A Year End List – 2020

A long list of films and shows I watched and loved in 2020.

I wrote one of these last year despite thinking it was a bad idea. I enjoyed doing it as I only write about the films and shows I like and want to say something nice about. For me being in a position to heap praise (and not be burdened by word count or having to be clever) makes all the difference.

So, let’s get on with it.

My man Momoa


If you saw the trailer for See you could be forgiven for not thinking it would be an outstanding show.

One of the first shows to premiere on Apple TV it was given a trailer that emphasized the violence and world-building aspects of what the show has to offer. So much was omitted. As I have been clear about in the past, I really like Jason Momoa and what he brings to his projects (https://johnryansullivan.com/2019/05/16/a-moment-for-momoa/).

This show offers plenty of violence and gore and rugged manliness. There is a great deal of vulnerability and character and, well, great acting on display as well. The supporting cast is fantastic (looking at you Alfre Woodard!) and it’s an interesting story being told.

The amount of effort made to have nearly all of the sighted cast behave as if they are blind is apparent, it takes no time for the viewer to become immersed in this world and accept that these people are doing these amazing/dangerous things without their eyesight.

This was one of my viewing highlights of 2020 and I saw it in January, which filled me with great hope for the year to come.

The Dead Don’t Die

If there is one genre I am truly and completely done with it is zombies. I have never, ever, ever understood the appeal of zombie movies. That being said I have watched some and I did make my way through season one of The Walking Dead. If I had my way everyone would abandon zombie movies and shows tomorrow (which of course would mean that a film like this wouldn’t be made which would mean I wouldn’t write this post, which would mean..).

That being said, I love this movie (people are a mystery). I believe I’ve previously written about Jim Jarmusch on this site – in case I am mistaken – I think he is a director much like Steven Soderbergh in that they have distinct approaches to their films. With Mr. Jarmusch I feel that the either cares what the audience thinks and experiences or he does not. Some of his films have such an interior feeling that they come across as inaccessible, almost gibberish. This is the other kind of Jarmusch film, where he cares about us and is even playful and silly and fun.

This film is self-aware (meta, if you like the term) and giddy about it. When you have Bill Murray discussing Jim Jarmusch and the amount of the script (of the movie he is presently in) he’s been shown, you know you’ve entered into that strange territory where projects can either soar or go off the rails.

This soars. Tom Waits gives a strong performance (although nothing could come close to his role in The Ballad of Buster Scrugss) and Tilda Swinton gives a mightly weird (shocking!) performance that ties the various storylines together.

Adam Driver is delightful in this film and for once, once! the zombie stuff doesn’t feel forced or meant to be a complex metaphor for humanity and…. It’s silly and goofy and I appreciate all of it.

Good Time

The films of the Safdie brothers escaped me until Good Time. I recall, vaguely, hearing about Heaven Knows What around its release. My thought, then and now, was “I really don’t want to see this movie”. Which might be unfair but the story sounds deeply unpleasant to me.

Which brings me to a tangential point: movie trailers are important. I cannot stress this enough. In our current, over-saturated state of media information the two most valuable things for portraying a film are the trailer and the poster. If I had to assign these values the trailer would have 90% of the importance. So many films are deeply unpleasant and go to places you would never choose to go on your own. It’s the skill of the filmmakers, how this subject matter is handled and why it was presented in the first place that decide whether something is worth watching or not. Most often a well-made trailer can tell you if the film succeeds or fails at these goals.

To come back to Good Time, it has a decent trailer. It’s not a great trailer, it is a somewhat misleading trailer but it gets the job done. The success this film had, the praise that was lavished upon it made me curious enough to watch it. I love New York movies and in particular I love gritty movies that take Place in New York and don’t try to make the people or the place pretty.

If you’ve spent time in the city you know, the sidewalks aren’t clean. There are piles of trash by the curb and many of the people you bump into are not put-together and living their best life. Good Time is an interesting film in that it goes to these places, with these people and you are led there by a good-looking and well-known actor who has done everything in his power to be neither. Yet it works.

