.  DOLITTLE – Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sadly landed with a thud.  I could sense that Downey meant well from the outset in getting this movie made, but somewhere down the line, whether it was questionable creative choices or studio interference, something went horribly wrong.  The animal animation is horrible, the celebrity voices just don’t fit the animal characters they play, the story is dumb, Downey’s Welsh accent makes him hard to understand, and it all just makes the movie too dumb even for toddlers that it’s aiming for as it’s audience.  C’mon Iron Man, you can do a lot better.

3.  ARTEMIS FOWL – First in what I’ll be calling the Good Directors Gone Bad of 2020 part of this list.  Kenneth Branagh is usually a brilliant film director who can work in genres as varied as Comic Book (Thor) or Mystery Thriller (Murder on the Orient Express).  Here however he struggled to launch a franchise based on a popular set of young adult fantasy adventure novels, and what resulted is an undercooked Harry Potter wannabe.  This is probably the laziest film to ever come from the acclaimed filmmaker, who sadly didn’t have Death on the Nile to help cleanse the palette at the end of this year, with that movie moving to 2021.  Thankfully, the movie was quickly buried on it’s subdued release on Disney+, where it was likely spared from a disaster at the box office.  Hopefully Branagh can put this embarrassment behind him and get back to making movies that are better suited for his talent.

2. HILLBILLY ELEGY – Another disastrous turn for an otherwise celebrated filmmaker, Hillbilly Elegy is a new low point for the usually reliable Ron Howard.  Based on the best selling memoir by author J.D. Vance, the movie feels creepily exploitive in the way it portrays it’s lower class characters, in what some critics have called “Poverty Porn.”  It’s the kind of movie that looks attractive as potential Oscar Bait, with actors in a sense uglifying themselves in an attempt to get Awards recognition.  This movie doesn’t have a compelling enough story to pull that off, and instead feels cheap and manipulative.  It’s especially disappointing that it wastes great actors like Amy Adams and Glenn Close in roles that are far beneath their talents.  Movies can be made about the struggles of poor, on the fringe Americans that society has largely forgotten, but this movie definitely adds nothing of worth, and instead just feels like a thirsty plea for Awards season recognition.

And the worst movie of 2020 is…

1. ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES – This updated version of author Roald Dahl’s beloved classic novel is not only bad, it is bafflingly bad.  Considering that this is from Robert Zemekis, the man behind Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) is shocking, because it is such an amateurish and disturbingly ill-conceived film.  The original 1990 film based on the book featured some incredible puppetry and visual effects from Jim Henson Studios, but this movie not only entirely relies upon an over abundance of CGI, but some of that CGI is used to create some really disturbing imagery.  You thought the cat skin transformation in last year’s Cats (2019) was bad, just wait until you see Anne Hathaway’s transformation into the Grand High Witch in this movie.  It really is the most nightmarish thing I’ve seen in any movie in a long time.  And this is supposed to be a movie geared towards kids.  Without a doubt the most disastrous movie of all of 2020, and that’s saying a lot.  Not even worth watch for free on HBO Max.

So, there you have all my choices for the best and worst of 2020.  Overall, given the limitations that I faced in accessing any amount of movies this year, I still managed to see enough good films to fill out the list.  Again, had the year gone differently, my list would have likely been a lot different, but that’s out of my control.  I do wish that some of those other highly touted end of the year movies had been more widely available; especially Nomadland, as that one is cleaning up with the year end awards so far.  But, despite how the year as a whole went, I’m surprised how little it actually affected my viewing habits.  I still chose to see movies first on the big screen wherever I was available to, and though it has been inconvenient, I still am happy that I managed to be able to do it at all.  Drive-In’s have been a lifesaver for me as a fan of cinema, and for someone who up until this year had never been to a Drive-In movie before, I have since turned into a Drive-In veteran, watching more than a dozen films that way over the last year.  Even some of the exclusive movies from major streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV were given the Drive-In treatment here in the LA metro area, and yes I paid extra money for what I could’ve seen for no extra charge on my streaming accounts.  I am still a dedicated fan of the cinematic experience and probably always will be.  My hope is that we begin to see the theatrical industry start to get back on it’s feet in 2021.  It may be years before it gets back to normal, but once the theater doors begin to open up once again, I’ll happily be one of the first to venture back and show my support.  With the vaccine starting to circulate, and the pandemic’s worst days hopefully behind us, my hope is that we as a society once again see the value in the communal experience of watching a movie together.  It’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to in the new year, and my hope is that everyone else feels the same way too.  We’ve had to compromise a lot in the last year, but my hope is that we come out of it resilient and are able to embrace the things that we love and have missed the most, and hopefully movies the way they are meant to be seen is one of those cherished things that we will fight to preserve in the years ahead.

