With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget how much of a Dick Tracy, Great Depression-era, wise guys vs. coppers gangster movie 1989’s Batman is. It’s an environment of tommy gun lawlessness and retro noir organized crime. The Joker further connects the film to 1930s culture by crooning lounge songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. And it’s telling that in the years that followed, we didn’t get Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash movies. We got Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow.
But beyond these genre trappings, what other nuggets does Tim Burton’s seminal superhero film contain?
Jack Nicholson takes up a lot of the film’s oxygen, but he is fun to watch, whether vandalizing paintings, taking up scrapbooking, or launching a dodgy cosmetics marketing campaign. His deranged dancing is a quality passed on to Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, although Cesar Romero wasn’t above a soft-shoe here and there. The Joker is a source of color in a grey world, and indeed, in a fairly grey cast of characters. An excessive amount of time is spent following Batman-chasing journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who functions as an audience identification character. A strange decision given the copious amount of Joker material, holding court and claiming a huge amount of screentime that goes above and beyond time given to “villain scenes”.
It leads to the seeming conclusion that Burton is much more interested in the villains than in Batman, supported by the evidence of his unfiltered vision in the sequel and its characterization of Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck. Of course, it behooves Batman to heavily feature Nicholson, who had the studio over a barrel with negotiating power. (His star power commanded a lavish salary and a big chunk of the merchandise, a deal he would ultimately try and fail to reprise for Hades in Disney’s Hercules.) And after all, in Superman: The Movie, villain Gene Hackman was also billed above Christopher Reeve.
The romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is unconvincing. The screenwriters’ weaknesses in this area are laid bare, and their treatment of the relationship is hackwork. We are told they made a deep connection, but are not shown this. Michael Keaton is understated as Bruce Wayne/Batman (with the exception of the “let’s get nuts!” moment). It’s a fairly reserved performance. Famously, Keaton’s casting was a sticking point because he was mainly known as a comedy actor. Burton had worked with him before on Beetlejuice. Its title role is an uninhibited role in gothic makeup that on the face of it lays the pipeline for Keaton’s casting not as Batman but as the Joker. A fascinating road not taken.
Speaking of the road not taken, Billy Dee Williams appears as Harvey Dent, seeding the character for a Two-Face tragedy later on. When Two-Face was used as a villain in Batman Forever, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones jumped the line for the role. But Williams would eventually get his chance, voicing Two-Face in The LEGO Batman Movie.
One foundational change to the mythology is that Jack Napier, the man who will be the Joker, was also the man who killed the Waynes. I can definitely see the logic behind it (think also of the storytelling logic behind the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker’s organic web-shooters). But it is a seismic change; if Batman catches the Joker or he dies (which is exactly what happens to the Clown Prince of Crime), isn’t that game over? Can Bruce not go home with some measure of closure?
With his main theme, Danny Elfman does nothing less than crystallize the Batman sound. Rightfully grabbing all the headlines, the theme feels definitive. Elfman’s Joker theme is a carnival waltz that gains a demented quality when played against the character on screen. See the sequence where it plays as the Joker does that bizarre dance as he shoots crime boss Carl Grissom. There’s quite a lovely and warmly catchy Vicki Vale romance theme as well, adapted from one of the songs Prince contributed to the film.
Elfman has been open with his Bernard Herrmann influences, which are clear in the atmospheric score throughout Batman. There are moments of explicit echoes, and given that Herrmann would sometimes take to plagiarizing himself (he reuses part of his Vertigo score in Jason and the Argonauts), that makes quoting Herrmann something of a tradition.
As the film ends, Batman stands on top of a building gazing at the Bat Signal. Elfman’s final movement washes over the audience, incorporating quotations of various leitmotifs from the film. This explicitly Straussian cacophony climaxes in the shadowy main theme played in a triumphant major key!
The Craft of a Comic Book Movie
Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst introduce a visually dense Gotham, following on from the level of cinematic detail found in, say, Blade Runner. All smoky matte paintings as far as the eye looks up, the city is a cathedral of industrialism. Even in Vicki Vale’s apartment, there are arches built into the ceiling evocative of urban sprawl and iron rivets. The density of Gotham is a stepping stone on the way to the absolutely wild urban design of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Burton and Furst mainly hew to noir influences, and the related framing of German Expressionism, but we get some of Burton’s trademark fairy tale imagery in perhaps the most indelible moment of the movie. Batman and Vicki Vale race to the Batcave in the Batmobile to the strains of Elfman’s “Descent into Mystery” cue, and the effect of passing through an eerily still forest, accomplished with models, comes off as a dark spin on The Wizard of Oz. Anton Furst won an Oscar for his work on Batman, but tragically he committed suicide less than two years later.
There are certain elements of Batman that echo forward in future adaptations, beyond city design. The Joker’s plan to poison the population’s beauty products is idiosyncratic to him, but has clear parallels to Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)’s beauty product poison from Catwoman. It’s also in the same ballpark as Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham with Jonathan Crane’s fear toxin in Batman Begins. That movie’s desperate Batmobile ride to take Rachel Dawes into the Batcave has its origin in Vicki Vale’s gothic “descent into mystery”. And what is William Hootkins’ crooked cop Max Eckhardt but a dry run for Gordon’s corrupt partner Flass (Mark Boone Junior)? The oddest future echo of all: the Joker calls Batman “junior Birdman”. 25 years later, Keaton would star in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s always been the easy armchair contrast: that Tim Burton’s Batman was such a 180-degree change from the 1960s TV show. Which is undeniable. But while certain elements of “The Killing Joke” and other then-contemporary Batman lore are in the stew of the 1989 film, its main move is to draw from the character’s roots in the early days of Batman comics. A time when the character existed in a world of Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. And this is key to the film’s status as a curio now. Batman didn’t use Superman: The Movie as a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the comic book adaptation. Tim Burton mashed a superhero story into a gangster movie template. The Joker may as well be one of the deformed, larger than life baddies of a Dick Tracy story. And after many subsequent film interpretations, that is what continues to make 1989’s Batman unique.