It’s dark and dirty and at times deeply unpleasant. It has an ending that I would be hard pressed to call “satisfying”. Yet. It’s good movie and I’m glad I watched it. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next or what the main character would do and I appreciate that.

Happy! (season 2)

If I am honest I watched season one of Happy! because I knew Patton Oswalt was voicing the imaginary character and I knew one half of Neveldine/Taylor (Crank, baby!) was running the show. The first season is dark and weird and not always rewarding. Season two, however, (Punisher anyone?) takes the parts that work from season one and discards those that do not.

This show has a fine line to walk, the boundless optimism and naivety of the child’s imaginary friend coupled with the dirty, nasty world that the grown-ups inhabit. Since the child is largely missing from this season and the imaginary friend now is mostly with Nick, the indestructible main character, he’s allowed to grow up and it makes for more interesting viewing.

There are a good many elements of this show that I cannot explain. That is, I could try and explain and they would not make sense or they would seem silly. But it works and it’s interesting. It’s an incredibly dark show that relishes going to the more disgusting, disturbing places. Yet, there is a core to it that redeems to nastiness.

This second season is so strong and so well done, with many of the side characters (Ann-Margaret people!) getting a chance to develop and shine it is, frankly, amazing that SyFy would cancel the show. To have something find its feet so soundly only to be denied the chance to continue to shift and change and amaze is somewhat depressing. But I say, take heart, enjoy what was given and delve into the weird and wonderful would that is season two of Happy!

Bad Boys For Life

Let us be thankful that the number four was not used in the title of this movie. Truly. People do that nonsense and who ever was in charge of the title of this movie refrained. On behalf of humanity I say, “Thank you!”.

The Bad Boys franchise should not exist. Anyone familiar with the story of the first film, of the original cast or Michael Bay’s filmmaking experience prior (since?) knows that many things had to go right for all of this to come to pass.

But it has and I, for one, am grateful. Bad Boys For Life does what many sequels do not, it allows the characters to grow, to age and to change. Yes, Marcus is still trying to retire (and does!) and Mike is still shooting people and not caring much about the death and mayhem he causes (only Will Smith and Bruce Willis could play characters this amoral and still make them seem like wonderful people).

They are older now, they are less physically amazing and the sins of their pasts’ (fine, Mike’s) are coming back to haunt them. Michael Bay did not direct the film but his replacements have done a fine job replicating the established style of these films. The story is what it is (not meant as a put down) and the action sequences are well done and rewarding.

What blissfully remains intact and makes this a fun film to watch is the relationship between Marcus and Mike. It’s changed but so much is the same. It works and I enjoy watching it.

Uncut Gems

If I am honest this is the film I was most excited to see in 2020. Before I had watched Good Time I was chomping at the bit to see Uncut Gems. Remember when I took a paragraph to talk about movie trailers? This film is a perfect example of what a trailer should be. I knew exactly what this movie would be and I knew I’d like it.

So much praise was heaped upon Adam Sandler and his performance that people seem to forget that every few years he appears in a dramatic role and astonishes everyone. He’s a good actor and it’s not his fault that most people forget it.

So much of what I wrote about Good Time, about the depiction of New York and the people who live there, applies to this film. What I like best about both films is how you have an almost immediate sense of who the main characters are. You understand how deeply flawed they are and you know, even though you keep hoping, they are going to do the worst possible thing for themselves, over and over.

I love the supporting cast in this film, I love the look of it – it’s gritty and glowing and strange. I dislike how much hype surrounds certain movies these days but I feel that Uncut Gems deserved what it was given. I went in having a sense of the film without knowing much information and it was perfect. I’m excited for what the Safdie brothers do next.

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

I don’t write much about this kind of programming, which is odd because in the past three years I’ve come to watch a great deal of it. David Chang in particular is a favorite of mine because the television he makes is about so much more than cooking or eating.

Ugly Delicious is as educational as it is entertaining. Although the two seasons differ greatly in style and presentation at the heart of both is the curiosity and intellect of Mr. Chang. It’s wonderful television and if you haven’t watched the show you should.