The Movies of Early 2021 (Hopefully)

Well, we did it everyone.  We made it to the year 2021.  After suffering through what will no doubt be described for a long time as one of the worst years in history, we are hopeful that the following year will be significantly better.  Of course, the changing of the calendar alone doesn’t mean much overall.  The dark cloud of 2020 is going to be hanging around us for some time still, and we are likely going to be seeing a lot more problems extend into the first couple of months of this year.  But, a light at the end of the tunnel is before us, with a new administration set to take office in the coming weeks and a vaccine starting to disperse out to the population.  It will take time, but we are beginning to take steps in the right direction.  One area that is still stuck in limbo however is the future of movie theaters in the United States.  Only a year after hitting all time highs in 2019, the theatrical industry spent most of 2020 on life support, with it’s future uncertain given the rising competition from streaming, which had a landmark year.  The recently signed into law stimulus bill will indeed provide help to independent movie theaters across the country, but the big chains which make up the dominant number of screens are still going to face a grim outlook in 2021.  AMC, the largest chain, has stated that their reserves of cash are going to run out sometime this month, making bankruptcy almost imminent.  And if AMC can’t pull itself out, it could cause a ripple effect across the entire theatrical industry as a result.  We may be seeing the after effects of 2020 play out for many years when it comes to Hollywood and it’s relationship with the theatrical market.  As of right now, it’s still uncertain if any of it will return back to normal.  And this is reflected in the wait and see position that the industry is taking with their planned releases over the next year.

As I’ve done for most of this year, I will be foregoing my usual breakdown of the upcoming movies in any given season, based on the “must sees” and the “ones to skip”, and instead just spotlight the important movies that have the best shot of getting released this year.  Unlike my last couple seasonal previews, which sadly never panned out like they were supposed to, I am going to instead focus on the movies that I believe are going to have the best shot of being released over the next few months, mostly through Winter and Spring.  A lot of these are still tentative dates that could shift once again like everything else from 2020, but there are a couple that are indeed set in stone thanks to convenient and still controversial hybrid releases in both theaters and streaming.  It remains to be seen if any of that will work, and it may also all depend on the state of the theatrical industry moving ahead through the rest of the year.  In any case, let’s take a look at the hopefully and finally set in stone movie releases of early 2021.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (MARCH 5)

Let’s begin with one movie that will for certain meet it’s intended release date.  Disney’s latest animated feature was originally intended for a November 2020 premiere, but the decision was made early enough in the reshuffling of movies to give Raya and the Last Dragon a safe haven in Spring of 2021.  The move wasn’t that far off from where it had been, and it is coming out in the month of March, which has been beneficial to Disney films in the past (2016’s Zootopia for example).  Not only that, but it also allowed time for Disney’s new experimental release plans to play out, and help them learn what works and what doesn’t.  What we’re going to see from Raya is the first wide release from Walt Disney Pictures in movie theaters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But, it will be part of a hybrid release similar to what Warner Brothers announced for all their 2021 films in a now notorious decision.  While Warner Brothers received pushback from it’s wide ranging decision, the announcement of Raya’s release was largely accepted, mainly because it’s the only one that Disney planned this for (so far).  It will be premiering on Disney+ the same day as theaters, in what looks like the same Premiere Access feature that they used for Mulan (2020).  It’s unclear if it’s an extra premium cost in addition to the subscription price, but the beneficial thing is that it does give more options to Disney to get their movie seen just in case the pandemic still hasn’t subsided.  And hopefully it works out not just in Disney’s favor, but also for the movie theaters playing it as well.  This looks like a nice big animated epic that would ideally play on a large screen, and the Southeast Asian setting looks unique and colorful.  I like that the Asian influence behind this movie is also reflected in it’s creative team, with a script from the writer of the hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and a cast that includes Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran and comedian Awkwafina.  Given Disney’s track record, it will hopefully be an early boost that the theatrical industry needs.

NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 2)

Poor old 007.  One of the first inclinations of the severity of the year we were about to face happened when MGM and Sony suddenly pulled their hotly anticipated new Bond sequel off of the calendar.  It was the first domino to fall and set the standard for the 2020 theatrical year, where no major blockbuster managed to land it’s intended release.  No Time to Die, the 25th film in the long running James Bond franchise, is a significant film for the series in that it’s the first to be directed by an American (True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga) and also the final franchise film starring Daniel Craig as 007 (his fifth overall).  The fact that we’ve seen been left to wait longer for the chance to see this turning point movie in this beloved franchise has only increased the anticipation of fans tenfold.  Unfortunately for MGM, they don’t have the financial stability to launch their own streaming service the same way that Warner Brothers and Disney has, so they’ve been left with the unfortunate position of having to wait for theaters to return back to normal in order to maximize box office returns that will offset the $200 million-plus budget they spent on this movie, or try to sell it off to another streamer at an astronomical price.  Since the former is not looking like a sure thing any time soon, MGM  did attempt to sell off their movie to Netflix for half a billion late last year.  Netflix of course scoffed and it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to match the same price.  Tentatively, we’re looking at an April release in theaters, which could again shift given the state of the market a few months from now.  MGM may even put their entire studio on the market again, with the hopes of another studio conglomerate with a foothold in streaming taking them in.  In all likelihood, I’d say we may be looking at another long wait for this next adventure for James Bond, which is a shame because it’s the kind of high adventure entertainment that we sorely need right now.

THE KING’S MAN (MARCH 12)

Another 2020 orphan, this film saw just as many delays as James Bond did las year.  The big difference is, being a 20th Century Pictures property, it has the benefit of being part of the Disney Company’s slate of releases, and has the benefit of a fall back plan with streaming, in case things don’t go well over these next couple months.  That being said, Disney and the former house of “Fox” are still committing to that early March release.  Perhaps it’s because that even though this is a franchise that has seen success in the past, it’s also one that has lowered expectations due to a lackluster performance in it’s last entry.  This new film seems to be something of a soft reboot of the franchise, still taking the spy thriller tropes and dressing it up in a high class gentlemen-ly  world, only this time it’s set in the distant past (World War I from the looks of it) with a completely new set of characters.  Director Matthew Vaughn is still behind the camera, but stars Colin Firth and Taron Edgerton are out, and it remains uncertain if the franchise can survive following this new tract.  Hopefully, a reboot is just what this franchise needs, after the bloated sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) left many disappointed.  This one acts as an origin story of some kind, but it may also just be the launching point of where the series may go from here out.  It is nice to see actor Ralph Fiennes in a more heroic role after usually finding himself playing the heavy in most films.  And it will be neat to see this group of well-dressed super agents going up against historical figures such as Kaiser Wilhelm, Mata Hari, and Rasputin to name a few.  Whether or not Disney and 20th Century can stick to the March release date is uncertain, because as of now there are only plans for this to be in theaters.  If that option remains unavailable, they at least have more of a softer landing than James Bond does in finally getting released, whether it is later in the year, or on any of Disney’s streaming platforms.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (FEBRUARY 12)

Though Wonder Woman 1984 was the first movie put out by Warner Brothers under their year long plan to release all their movies under the hybrid model, Judas and the Black Messiah may be the movie that tests the long term effects of this plan the most.  Originally set for an end of the year Awards season release, this likely Oscars bait film was moved off the calendar before being given this hybrid release in February, still making it eligible due to this year’s extended Awards deadline.  We knew that Wonder Woman would do very well in both formats, but it will be interesting to see what audiences choose with this movie.  Oscar films usually never light up the box office in their opening weekends, but instead they build success over time with word of mouth.  With this movie premiering on both HBO Max and in theaters the same day, it may indicate a shift in the release patterns for movies like this in the future.  Will movies get more buzz from playing on the small screen, or is it the big screen that will ultimately measure it’s success.  There’s no doubt that regardless of how the movie performs, it will still get Oscars attention.  If it wins any awards, it may even bring more eyes to the movie in general.  But, given the way it’s released, it might change the way these kinds of movies find an audience forever.  Gone will be those long tail success stories of those “little movies that could” which become a success over a protracted period of time.  In any case, it’s an exciting looking movie that definitely speaks to our time right now, and will certainly feature some monumental performances from actors Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.  And the story of a mole planted by the FBI to spy on the activities of the Black Panther Party will no doubt spur some much needed conversation about the politics of race in America.  My hope is that the hybrid release of this movie doesn’t diminish the theatrical market that movies like this have thrived in before.  Movies like this especially are ones that should be experienced communally in a theater and not just alone in your living room watching the TV.