“Now you make me feel like a heel. If I don’t marry Elizabeth, some kid’s gonna be running around Puerto Rico barefoot with cavities in his teeth!” – David Larrabee
Billy Wilder’s Sabrina is a romantic dramedy featuring a love triangle of Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), and brother David Larrabee (William Holden). It features an early exemplar of that romcom trope of frantically running after your love interest at the eleventh hour, and is another solid entry in Wilder’s 1950s run that also includes Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like it Hot. It is also a nexus point that defines foundational aspects of the screen personas of Hepburn and Bogart.
In the film, Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter, her father the driver to the rich Larrabee brothers. Suicidally unrequited in love with playboy David, Sabrina goes off to cooking school in Paris and comes back to her native Long Island a changed, mature woman who now draws the attention of David. Because David is engaged to the daughter of a plastics industrialist, his flirtation with Sabrina threatens the family business. So Linus plans to keep Sabrina socially engaged, separate from David until the lucrative merger can be completed. But wouldn’t you know it, Sabrina and Linus begin to fall for each other on their own terms.
Sabrina’s class is a constant cloud over any romantic hopes she might have for either Larrabee brother; the flustered Larrabee paterfamilias constantly rails against any entanglement a Larrabee might have with a lowly “servant”. But while Sabrina may come from a lower class, she is seen to “transform” into an urbane and magnetic young woman after her time in Paris.
Sabrina’s arc is emblematic of several Audrey Hepburn characters. The defining theme: social mobility. Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter who becomes a confident force in high society. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lula Mae Barnes is from a rural Texan family, married at 13, but comes to New York City and puts on a front, an entire personality transplant, to become the original manic pixie dream girl, Holly Golightly. And in My Fair Lady, this theme goes from subtext to text. Professor Henry Higgins makes it his parlor game mission to transform adult cockney urchin Eliza Dolittle into a sophisticate with perfect manners and diction.
(A notable inversion of this trope comes in Roman Holiday. Hepburn is a literal princess, who spends the movie “slumming it” with a journalist who doesn’t know her true identity. Social mobility goes both ways for Hepburn.)
Eliza Dolittle and Holly Golightly explicitly climb up the rung of the social ladder under male patronage. In Sabrina, while there is a mentor character in Paris (Baron St. Fontanel), his presence is downplayed. Sabrina seems to find a change within herself more organically and more on her own terms.
On another point of the love triangle is Linus Larrabee. Toward the end of the movie, resigned to the dissolution of their burgeoning love, Linus sends Sabrina on a cruise ship back to Paris without him. This is a very familiar move for a Humphrey Bogart character. Yes, it echoes the basic tenet of something like In a Lonely Place, where alcoholic Dixon Steele pushes love interest Laurel Gray away through an awful detour into domestic violence. But much more than that is Bogart’s agency in sending his love interests away.
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine sends old flame Ilsa Lund on a plane with Victor Laszlo, for (as he sees it) her own good. And after all, their own feelings famously don’t amount to “a hill of beans in this crazy world”. And then there is the case of The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. For a man whose partner is murdered right at the off, Spade’s register is primarily one of fun. Through all the cloak and dagger of the plot, he seems like he’s having a great time. But he and client Brigid O’Shaughnessy do develop feelings for each other. And in the end, her culpability in the machinations of the villains is something Spade decides to reckon with, as he gives her up to the police.
So Bogart’s characters proactively and poignantly send their love interests away. And at first Sabrina fits that pattern exactly, but by the end it’s subverted. Linus takes a smaller company boat and catches up to Sabrina on the ship, and the movie ends on their loving embrace.
Sabrina is an entertaining romance, and also part of a consistent continuum for Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Her social mobility and his romantic tragedies come together in a synthesis of both their screen personas. As Sabrina rises in social standing, she falls in love. And Linus, who seemingly has all the industrial power he could want, realizes it means nothing if he loses the person he loves.
“This is a big story, and you’re part of it.” – Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent depicts a world on the precipice of World War II, and its thriller toolkit ultimately doubles as an argument for American involvement in the conflict – over a final needle-drop of “The Star Spangled Banner”, no less. Yes, we’re in propaganda territory, but Alfred Hitchcock’s craft is never overshadowed by a political agenda, here, or in two-years-hence, wartime-set Saboteur (1942). Both movies, one depicting the tense moment before the storm of war, one informed by the dreary reality of an ongoing conflict, integrate Hitchcock’s thriller vocabulary into the syntax of broadly defined world events.
We are again presented with an entire litany of Hitchcock’s comfortingly consistent tropes. The constantly disbelieved “wrong man”, the bluntly skeptical woman turning on a dime into devotion, the impeccably mannered and bourgeois traitors to their country with their secret drawing room conspiracies. The cabal of villains even use the same actor for their butler (Ian Wolfe) as they later will in Saboteur!
Charles Tobin in Saboteur, the genteel master of puppets, is humanized by his love for his granddaughter (though he apparently didn’t think to bring her with him on his planned flight to Central America…). Foreign Correspondent preemptively improves on this. Oily slick two-faced baddie Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) has an extraordinary scene opposite the vessel of his own humanization, his daughter Carol, where he essentially gives a confessional. Knowing he faces arrest, he muses that it’s often “harder to fight dishonorably, than nobly out in the open”. After their transatlantic craft is shot down by Nazis, the plane’s surviving passengers find themselves on a part of the wing. Remarkably, Fisher sacrifices himself, like Jack in Titanic, by giving himself to the ocean… so his daughter may live. And just like in Saboteur, hero tries in vain to save the life of the villain, an act worthy of the Doctor herself.