What I like about Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner is the format makes the episodes as much about the guests as it is about Mr. Chang. To explore one city, with one guest in what is meant to be one day, is an interesting concept. Although only four episodes long (looking at you season two of Ugly Delicious as well, give me more!) there is lot contained within.

Particular highlights include Kate McKinnon being a more adventurous eater than David Chang, Lena Waithe (that’s it, she’s [and everything about her episode] the highlight) and the pleasure being had by all with eating the food.

It’s a show of snippets, of small moments or bit of knowledge being doled out to the viewer. I don’t say that to diminish it, what I enjoyed about watching B,L&D (yep, I did that) is that it prized the entertainment aspect over the educational. Did I learn a bit about Vancouver? You bet I did. Did I laugh at David Chang flipping a giant crab in the air? Absolutely. Do I value one more than the other?

No comment.

Victoria (Masterpiece)

I’ve written in the past about my dislike of the question “What is your favorite film?”. I stand by what I wrote. I will also say that I believe Victoria is the best television show I’ve ever seen (I didn’t say favorite, although that may be true…). I should back up to qualify what I just wrote.

Until recently I have been the opposite of an Anglophile (except Anglophobe isn’t quite correct). While many people I know have an affinity to all things British I have had an aversion, or a general dislike. Much like their general interest, my general dislike has not been founded in anything concrete. To put is simply I was put off by period pieces about the English, in large part because everyone was so dour and snooty and generally unfeeling.

Which is to say I was ignorant and had not seen enough to appreciate that Colin Firth’s Pride and Prejudice is not the same as Keira Knightly’s (and so on). There are many interpretations of the same source material and because of this some will thrill me and others rub me the wrong way (which is how art works and we need to just accept this).

Victoria is a wonderful show. What begins as a story about a young woman becoming the queen of England (and being unprepared) becomes much more and quickly. One of my favorite things about the show is how much is packed into each episode. So much happens over three short seasons and yet it never feels rushed or forced.

Opposed to many other films and shows about monarchs what makes Victoria so appealing is the she’s presented as being a good and decent person. She’s not ruined by ascending to the throne, she expands to fill the role. She remains who she is while also adapting to her new position and responsibilities. It feels like a realistic depiction of life regarding how we change and stay the same.

I cannot praise this show enough for being a balm during the past year. Despite it dealing with a wide array of unpleasant topics I never found it to depress or even annoy me. It’s core is a positive, uplifting one – while still being a dramatic program. What’s presented isn’t all hearts and flowers yet the overall feeling I had when watching was of a warm embrace. I hope they make at least twelve more seasons.

Wolf Hall (Masterpiece)

Imagine for a moment that your historical knowledge is deeply incomplete and you’ve learned next to nothing about Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. Imagine you haven’t watched countless movies, read countless novels dealing with Henry’s reign or Anne’s beheading. I know I am in the minority here but before I came to Wolf Hall I knew very little of this story.

I certainly had never heard of Thomas Cromwell (which I gather is the case for most) and I absolutely have watched little of the period dramas made by Masterpiece. Yet Victoria showed me the error of my ways regarding period pieces and a slump in finding a good book to read led to a late night where I pulled Wolf Hall off the shelf.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself reading what felt like a contemporary story set in 1535 (or so, the book covers a fair bit of time). After finishing Victoria and the novel it seemed only natural to give the show a try. I’m not going to beat around the bush here – both Victoria and Wolf Hall have some very strange, very video-y cinematography in places that can be off-putting. There, I said it, my one negative thing.

Yet, in most places it is stunning, albeit different. Victoria is warm and sumptuous. You can almost feel the fabrics on your fingertips and the light is soft and warm. Wolf Hall is so dark and secretive. Yet, and this is the trick I can’t quite figure out, despite never really knowing the main character, we are firmly with him from the beginning.