TOM AND JERRY (FEBRUARY 26)

Here we have another movie releasing under the hybrid plan from Warner Brothers.  But unlike Wonder Woman or Judas and the Black Messiah, this is movie where I don’t think the audience will be as evenly split over the different options.  My guess is that this movie is going to only succeed through one way or the other.  It may fail completely at the theatrical box office, but could do well on HBO Max instead, relieving audiences of the embarrassment of paying for a ticket.  On the other hand, it may be the kind of movie that justifies parents taking their children out of the home and to the theater, as the family options have been pretty scarce theatrically over the last year.  In either case, this movie is going to be yet another test for the hybrid model, but more in the case of seeing if a movie can sink or swim in this new world.  As a childless adult, I can tell you that my inclination is that this will be one to pass on, and it can be easy for me to just ignore it, or catch it on streaming if I’m ghoulishly curious.  But, for families that want something new to show their kids, this movie is certainly the kind of thing that will appeal to them, and maybe even convince them to go out to the theaters again.  It will be interesting to see how well it performs on both ends of it’s premiere.  I highly doubt this movie will be the one that saves cinemas in the end, but hey, I also underestimated Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and that proved to be one of the year’s few box office hits.  The movie in general looks pretty bad, though I do appreciate that the animators of the titular duo are trying to emulate the style of the original cartoons.  It just feels wrong that they have to coexist with a live action world ala Roger Rabbit style.  I could be wrong about this movie, but I’m pretty certain that this will appeal solely to little children and almost nobody else.

A QUIET PLACE PART II (APRIL 23)

Another one of the early victims of the pandemic’s swift decimation of the theatrical industry, A Quiet Place II finds itself in a much different position to assert itself than it did a year ago.  This sequel to the surprise hit original finds actor John Krasinski returning to the director’s chair but not into his lead role from the first film, which given what happened in the movie makes sense (spoiler).  His real life spouse Emily Blunt returns with a more central lead role this time, continuing on in this horror narrative of survivors trying to live in a world inhabited by hearing sensitive monsters.  It will be interesting to see if the movie can repeat the success that the original enjoyed.  It is far more likely to do so in a critical sense, but, A Quiet Place Part II may also surprise at the box office as well.  As we’ve observed during these pandemic months, while the overall box office has remained very minimal due to the social distancing restrictions, one of the bright spots in the market has been movies from the horror genre.  Horror movies like Universal and Blumhouse’s Freaky (2020) were generally the top grossers at the box office, and they generated small but not terrible returns, which is pretty incredible given what movie theaters have been going through.  Given it’s late Spring release, which could be after a long down turn in virus infections due to the vaccine rollout, and a continued loosening of restrictions in the process, A Quiet Place Part II could be primely positioned to be the first box office hit of the year, and maybe even strong enough to save theaters in general.  It’s hard to say if this may happen, but horror movies have a great theatrical track record, and it just might be enough to make the movie a success.  Though the wait has been long, it might actually be fortuitous for A Quiet Place Part II in the end.

So, there you have my outlook on the movies that are going to roll out, hopefully, in this early part of 2021.  Some are certainly going to be released no matter what, like Raya and the Last Dragon as well as the handful of Warner Brothers titles, but others like No Time to Die and The King’s Man may unfortunately find themselves uprooted again.  The one good thing is that the pandemic that caused all the mayhem throughout 2020 is thankfully going to subside the further we head into 2021.  Hopefully, the movie theaters can bounce back too, but it will no doubt take time.  The last pandemic of this scale that we faced as a culture happened when movies were still in their infancy, and movie theaters were as big of an industry as they were back  then.  This was as close to an apocalyptic scenario for the movie theater industry as anything they have ever faced.  Not even the advent of television brought movie theaters to the brink like this, because even through all the competition before, movie theaters have never had to close their doors on this kind of scale.  The pandemic relief bill will certainly help the small chains and independent movie houses survive (which is great), but the large chains are still going to struggle for a while, and it may be the case that we’re going to see a much more diminished theatrical market for the next several years and maybe even forever.  It will certainly cause us to reconsider what a blockbuster hit will be in the future, as we may never hit the heights of say an Avengers: Endgame (2019) ever again.  None of the movies I mentioned are likely to be the movie that saves theaters, but some could do well enough to at least prove once again their value.  The year has only begun, and we still have a lot to learn about what the future holds, but hopefully the start of 2021 will at least give us a few things to be excited about and hopeful for as we begin to inch back to normal once again.