The film’s central romance goes from negative 60 to 60 in a remarkably quick span. A few seconds of indistinct whispering, and foreign correspondent John (Joel McCrea, Sullivan’s Travels) and idealistic Carol (Laraine Day) build an entire engagement. While the two do kiss at one point, there are also coy references to “when you kissed me” off-screen, as this was a time in movie history when the length of kisses was policed.
Now if you want to see Edmund Gwenn, beloved for his Miracle on 34th Street Santa, push a man in anger into the path of a massive truck, Foreign Correspondent is the movie for you. There’s also the impossibly posh George Sanders providing withering support, and Albert Basserman, Oscar-nominated in the role of kindly, world-weary Dutch diplomat Van Meer.
Foreign Correspondent opens on a beautiful model shot of the fictional New York Morning Globe building, courtesy of Things to Come director William Cameron Menzies. It’s a striking sign of a different type of element in a Hitchcock film. That type of artisan effect is also seen in the thrilling moment when the plane wipes out into the water. Cued by the cockpit glass blowing, the retro front projection of the sea transitions into a torrent of water crashing in: A truly theme park-quality illusion. (Menzies’ model of the airship also recalls his own vehicles of apocalyptic war in Things to Come.) But Hitchcock doesn’t always need these tricks to grab the attention; a yokel avoiding a car chase features in an almost Chaplin-esque gag.
The propaganda aspect involves the audience in the story. The kidnapped Van Meer, when soliloquizing on the merits of “the little people”, glances directly at the camera. In the desperate climax, denial of the Nazi clear and present danger is punished as swiftly as in a slasher movie. And as quoted above, Jones says during a London air raid, “This is a big story, and you’re part of it”. The thrillers of this time can’t help but engage with the violent reality around them, or at least the pregnant pause before the plunge into war. The disclaimer at the beginning of the film may parrot the familiar boilerplate words, “the events depicted are fictitious”, etc etc, but that’s only true on a micro level. The War is an omnipresent shadow.
The explicit national interest in these early 40s thrillers is included in moderation. There is still a degree fo escapism, and that is what the inclusion of Hitchcock’s in-house tropes helps to provide. 1940 was also the year of gothic psychodrama Rebecca, nominated for Best Picture alongside Foreign Correspondent and winning over the more political work. This was the dawn of Hitchcock’s famous “American period”, that produced most of his famous works, and Foreign Correspondent engages with that country’s eventual entry into the conflict. So Hitchcock himself, an Englishman starting to make movies for American studios, is in a way the foreign correspondent of the title. While lacking the entertainingly quirky elements of Saboteur, sometimes plodding in its narrative, and driven more by setpieces than always by logic, Foreign Correspondent is still a fascinating integration of typical Hitchcockian espionage into a world on the brink of world war.
Best Action Film of the Year
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Bad Boys for Life
Wonder Woman 1984
Best Action Scenes of the Year (SPOILERS) (see below for One-on-One Fights)
6) Xian Lang rampage, Mulan
5) Riyadh, Ava
4) C-47, Da 5 Bloods
3) Extraction and chase, Extraction
2) Hospital hallway havoc, The Invisible Man
1) Funhouse spinning skirmish, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn
Best Adventure of the Year
Da 5 Bloods
The Call of the Wild
Over the Moon
Best Non-2020 Films Discovered in 2020
Worst Non-2020 Films Discovered in 2020
Best Comedy of the Year
An American Pickle
Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
Director Trajectory: Up
Niki Caro. Mulan > The Zookeeper’s Wife
George Clooney. The Midnight Sky > Suburbicon
Stephen Gaghan. Dolittle > Gold
Spike Lee. Da 5 Bloods > BlackKklansman
Ryan Murphy. The Prom > Eat Pray Love
Gavin O’Connor. The Way Back > The Accountant
Steven Soderbergh. Let them All Talk > The Laundromat
Director Trajectory: Down
Michael Dowse. Coffee and Kareem < Stuber
Guy Ritchie. The Gentlemen < Aladdin
Michael Showalter. The Lovebirds < The Big Sick
My Least Favorite () Yet
Tenet, my least favorite Christopher Nolan film yet
Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
6) Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain), Ava
5) Young woman (Jessie Buckley), I’m Thinking of Ending Things
4) Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), The Last Thing He Wanted
3) Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart), Happiest Season
2) Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), Mank
1) Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), The Invisible Man
Best Horror Film of the Year
The Invisible Man
Color Out of Space
Moments of the Year
9) “Music of the night”, Wolfwalkers
8) Race to the mailbox, Run.