It’s an interesting story and reading the novel you can better grasp the mechanics of how we are at once in Cromwell’s mind and shut out from it. The language used, the technique is fascinating and as I writer I should sit with it and dissect it in order to better understand the inner workings. But I don’t want to. The writing is so good, the acting so perfect that only a sadist would try and pick apart the stitching hoping for a glimpse of what lies beneath. I know there are no real answers there.

If Victoria convinced me to stop thinking all period films and shows about the English had to be a certain way, Wolf Hall is the show that made me stop thinking the term period has to mean anything at all. The costumes, the manners, the sets all certainly point to a specific time and way of life but all of the behavior and machinations feel contemporary. I’ve never seen a show that better conveys the universal nature of human interactions regardless of time or place.

It will be interesting to see if the make further seasons of the following books. If they can replicate what they did with Wolf Hall we are all in for a treat.

Jumaji: The Next Level

I didn’t write about Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle, I believe because I saw it in 2018. I enjoyed the film immensely despite having some misgivings. It’s a film in the same vein as The Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl – it should not work but it does, beautifully.

Having seen the original film (and loving Robin Williams beyond words) I was skeptical as to why a new movie was being made. After seeing Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle I was reminded, again, of a sad but growing trend in filmmaking – most movies aren’t fun.

Remember fun? Remember when a movie could just be fun and that was okay? That’s what this series is about and I love them for it.

Jumanji: The Next Level does a number of things I like: it gives us Danny Devito and Danny Glover (together at last!). It gives us Kevin Hart doing a performance that isn’t Kevin Hart (AT LAST!). But, and I say this in all seriousness, it gives us one of my favorite things ever in a film – Awkwafina doing her version of Danny Devito. It’s everything I never knew I always wanted.

In short there’s a lot of humor in this film, coupled with great action. It’s fun and I am thankful that someone out there is still making movies that are. We need them.

Knives Out

I want to be clear from the start, when I first saw the trailer for Knives Out I had no interest in seeing the film. Remember our previous discussions on the matter of trailers? This is an excellent example of someone not doing their job well.

First and foremost – Ana De Armas is charming. She’s lovely and conveys kindness and goodness and she’s just someone I like watching on screen. That the story centers on her is smart. The trailer should have done a better job of conveying this. Secondly, Chris Evans has a great time being an unpleasant character in this film and it’s a joy to watch. He clearly has fun with the role and he does it in that wonderful tongue-in-cheek way actors can where they don’t mean it, but they do, and we just go along with all of it.

That the movie is more funny than anything else should have been conveyed in the trailer. Somehow this murder mystery movie is more of a good time than a clue-following excursion and I appreciate that. Having suffered through other films by Rian Johnson (Looper still plagues me, it should be amazing!) that I thought I would love, I am pleased to report that I feel very strong affection for Knives Out. My only possible complaint is I would have loved more Christopher Plummer in the film – but I would say that of every film.

The Crown

I keep mentioning hype and how much I dislike it. As I write this I am still suffering through the hype of season four of The Crown and, frankly, it is insufferable. I never, ever wanted to watch this show (much like I never, ever wanted to watch Downton Abbey – but I did and I loved it) and after Wolf Hall I figured, why not?

It doesn’t hurt that my wife is and Anglophile and had already watched all of these shows and loved them. So, she rewatched these with me and was pleased that I finally “had gotten over myself”.

The Crown is an interesting show for me. I’ve never paid much attention to the royal family and I know next to nothing about them. Nearly all of the information conveyed is new to me and I certainly have no preconceived notions of how the Monarchy actually works in the twentieth century.

It seems, and I may be wrong, that this was the working assumption the filmmakers had for seasons one and two and I definitely benefited from it. It’s a lavish show, you can feel the money behind the shots, whether with the landscape or the ornate outfits or period vehicles lining the streets. They had the money to make this show as they wanted to and it’s interesting to see after watching the Masterpiece productions where they clearly did not.

I wasn’t expecting to feel empathy for Queen Elisabeth II and at the end of each episode there I was, thinking about how difficult her choices (or lack of choices) must have been. Learning of her love for horses was touching and being informed of her husband’s infidelity affecting. It is an interesting depiction because, as the name suggests, the show is about the Crown – yet because of how long she’s been queen, the two have in many ways come to mean the same thing.