7) “Under Pressure”, Valley Girl
6) “Husavik”, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
5) She’s not there, The Invisible Man
4) Another world, Color Out of Space
3) Mulan revealed, Mulan
2) Call from Billy, The Vast of Night
1) “Be True to Your School”, Stargirl
Best Novel Adaptation of the Year
Color Out of Space
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The Midnight Sky
Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)
7) Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) vs. Sloane Caldwell (Alison Brie), Happiest Season
6) Andromache (Charlize Theron) vs. Guard, The Old Guard
5) Bill Goodfellowe (Wolf) (Sean Bean) vs. Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), Wolfwalkers
4) Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain) vs. Simon (Colin Farrell), Ava
3) Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) vs. Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda), Extraction
2) Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) vs. Barbara Minerva Round 1, Wonder Woman 1984
1) Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) vs. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn
Most Overrated Film of the Year
Sonic the Hedgehog
Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year
7) Peter Pan, The Vast of Night
6) The Thing, The Lodge
5) Doctor Who, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmegeddon
4) Up, Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
3) The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
2) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Sonic the Hedgehog
1) On the Beach, The Midnight Sky
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies
7) The One and Only Ivan
6) Artemis Fowl
3) Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
1) The Call of the Wild
Best Romance of the Year
Best Science Fiction Film of the Year
The Invisible Man
The Midnight Sky
The Vast of Night
Bad Boys for Life > Bad Boys 2
Wonder Woman 1984 < Wonder Woman
After last year’s Gemini Man, Will Smith made Bad Boys for Life, another movie where he’s attacked by a guy in a motorcycle helmet who turns out to be his son.
In last year’s Stuber, Kumail Nanjiani’s car was commandeered by a cop, and it happens again in The Lovebirds.
This year we had Bad Boys for Life, a Bad Boys framed picture on a desk in Bloodshot, and a Bad Boys 2 parody in Coffee and Kareem.
Most Underrated Films of the Year
Trolls World Tour, The Midnight Sky, The Last Thing He Wanted.
And Dolittle wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award.
Best Villains of the Year
5) Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), Dolittle
4) Barb (Rachel Bloom), Trolls World Tour
3) Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson), Run.
2) Xian Lang (Gong Li), Mulan
1) Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), Wonder Woman 1984
Worst Villains of the Year
3) Victor Marquez (Greg Bryk), My Spy
2) Mickey Bowen (Logan Paul), Valley Girl
1) Hal (Dan Stevens), The Call of the Wild
Karen Gillan wasted, The Call of the Wild
Cell phone gag, Valley Girl
Simon Cowell, Scoob!
The kid, Vivarium
Stabbed in the back, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Death of a sandwich, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn
And two movies, Dolittle and Capone, embody all of WTF (bad) and WTF (good).
(Rough) Final Ranking of All 69 2020 Films Seen (Best to Worst)
The Invisible Man; Color Out of Space; Soul; Palm Springs; The Prom; Mank; The Vast of Night; Run.; Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn; An American Pickle; Bad Boys for Life; Wolfwalkers; The Way Back; Wonder Woman 1984; Ava; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Bad Education; The Lodge; The Old Guard; Mulan; Greyhound; The Midnight Sky; Blow the Man Down; Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made; Stargirl; The Banker; Happiest Season; Onward; My Spy; On the Rocks; The Last Thing He Wanted; Extraction; Da 5 Bloods; Trolls World Tour; Shirley; Military Wives; Emma.; Dolittle; The Call of the Wild; The Lovebirds; Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; Rebecca; Let them All Talk; Guns Akimbo; Buffaloed; Snatchers; Tenet; Underwater; Over the Moon; Fatal Affair; All Together Now; Artemis Fowl; Project Power; A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmegeddon; Fantasy Island; Bloodshot; Scoob!; Like a Boss; Vivarium; Capone; Coffee and Kareem; Sonic the Hedgehog; The Witches; Enola Holmes; The One and Only Ivan; Valley Girl; The Gentlemen; The Grudge
By the Numbers
Percentage of films viewed that pass the Bechdel/Wallace Test: 67% (up from 47% last year)
7 Films featuring traumatic showers (The Grudge, Color Out of Space, The Invisible Man, Vivarium, Palm Springs, The Lodge, Soul)
6 Envelopes filled with compromising photographs (The Lovebirds, The Last Thing He Wanted, The Banker, Bad Education, On the Rocks, Run.)
4 Films featuring table tennis (Sonic the Hedgehog, Fantasy Island, Enola Holmes, Over the Moon)
2 Alpaca appearances (Color Out of Space, Snatchers)
2 Animated young men who mourn the destruction of their beloved vans (Onward, Scoob!)
2 Aurora borealis appearances (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Greyhound)
2 Disney movies featuring a main character whose outsider status at school is symbolized by a piece of neckwear that gets ripped at one point (Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made, Stargirl)
2 Disney movies starring precocious boys (Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made, Artemis Fowl)
2 H.P. Lovecraft horror shows (Color Out of Space, Underwater)
2 Stalker thrillers featuring “wave crashing on rock” imagery (The Invisible Man, Fatal Affair)
Messing with the studio logos (Sonic the Hedgehog, Guns Akimbo, The One and Only Ivan, Mulan, Trolls World Tour, Tenet, Soul)
Opening title sequences – * = dedicated sequence (Bad Boys for Life, Like a Boss, Color Out of Space, Fantasy Island, The Lovebirds, Artemis Fowl, Capone*, Vivarium*, Guns Akimbo*, Buffaloed, All Together Now, Ava*, The Gentlemen*, Happiest Season*, Underwater*, Snatchers*, Wolfwalkers*, The Prom, The Midnight Sky, Wonder Woman 1984)
Wrap Party Finales (Emma., Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made, Trolls World Tour, Happiest Season, The Prom)
Epilogue text (Military Wives, Da 5 Bloods, Capone, Greyhound, Buffaloed, The Banker, The One and Only Ivan, Bad Education, Valley Girl, Underwater)
Curtain Call Cast Credits – * = no specific character iconography (Dolittle, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bloodshot, Da 5 Bloods, My Spy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Scoob!, Enola Holmes, Trolls World Tour, The Prom)
Mid-Credits scenes – * = does not take up the entire screen (The Grudge*, Dolittle, Bad Boys for Life, Sonic the Hedgehog, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmegeddon, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga*, Palm Springs, Greyhound*, An American Pickle, The One and Only Ivan, The Witches, Valley Girl, The Prom, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Midnight Sky*, Wonder Woman 1984)
Post-Credits scenes (Stargirl, Snatchers, Soul)
Best Supporting Actress
Kristen Wiig, Wonder Woman 1984
Toni Collette, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Gong Li, Mulan
Kristen Schaal, My Spy
Andrew Seyfried, Mank
Best Supporting Actor
Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Harrison Ford, The Call of the Wild
Daniel Levy, Happiest Season
Tzi Ma, Mulan
Matthias Schoenaerts, The Old Guard
Best Original Song
“Husavik”, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Feels Like Home”, All Together Now
“Lion of Love”, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“The Other Side”, Trolls World Tour
“10 p.m.”, Military Wives
Steve Annis, Color Out of Space
Philippe Le Sourd, On the Rocks
M.I. Littin-Menz, The Vast of Night
Erik Messerschmidt, Mank
Quyen Tran, Palm Springs
Best Adapted Screenplay
Simon Rich, An American Pickle
Jack Fincher, Mank
Mike Makowsky, Bad Education
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man
Andy Canny, The Invisible Man
Andrew Dickler & Matt Friedman, Palm Springs
Nick Johnson & Will Merrick, Run.