I’ve seen an episode of season four but had to stop watching. In part because it was horribly depressing but also because I find I can’t shut out the social media voices about it at present and I need a bit more quiet in my mind if I am to enjoy what I am watching.

Westworld (season 3)

Speaking of hype…yeah. So, after watching the other seasons as they aired I decided to take a break from Westworld for all the reasons mentioned previously about hype. I am glad I did. Not watching these episodes as they are released on a weekly basis and not paying attention to what was being said about the show increased my enjoyment greatly.

Whereas the other seasons certainly have their strong points (and rewatching season one after finishing three helped remind me of how strong that season is) I think season three is my favorite. To be out in the real world, for the central question to shift away from “what is real?” and generally to become unexpected was wonderful.

Aaron Paul was a welcome addition to the show and getting to see Tessa Thompson (and Thandie Newton) do something different was refreshing to watch. There are so many fantastic actors on this show and it is so well-funded that the only limits are the imaginations of the writers.

As I write this I am struggling to remember all of the plot points and the ultimate resolution of the season, which is not usually a good sign. What I do recall is how much I enjoyed the journey and in particular the evolution of Evan Rachel Wood’s character this season. Taking the show out of the parks was an excellent idea and I cannot wait to see what they do next.

Santa Clarita Diet (All seasons)

Remember earlier when I said I don’t care for Zombie films and shows? I meant it, truly. But on occasion I watch something that is zombie-centric and I find it is quite good. Initially I was put off by the season one trailer for this show. It looked…gory. And weird. It struck me as another gross outing into the world of zombies for no good reason. I was wrong.

This show works because Drew Barrymore is who she is. If you don’t think she’s great you probably won’t care much for this show either. Is this show gory? Yes. Is it gross? Quite. Is it funny and heartfelt and sincere? Absolutely. It’s also pretty sexual and morally ambiguous. But funny!

Drew Barrymore is an actor who is able to be conflicting things and make it work. She’s kind, and funny and sweet and then terrifying and intimidating. She easily shifts between these states in such a natural and believable way (and given the details I know about her life) that I feel she contains all of this within herself. That she can access all of it and put it out into the world and make it palatable is an impressive feat.

The concept of the show, that she somehow becomes a zombie but wants to continue living her life is pretty fun. Her husband is a pretty relaxed and understanding guy who really loves his wife (Timothy Olyphant is my guy).

They have a teenage daughter who somehow manages to be a teenager but not fall into any of the typical tropes. It’s tightrope walk that works. At the heart of this show is the idea that if everyone in a family works together you can deal with all kinds of crazy stuff. I’m making it sound corny (and at times it is) but it also involves Drew Barrymore eating a lot of people. It’s complicated. Oh and it ends on a cliffhanger because streaming services are no better than traditional television companies and they do that sort of thing (shakes fist at sky).

The City and The City

If ever there were a television show that is clearly adapted from a book, The City and The City is the one. Two cities occupying the same physical space. One side is one city and the other…you get it. Or do you? It’s a weird concept and it makes for a pretty good show. The citizens of each city train themselves to only see their city – despite there being nothing preventing them from seeing what is on the other side of the street.

One city is poor and downtrodden, the other polished and successful. You can be a pretty literal person like me and see where this is going. If you ignore metaphors for a moment the show is about a murder that needs to be solved and man looking to come to terms with his past.

This and the show Counterpart are two of the more “adult” things I’ve watched in recent years. By that I mean the people making these programs haven’t tried to find and “in” for people under eighteen. The themes are appealing and make sense if you are an adult dealing with guilt and remorse and loss. I can only imagine how far I would get with this kind of programming, which I am making sound like a complete bummer but it is not, if were in my teens again.

What I enjoyed most about this show was how different, in terms of it’s execution and it’s approach to the material, it is compared to the other things being made today. It feels fresh and unexpected and that is such a joyous thing to encounter.