Junius Tully, The Vast of Night
Sidney Wolinsky & Mark Czyzewski, Greyhound
Best Original Score
Harry Gregson-Williams, Mulan
Bruno Coulais, Wolfwalkers
Alexandre Desplat, The Midnight Sky
Nami Melumad, An American Pickle
John Powell, The Call of the Wild
Best Production Design
Grant Major, Mulan
Jim Bissell, The Midnight Sky
Aline Bonetto, Wonder Woman 1984
Kendal Cronkhite, Trolls World Tour
Mark Rickler, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Animated Feature
Over the Moon
Trolls World Tour
Best Original Screenplay
James Montague & Craig W. Sanger, The Vast of Night
Aneesh Chaganty & Sev Ohanian, Run.
Pete Docter, Mike Jones & Kemp Powers, Soul
Brad Ingelsby, The Way Back
Andy Siara, Palm Springs
Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man
Niki Caro, Mulan
David Fincher, Mank
Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night
Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Ben Affleck, The Way Back
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
Seth Rogen, An American Pickle
Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man
Kiera Allen, Run.
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Kristen Stewart, Happiest Season
Meryl Streep, The Prom
The Invisible Man
Color Out of Space
Honorable mentions: Bad Boys for Life (an interrogation of Will Smith’s screen persona in a Bad Boys follow-up that dares to have an emotional story); Wolfwalkers (gorgeous perspective-flattening animation and weighty historical themes from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon); The Way Back (one of Ben Affleck’s best-ever performances in another outstanding sports drama from Warrior director Gavin O’Connor).
10) An American Pickle
This solid dramedy is built on an improbable intergenerational culture clash. Like an inverted Back to the Future setup, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant to America named Herschel Greenbaum is pickled in time for a century, waking up out of his depth in a modern world, and face to face with his great-grandson. Both roles are played by Seth Rogen, who almost disappears into the role of Herschel. It’s an excellent comedic performance spearheading a year with several standouts in that field, getting laughs and going to unexpected places to get them.
9) Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Can you imagine saying, “Oh yeah, I just saw BOPATFEOOHQ!” Well, I did, and found a dynamic, caustic action movie wrapped in neon warning tape. It’s a testament to Cathy Yan’s film that my inherent irritation at the Harley Quinn character gave way – it helps no end that she untethers herself from the Joker – and I came to really appreciate a) her taste in team members, with Rosie Perez’ Renee Montoya a standout, b) the small moments when her background as a psychologist paid off, and c) her desperate and doomed quest for a sandwich. 2020 was supposed to be the year women dominated the superhero landscape (Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Chloe Zhao’s Eternals). In the end only DC retained their comic book slate this year, helmed by Yan and Wonder Woman 1984’s Patty Jenkins.
One of the best films of 2018, Searching was a stunning debut from director Aneesh Chaganty. Run. is Chaganty’s follow-up, a claustrophobic horror-thriller about one mother’s sadistic attempt to control her wheelchair-bound daughter’s life. Newcomer Kiera Allen is outstanding as the daughter, with Sarah Paulson a memorable maternal arch-villain. This type of contained, nerve-serrating thriller built on time-release twists might not have the most rewatch value, but it’s certainly worth at least one watch. Sarah Paulson pushing phony prescriptions on people, who does she think she is, Nurse Ratched?
7) The Vast of Night
This Lynchian, minimalist yet ambitious slice of 50s small town “watch the skies” wonder is one of the purest slices of science fiction in years. Unfolding like an Outer Limits radio presentation, this story of a DJ and a switchboard operator trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious signal is chilling and riveting, especially in one glorious extended phone call with a veteran named Billy. The level of craft is impressive, especially in propulsive tracking shots, but the movie knows exactly when to contract to send a subtle shiver through the audience, and when to expand to stoke a sense of wonder.
When I heard that the story of Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane was David Fincher’s next movie, I thought it was quite an interesting departure for him. As it happens, this screenplay was written by his father Jack decades ago, on track to star Kevin Spacey (…) and Jodie Foster in the late 90s. In its final form, Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried are in their place, poignantly portraying the friendship between Mank and actor Marion Davies. I would say the first act’s bouncy “day in the life of a 1930s studio” stuff is outside Fincher’s wheelhouse, and doesn’t grab nearly as much as the story’s secret weapon: its razor-sharp political material.
5) The Prom
The Prom is probably the movie on this list with the biggest “your mileage may vary” tag attached. But if you’re into go-for-broke production numbers in a hammy, broad, cheesy, self-consciously fabulous Broadway musical adaptation, this scratches that itch. Use your enjoyment of, say, the 2007 Hairspray as your yardstick. I’m certainly there for the slathered-on color palette (typical of Ryan Murphy) and Meryl Streep serving up that ham and cheese as a self-centered diva who delightfully romances Keegan-Michael Key.
4) Palm Springs
More 2020 escapism. A wonderful new spin on Groundhog Day, as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (both excellent) find themselves stuck repeating the same day, as wedding guests, over and over and… over. More 2020 escapism. A wonderful new spin on Groundhog Day, as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (both excellent) find themselves stuck repeating the same day, as wedding guests, over and over and… over. More 2020 escapism. A…
The best Disney-distributed movie of the year. Simultaneously disturbing, funny, and moving, Soul is a delight even as it’s dumping tons of metaphysical rules on the viewer (part of what helps that go down is the pleasing number of Kiwi accents). In Collateral, Jamie Foxx’ character is asked if he likes jazz, to which he responds, “Not that much”. In Soul, here he is as a passionate jazz musician, and when he gets “in the zone”, the world around him disappears like he’s in Fantasia. Both Pixar movies this year, Onward and Soul, get mileage from very loose-limbed physical comedy, which in this case is a necessary counterweight to an ambitious and poignant story of a musician dead before his time.
2) Color Out of Space
One thing that can be tricky to adapt from Lovecraft is that some of his horror is more conceptual than empirical, or more intangible than visceral. But Color Out of Space nails the fear of the ineffable unknown breaking down earthly logic. A meteorite crashes on a family farm, an impossible color seeps into the air, and interdimensional hell breaks loose. When it comes to depicting some of these lateral horrors, the visual effects clearly aren’t the highest ticket in terms of budget. But that actually fits the movie; it reflects the difficulty our reality has of accurately manifesting the matter of another dimension.
1) The Invisible Man
Structurally, like clockwork. Everything comes together: a precise take on the material, a star willing to run herself ragged emotionally, a director with a keen visual sense and ability to generate tension. The opening sequence easily outdoes A Quiet Place at its own game, Elisabeth Moss is Oscar-worthy, and between this and Upgrade, Leigh Whannell is developing into an exciting voice in genre filmmaking. With the thinner release schedule leading into this awards season, hopefully The Invisible Man will not be invisible.
Before I watched 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau, I had concerns. A tale of a secret cabal covertly adjusting society at key pressure points in service of an enigmatic “Plan” seemed at risk of tripping conspiracy theory alarm bells, at a time when the fun has been taken out of conspiracies. But the tack the film (adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story) takes is to code these adjustments as much more personal. Ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) cannot be together… because the Plan says so.
Making it personal saves the premise from too many pesky big-picture questions (though given David’s track toward a Planned Presidency, a cameo by future Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg as himself raises an eyebrow). It also makes the emotions land, as this roller coaster of a thriller lays its track to catharsis.
There is silliness inherent in the premise of dapper uncanny agents shaping events. Look no further than water being a semi-arbitrary damper on Bureau agents’ abilities. Water? I’m reminded of Taraji P. Henson in Acrimony: “Crazy things happen to me in rain. Around water.” But that silliness passes an event horizon, crossing into 100% earnest commitment. Nowhere is that better embodied than in John Slattery’s great performance as Adjustment Bureau Agent Richardson. Slattery is spectacular in this, precisely because he doesn’t play it spectacular. It’s another day at the office for him. With the weary affect of middle management, he grounds the premise and makes it real.
Just contrast Richardson with his superior, Agent Thompson (Terence Stamp). Stamp’s stentorian tones portentously exposit that the Bureau engineered the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. (Rather like how in Batman Begins, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul boasts that the League of Shadows sacked Rome, burned London to the ground, etc.) The character is passable, but more of a walking trope. It falls to his employees to effectively sell the movie’s ideas.
Some of those ideas are akin to The Matrix. Like the Wachowskis’ false computer reality which alters course with a spell of déjà vu, the Plan suddenly changes. But it’s uncommonly remembered that in The Matrix, the day is saved by love. Specifically, the fairy tale idea of true love’s kiss. And so it is in The Adjustment Bureau, just as hope seems lost.
The genre cocktail of the film includes science fiction, romance, and political thriller. Writer-director George Nolfi balances the ingredients extraordinarily well, and commits to the propulsive momentum of the best thrillers, but the emotional spark of life comes from Damon and Blunt, who have electric chemistry. The movie would be underpowered without it. With only minor flaws nipping at its heels, The Adjustment Bureau is a modern classic. This film, which is so full of rules, rules.
What makes a hero? A lot of things can; no one thing should. A hero can be a cynical pragmatist, or a morally grey antihero, and stories are often the richer for that. But a persistent, classic mold of the hero is the idealist. In the safe space of a rollicking action movie, heroes can represent idealism that doesn’t have to compromise, and we root for them because of it. Heroes can bear their naivé idealism as a weapon, made all the more powerful by their uncompromising belief in good, and the audience’s knowledge that the real world isn’t like that… but wouldn’t it be nice if it was? Three recent cinematic heroes can all be called naivé for their beliefs and resultant actions, but should also be championed for their idealism: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman. Especially in fiction, naiveté needn’t be pejorative, and these characters are case studies in why.
Ilsa Faust is an MI6 agent who has been assigned by her agency to infiltrate the Syndicate, an international rogue cabal of ex-spies who have turned from espionage to glorified terrorism. It is later revealed that the Syndicate was originally the brainchild of Atlee, Ilsa’s MI6 handler, highlighting with a sharpie the agency’s corruption. That murkiness is contrasted with Ilsa herself. Ilsa is an efficient killer and manipulator, no doubt. But she also naivély believes that agents of allied nations have a responsibility for each other, as she demonstrates when she risks blowing her cover to save IMF agent Ethan Hunt.