Ted Lasso

I never saw the short ESPN film that the show Ted Lasso sprang from but I have to imagine it was slightly different than what aired on Apple TV this fall. On the surface this seems to be a show about a goofy southern football coach who is tricked into coaching an English soccer (I’m American I call it soccer, I’m sorry) team whose owner is looking to have it fail. The idea being, or at least the trailer gave me the impression, that this half-wit won’t know he’s the reason for the teams’ failure.

What the show actually is, is a testament to the power of positive thinking and optimism. Yeah, I said it. Ted Lasso is an optimistic coach who is more concerned with helping the young men on his team be better people than he is with winning. He’s a positive force that changes the lives of the people around him. In some ways he’s a friendly version of Mary Poppins (I’m referring to Julie Andrews, Emily Blunt was actually quite nice) who isn’t here just to help the children (Saving Mr. Banks? Really? I’m not buying that) but is, in fact, helping everyone.

I want to stress these points of goodness because the show begins in such a way that it isn’t apparent what you will be watching. Everyone other than Ted (with the exception of his assistant coach) is a bit rude or vulgar or nasty.

I like this show so much that it is hard for me to properly praise it (see my take on Orphan Black for a similar situation). I enjoyed watching this more than anything else this past year. It inspired me and it entertained me. The show is funny, it has a big heart and I truly hope they make more of it. The world needs more Ted Lasso.

The Handmaiden

I am going to be straight with you regarding The Handmaiden, I cannot say much about it. Watch this movie knowing as little as possible, okay? Look at that poster, what on Earth is it telling you? Watch this trailer –

You are still confused, are you not? Go with it. Trust me.

I didn’t watch this film until 2020 and I am glad I waited. So many of the highly-lauded (hyped! Again!!) films I watch I se too soon. I knew how well received this was and I put it into my watchlist as soon as it was available. And there it sat, for years, because I knew I wasn’t ready.

If you are familiar with Park Chan-wook’s other films then you should have a sense of what you are getting yourself into. If you are not, just know you are watching a director at the height of his powers weaving a tale of intrigue and lust (and a whole bunch of other stuff that I won’t talk about).

I saw this a month before Parasite and it absolutely reinforced the idea that you have to wait until you are ready to see something (I am implying I should have waited longer with Parasite). I enjoy the story and the structure of this film and to be utterly repetitive I enjoy watching something where I am not sure what will happen next.

I don’t want to say more other than I found this an inspiring film to watch. The structure, the overall story being told – there’s not fat on this thing and nothing out of place. It this movie were a machine I’d be calling it a technical marvel and getting out a rag to needlessly polish it.

A Private War

You may not be familiar with Matthew Heineman and you probably didn’t hear about this film when it was released, but you should know both. Best known for directing Cartel Land this is his first foray into narrative fiction and it is an excellent film.

I’ve discovered in the past few years how much I respect and admire journalists and how wonderful films about what they do can be. I am absolutely in the minority in thinking that All The President’s Men isn’t a great movie about journalism and I accept that (I mention this because, to me, this is why I am surprised to discover I love these films). In large part I am drawn to the integrity and bravery that many journalists possess and bring to bear in so many situations.

I was not familiar with this particular journalist nor the stories she covered. Over the past two years the amount of reporting I’ve seen about Syria has been next to none and this was a welcome reminder of all that has happened in the recent past (as much as a reminder about what has happened and continues to happen in Syria can be welcome).

This is such a well made and well told film that it is hard to believe that Mr. Heineman is new to narrative fiction. The performances are wonderful and you quickly have a sense of the conflicting impulses within the main character. That we get such a complicated and complex main character that is a woman is a rare treat. You should watch this movie.


Technically this is a rewatch but I make the rules here so Okja is included! I saw the film when it was first released and found it to be odd. The first ten minutes struck me as discordant with the rest of the film. This impression was so strong that I spent the first forty or so minutes pondering why Bong Joon-ho would start the film in this manner.