Ilsa is vindicated, as she and Ethan expose the Syndicate, foil their plans, and arrest their leader Solomon Lane. Had Ilsa followed MI6’s orders, Ethan would’ve been left at the mercy of the Syndicate. At first, when Ilsa rescues Ethan, she feels like a plot device to free the lead character, but in retrospect, Ilsa’s act defines her character. She doesn’t know Ethan has the outsize power that comes with being the main character. Ilsa simply sees an American agent in danger and saves him without hesitation. She represents a better, less pragmatic, more naivé version of statecraft. And accomplishes the impossible mission because of it.
Rose Tico is a Resistance technician whose home planet was strip-mined by the neo-fascist First Order. At Rose’s first meeting with former Stormtrooper Finn, Rose sees Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens as those of an overly simplistic and idealized hero. Initially, she doesn’t see Finn as a person. Ironically, after Rose reprimands Finn for attempted desertion from the Resistance, she starts them both on a path to true heroism, as he commits to the Resistance that Rose so believes in. Rose’s beliefs are contrasted in the movie with the roguish character DJ, who points out that corrupt weapons brokers sell to the Resistance as well as the First Order. When DJ tells Finn, “It’s all a machine… be free, don’t join”, DJ is using a convenient false equivalency. At a certain point you have to realize, one side kidnaps and brainwashes babies, and the other doesn’t. One side commits willful genocide, and the other doesn’t. And that’s exactly what Finn realizes as he fully commits to the Resistance, thanks to Rose.
Something of an activist, Rose frees fathiers who had been victims of animal cruelty, and disrupts the exploitative luxury of rich war profiteers. She gives hope to downtrodden stable children, igniting their dreams of adventure and heroism. After naivély regarding Finn as a perfect hero, Rose becomes a hero herself throughout the movie. One crucial moment where Rose saves Finn from a useless sacrifice (“That’s how we’re gonna win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”) clarifies the thesis of rebellion in all of Star Wars. In the original trilogy, the Rebels are the good guys defined by opposition to the tyrannical bad guys of the Empire. Rose’s backstory, and her inspiration to downtrodden slaves at Canto Bight, provide insight into not only what Rebels fight against, but what they fight for. Rose’s sentiment is idealistic and in some situations naivé, but Star Wars supports it. When Poe Dameron asks Lando Calrissian how the Rebels toppled the Empire, he says, “We had each other. That’s how we won.” This type of idealism drives a fairy tale like Star Wars.
In her solo movie, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince emerges from the paradise island Themyscira to find a world embroiled in “the Great War” (World War I). Naivély, Diana fervently believes that the only explanation for this grand-scale conflict is manipulation from the rogue god of war, Ares. This is the kind of great idea that can provide the engine for an entire screenplay, since the audience knows the moment will come when Diana’s naiveté will crash into the realization that humanity doesn’t need divine influence to sacrifice an entire generation in the trenches over lines on a map. But when it comes to the audience’s relationship with Diana’s naiveté, viewers can consider themselves more worldly and knowledgeable, but also envy Diana’s worldview. How wonderful would it be if violent conflict could only be explained as outside manipulation? Diana’s naiveté is objectively wrong, but there’s also power to it, right alongside her literal superpowers.
When Diana affirms her beliefs in a final battle with Ares, this manifests as a quantifiable power-up, allowing Diana to break free of shrapnel bondage. She says, “I believe in love”, to which Ares responds, “Then – I shall – DESTROY YOU!” It’s a truly absurd and cheesy moment, but one that speaks to the power of naivé idealism. “I believe in love” is a bold choice for an action movie one-liner, and stands out because of it.
Ilsa, Rose, and Diana are very different characters. Where Ilsa can manipulate with the most elite of spies, Rose and Diana are unfailingly earnest. What they share are ideals, some of which are impractical and unworldly. But in heroic stories, storytellers have license to let that very naiveté win the movie. Ilsa Faust, Rose Tico, and Wonder Woman are all characters not diminished, but enhanced, by a dose of naiveté.
First, a couple honorable mentions: Ariel Saves Eric and Commits to Her Choice, from The Little Mermaid. After a storm ravages Prince Eric’s ship, Ariel rescues him and takes him ashore. After he comes to and his men retrieve him, Ariel hides herself and reprises her “I want” song, “Part of Your World”, climaxing in the stunning moment when a wave crashes against the rock behind her. In this moment, she definitively makes a choice that was just a notion before, to become part of the human world. I also have to mention The Princesses Save Ralph in Ralph Breaks the Internet. In a sublime moment of fanservice, the Disney Princesses combine their skills to break Ralph’s fall. In terms of pure crowd-pleasing catnip it’s spectacular, but I don’t think it’s fair to run that moment in competition.
5) Tiana Breaks Dr. Facilier’s Talisman, The Princess and the Frog
While the decision to turn Tiana into a frog for much of the film’s runtime feels ill-considered, it is in frog form that Tiana shows the strength of her character. After Dr. Facilier murders Ray, he turns his attention to Tiana. Facilier tempts her with a vision of her dream restaurant up, running, and thriving, but she rejects his manipulation and shatters the McGuffin he’s so desperate for. This unleashes a phantasmagoric sequence, where Facilier’s “friends from the other side” come to collect his soul. And besides, Tiana knows she must earn her restaurant’s success through hard work, not by an ill-gotten shortcut.