Well, a few years have passed and I knew what was coming so I watched the film again. I can safely say that it bothered me less and I enjoyed the film more. I get the beginning now (even the weird method of Okja’s defecation, it serves the plot even though it’s downright odd and makes little sense).

If I had to describe what this film does well I would say that it blends numerous elements seamlessly. The special effects work of Okja is incredible. In particular the underground mall (I think it’s a mall) scene with Okja interacting with the environment and the actors is so perfect that it is hard to imagine Okja wasn’t really there. The young actress Ahn Seo-hyun gives such a wonderful, heartfelt performance. Again, it’s difficult to imagine that she’s alone in so many of her scenes because her interactions with Okja feel completely real.

The other people in the film seem to fall into two categories: caricature and believable. Both do a fantastic job and somehow, despite the shenanigans that Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal get up to, fit nicely into this world. Paul Dano as the leader of his faction of the Animal Liberation Front is perfect. Sincere, determined and capable of extreme action it’s a pleasure to see him in this role. Let us not forget Steven Yeun who is quickly entering Olivia Colman and Elle Fanning territory for trying to appear in all movies.

Okja is a film stuffed full of so much meaning and plot and nuance that it’s difficult to feel I’ve said enough about it. I am positive others have done a better job of explaining the film. I wanted to convey that if, like me, you find the opening a bit off, stick with it, it’s worth it.


If you recall I posted a list of films I was excited to see in the upcoming year at the end of last year’s list. I’m sure you’ve been waiting for me to get into more of those titles, so here goes.

You would be forgiven for watching this trailer and thinking you know what this film is about. For whatever reason the people marketing this movie decided to paint Jennifer Lopez as the antagonist of the film. It’s bizarre because she is the exact opposite in the movie. In fact the film has no tangible antagonist, I believe it is arguing that our economic system and who it favors (men) are the antagonist. I digress.

The best thing I can say about a movie that focuses on women who dance the striptease is that I don’t think it exploits them. One of my first thoughts when finishing this film (which I watched with my wife and she agreed) is that I’d like to share it with our daughter (who is ten and is obviously not old enough, but the message of the film is such that we wanted to share it with her – which is astounding).

The trailer conveys the main idea of the film, a woman (Destiny) starts working at a strip club because she needs money to take care of her family. Jennifer Lopez (Ramona) works there and is the featured dancer. She takes Destiny under her wing to teach her how to do the job, make money and not be taken advantage of. The trailer makes the film seem like Magic Mike for women (that betrayal at the hands of Ramona is inevitable) but in fact Ramona is more of a mother figure to the dancers, Destiny in particular.

The story focuses on how these women work together to drug and dupe men into spending large sums of money at the strip clubs which the women then steal. Can you see how good this film must be if two parents (who are not terrible people, I promise!) think their child will benefit from watching it?

The ultimate message is one of love and acceptance and it’s quite beautiful. It’s not obvious (but I feel it should be) that this material was handled in such an appropriate and thoughtful manner that the message and ideas are the focus, not the half-naked bodies gyrating on screen. It should be no surprise this was directed by a woman because everything about this film feels different and unique – simply because a different point of view is presented. The women in this film are not offerings to the men watching, it’s their story and we are being invited to follow along. I think you should.

I’m Your Woman

If this year of movie-watching has a theme it is “I want to be surprised.” Perhaps the current state of the world plays a part in this, perhaps it is because my own writing has started falling into predictable patterns. Whatever the reason I am pleased to come across films like I’m Your Woman that subvert my expectations.

The trailer for the film conveys plenty of information and gives a general sense of the plot. It also omits a great deal. As I write this I am debating whether I agree with this choice. On the one hand I liked being in the dark and not knowing big aspects of the story being told, on the other the information is given to you so early in the film I’m not sure it was the right move.

Would I have done the same? No idea! This is part of what I enjoyed so much about the film, realizing I would never make the same choices. Much like with Hustler’s I’m not sure many men would make this movie and make any of the same choices. So many moments are focused on the main character’s experience, even when that means sacrificing the more dramatic and cinematic aspects of the story.

One scene in particular, when the main character has been wandering the streets all night and has been caught in the rain and takes shelter in a laundromat, stands out in my mind. The way it’s shot and acted, it’s a powerful and emotional scene and I have to imagine that without a woman directing the film it would not have made it into the script, let alone out of the editing suite.

Perhaps I am beating this drum too hard and focusing on the wrong things. What I enjoyed most about I’m Your Woman relates to the shifted perspective of the film. If this story had been told in a traditional manner, the main character would have been a minor character and her relationship to her son would have been given little to no screen time.

That the baby gets so much screen time and is so important to the story was quite wonderful. Perhaps if you aren’t a parent it won’t feel so important to you but for me he was the emotional center of the film that gave weight and importance to so many scenes. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it made me remember the best parts of the director’s earlier effort, Fast Color.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

This is an odd, interesting film. I recall hearing that no one was quite sure how to market the film and after seeing it I can appreciate how difficult a task that must have been. 

The trailer makes it seem like a comedy but it isn’t. It is dramatic but the structure is atypical and most of what constitutes the first and second act would normally be condensed into the first act of a “normal” film.  Which is to say that by forging its own path this is a typical Richard Linklater film. A by-product of this, at least for me, is a sense being unsure of how you feel when the movie ends. 

What I like best about the film is that it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like real life and the weird ways people deal (or don’t deal) with their problems. I think this is why the ending is so abrupt. To reach the conclusion of this story you would need to stay with the characters until their deaths. Which is a morbid note to end a film or year-end review on.

What I enjoyed most about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the realistic way the characters behave. The main character, Bernadette, is someone whose past troubles her. She is unhappy and that unhappiness manifests itself in how she deals or does not deal with the world. This is demonstrated in the way she interacts with her busybody neighbor, played by Kristen Wiig.

The payoff of their mutual animosity and difficult dealings with one another comes when Bernadette flees her home and hides from her family. It’s raining and she has no friends or family she can turn to, so she knocks on her neighbor’s door. In explanation she says she needs to hide and no one would ever come looking for her at the neighbor’s house. It’s a nice moment, a real moment in the context of the story, and because her neighbor is a woman she lets Bernadette in.

Not only does she allow Bernadette into her home she provides her with tea and towels and even lies to her best friend about Bernadette’s whereabouts. The reason she does this is because she is a person, a woman, and she’s been asked to help.

I feel I am belaboring this point but given my disappointment with a female led, female directed film that just was released (for not doing these very things) I want to state my appreciation of this film and the things it does so well. I can’t think of many women who would not let someone in need of help into their homes – regardless of how they feel about the person. By and large women do not behave like men, they do not think like men and it is refreshing to see this portrayed in film.

My final comment about this film is about Bernadette’s relationship with her daughter. Despite being a creatively stifled and frustrated person Bernadette has a wonderful, loving relationship with her daughter. It is the center of the film and it is the best part of the film. It also is a wonderful choice on the filmmaker’s part to not have a tumultuous, difficult relationship between the frustrated mother and teenage daughter. That dynamic is so well-known and so easy to portray that to choose not to have another source of conflict and dramatic interactions is a brave choice and the film is better because of it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the kind of movie you watch and when it ends you feel unsettled. I wasn’t sure what I thought at the end and my wife felt the same. When we found ourselves discussing it the following day and then the day after that, we both realized how deeply it resonated with each of us, and how wonderful that is. This is not a disposable film that provides entertainment and then is forgotten. It’s atypical and odd but I am pleased I saw it and it has given me insight and perspective into my life. I don’t think I can give a film higher praise than that.

I would like to conclude with a list of films and shows I am excited to see in the upcoming year. I’m finding it harder to keep track of what is coming out and when, in large part because of the pandemic and the shifting release schedules.

  • Tenet
  • Dune
  • Foundation
  • Raya and The Last Dragon
  • Black Widow
  • Coming 2 America
  • The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard
  • The French Dispatch
  • Loki
  • The Snyder Cut
  • First Cow

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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