4) Ice Palace for One, Frozen
Elsa inherited a castle from her parents. But her existence there was marked by repression of her true self. So when the people of Arendelle and its political peers see Elsa’s magical ice powers and react in fear to that which they don’t understand, Elsa sings an anthem of self-expression while building a palace entirely of herself. As “Let it Go” catapults emotion across the screen like a trebuchet flinging snowballs, Disney’s animators give us the unforgettable spectacle of Elsa creating an entire palace, culminating in Elsa magically manifesting her iconic ice dress.
3) Mulan Disarms Shan Yu, Mulan
After single-handedly crippling the Hun army (a potential entrant on this list all on its own), Mulan is outed as a woman but still warns of Shan Yu’s infiltration of the Imperial City. After Shan Yu’s sheer advantage in size overwhelms Li Shang and Mulan in turn, her fight with the Hun leader moves to a rooftop. Mulan, desperate for a weapon, produces the fan she brandished earlier in the movie when dressing up for a matchmaker. After Shan Yu taunts, “It looks like you’re out of ideas”, Mulan disarms him with the fan and takes his sword in an efficient punch-the-air moment.
2) Anna Sacrifices Her Kingdom to Save it, Frozen 2
For Anna, all hope is lost. She’s auditioned for Les Miserables with her song “The Next Right Thing”, wherein despite knowing her sister and Olaf are dead, she resolves to carry on and do what’s right, no matter how painful. So she wakes up the Earth Giants to destroy the Northuldra dam, the monument to Arendelle’s colonialist sin. Knowing the flood will destroy Arendelle, Anna invokes her royal authority to enlist the help of Mattias and his soldiers in taking desperate action. To be a Princess of a Kingdom is to understand the responsibility of power, and Anna’s decision to proactively confront the shameful history of Arendelle is a stunning display of leadership.
1) Moana Redeems Te Ka, Moana
For the length of the movie up to this point, Moana has believed that Maui, who stole the heart of Te Fiti, must restore it. But the power to do so has always been hers, as she has the insight to see through the corrupted form of Te Ka to the goddess underneath. So Moana parts the sea, sings to the kaiju-size fire demon, and saves it. In practice, this is mythic, poignant stuff supported by astonishing visuals. It gives me goosebumps every time. “They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you”, Moana sings to the molten monolith, before restoring that heart and saving the entire ocean from magical infection. A badass power move if ever I saw one.
“It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter.” – Thomas Hardy
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s title character is a kleptomaniac embezzler/con artist with crippling phobias of thunder, lightning, and the color red. When it comes to the building of a fictional person, that’s a lot. It’s a meal of a character, and she meets her match in the manipulative, vaguely sociopathic Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who blackmails her into marriage. In telling their story, Hitchcock deploys a cornucopia of visual tricks, everything from dutch angles to eerie color overlay. The toolbox is wide open, no restraint. But he also displays a great number of his particular hang-ups, making Marnie something of a synecdoche for his preoccupations.
There’s the embezzling women and psychoanalysis of, well, Psycho. The plot device of keys from Notorious. The uncanny phobias and nightmarish imagery of Spellbound. The fluidity of female identity, often associated with hair color, from Vertigo. The twisted relationship dynamics of Suspicion. And most of all, there is the issue of Hitchcock’s behavior toward Tippi Hedren, the star he was jealously in love with, the woman he tormented on the set of The Birds. The representation of Hitchcock as problematic figure.
Many of Hitchcock’s women are there as decoration or as pawns to be sacrificed. To be the angelic girlfriend in Rear Window. To be hacked up in the shower in Psycho. To be grotesquely molded into someone they’re not and thrown off a building in Vertigo. To be brutally strangled in Frenzy. But Marnie is an extraordinary case. Here is a character who’s often a victim, both to her phobias and to her husband. But we always see the strength of her character, in her defiance or in a particularly witty comeback. And as Marnie, Hedren gives what so many other of Hitchcock’s women aren’t given a real chance to: a great performance. From deranged to distraught to childlike to wry, the woman runs the gamut.
The tone of Marnie is a wonderful tightrope walk between heavy thematic material (as the MPAA would say), lurid half-trashiness, and the ability to land a hearty good punchline. We are rather like the Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) character, knowing something dangerous is afoot and cracking a crooked smile as the chaos plays out. In one standout scene presented in wide shot, on screen right Marnie empties a safe of its petty cash, and on screen left the cleaning lady has stealthily started cleaning outside the door. It’s a deliciously tense sequence, but as Marnie sneaks away and agonizingly drops something with a loud thud, she’s allowed a respite: the cleaning lady is nearly deaf. It doesn’t matter how clearly artificial that plot device is; the tension is an end in and of itself. As Hardy said, improbability of incident doesn’t matter. There’s something strangely off about so much of the movie, even in relatively neutral stretches, a sign that Hitchcock won’t let the audience breathe normally for long.
Marnie also contains visual motifs that seem to have specifically influenced later filmmakers. The aforementioned safe-breaking presented in wide shot is a screaming ringer for Brian De Palma’s literal splitting of the screen in so much of his Hitchcock-influenced filmography. And then there’s the unforgettable and non-exploitative rape scene, as a shot follows Marnie in close-up as she glides backward into bed. That was built upon by the Coen Brothers in Blood Simple, as Frances McDormand falls into bed, and pilfered by the show Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in much the same setup.
Alfred Hitchcock was on a roll. Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds is one of the most iconic sequences in any director’s filmography, and while in some ways a pulpier entry, Marnie stands with those classics as his fifth belter in a row. As a particular nexus for Hitchcockian tropes, and as a showcase for just what Tippi Hedren could do with a meaty role, Marnie is a twisted landmark in the history of the psychological thriller.