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Click here for part one of my list of my Favorite Movies of 2020, and click here for part two.  And now, let’s dive into my top Five Favorite Movies of 2020!

5. News of the World I wrestled with which 2020 Tom Hanks film I preferred: News of the World or Greyhound.  Ultimately I gave News of the World the higher ranking, but I wonder if I’ll feel differently a year from now.  They’re both great films!  In News of the World, Mr. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who now eeks out a living by traveling from town to town to read from newspapers for the townspeople’s entertainment and edification.  Captain Kidd winds up entangled with a young girl named Johanna, who was kidnapped from her family years ago and raised among a tribe of Native Americans; now she is alone and Captain Kidd sets out to reunite her with her surviving family members.  The film is adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles and directed by Paul Greengrass.  I thought the film was a delightful departure for Mr. Greengrass — it’s far more slowly paced and elegiac than the intense dramas and action films for which Mr. Greengrass is best known.  But his skill is on display in every frame of their beautiful, melancholy film.  Tom Hanks gives yet another spectacular performance.  (There’s a scene, late in the film, in which Captain Kidd finally faces the grief he’s buried, and it’s an extraordinary few moments of film.)  This is classical movie-making of the best kind.  (My full review is coming soon.)

4. On the Rocks Sophia Coppola’s latest film stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a woman who begins to suspect that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.  So Laura enlists the aid of her wealthy, lecherous, “man about town” father, Felix (Bill Murray, reuniting at last with Ms. Coppola for the first time since Lost in Translation), to track Dean and get to the bottom of what’s going on.  On the Rocks is very funny at times — the pairing of Mr. Murray and Ms. Jones yields as much comedic fruit as I’d hoped — while also being a moving, sometimes sad story of the complicated relationship between Laura and her father.  I love how nuanced this film’s storytelling is.  No one is reduced to a simple character, a hero or a villain.  Everyone in this film is imperfect, and Ms. Coppola demonstrates an endearing amount of affection for these broken, flawed people.  I love that about the film.  (My full review is coming soon.)

3. The Vast of Night First-time filmmaker … [continued]

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The Trial of the Chicago 7, written & directed by Aaron Sorkin (mastermind behind Sports Night & The West Wing, writer of such terrific films as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and Charlie Wilson’s War, and the writer/director of the underrated Molly’s Game) tells the story of the seven men (really eight, counting Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers) who were put on trial by the U.S. government following the violence between the Chicago Police and the anti-war and counter-culture protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  The film is a story about members of our government using their political power to try to destroy their enemies.  It’s about how our criminal justice system can be twisted by bad-faith actors to be used as a weapon against against our citizenry.  And it’s about men and women protesting what they see as the wrongs of our society and being met by anger and violence from the police.  In short, this is not only a critical history lesson that’s important for every American — it’s also a film that is very much about what is happening in the United States of America today in 2020.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is phenomenal.  It’s riveting.  It’s funny and it’s horrifying.  It’s a film that will make you angry — it’s designed to do so — but it’s not a depressing slog.  Mr. Sorkin’s skill with dialogue ensures that almost every single scene is so brilliantly written that you’ll be dazzled by the word-play.  His skill with structure ensures that he is able to dramatize a trial that went on for month after long month is presented in such a way that, when watching the film unfold, you’re carried along with the drama of the story.  The film that is jam-packed with characters and plot points, but Aaron Sorkin’s stills as a writer and director ensures that none of this ever becomes overwhelming or confusing or, worst of all, boring.  (The film’s opening sequence, which introduces us to a wealth of characters and backstory in a mile-a-minute series of walk-and-talk scenes that somehow manage to be clear, concise, and fun, is magnificent, and gave me confidence that I was in good hands with this film.)

The cast is absolutely extraordinary.  One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well we’re allowed to get to know all eight defendants in the trial, how they’re each well-developed as distinct and interesting characters.  (OK, six of the eight.  We don’t spend too much time with Lee Weiner, played by Noah Robbins (Zach on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or John Froines, played by Daniel … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I quite liked the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I enjoyed being back in the world of Harry Potter (what has now been dubbed “The Wizarding World”), and I thought the film was fun if a little slight.  (It was a gentler, more meandering tale than the last few Harry Potter films, which were darker and more intense.)  I wouldn’t say I LOVED the film, but I was eager for the story to continue in the next of five planned films.

The trailers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were intriguing, but also raised some alarm bells for me.  This new film looked a lot more epic and a lot darker than the first Fantastic Beasts — this excited me.  The trailers played up this film’s connections to the broader Harry Potter mythology — Dumbledore, Hogwarts, the human form of Nagini, etc.  This also excited me.  But mostly absent from the trailers were the foursome who were the focus of the first Fantastic Beasts film: the sisters Tina and Queenie, the “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski, and Newt Scamander himself.  This worried me.  Was this second film abandoning these characters?  I doubted it would, but then I worried that they would they be in the film but overshadowed by all of the more exciting mythology, the Dumbledore-versus-Grindelwald stuff.  Would Newt & co. be unnecessary and boring in their own film?  Would I wish that Dumbledore was the main character, rather than Newt?

Having now seen the film, I can say a few things:

First off, I quite enjoyed it.  I thought it was, overall, a stronger film than I’d been expecting based on the early reviews.

Second, the film feels very much of a piece with the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I’d worried this film was going to be a major course correction from the first film, but in fact it continues nicely from the first Fantastic Beasts in terms of tone and style.

Third, I had expected that the film would be structured with Newt & co. going on a series of adventures that I’d find somewhat entertaining but not as much fun as the “good stuff” of the mythology revelations and spectacle that I expected in the film’s climax.  In fact, I was very taken by the film’s first three-fourths, and all of that adventuring by Newt & co., while I found the film’s last thirty-or-so minutes to be head-spinningly confusing, overstuffed with exposition describing IMPORTANT REVELATIONS that I felt weren’t sufficiently explained nor were their repercussions sufficiently explored (the latter being a task, presumably, held for the next film).

OK, let’s dig in.

I was pleased that, contrary to how the film was being advertised, the big-four … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Set more than a half a century before the events of the seven Harry Potter books (and the eight movie adaptations), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to a young man named Newt Scamander.  Mr. Scamander was mentioned in the original Harry Potter series as the author of a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  This film of the same name introduces us to Mr. Scamander as a young man, traveling to New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  When several creatures are accidentally set loose, Mr. Scamander and several new friends — the magic-wielding sisters Tina and Queenie, as well as the No-Maj (non-magical) Jacob Kowalski — set off to recapture them.  All the while, though, a terrible threat haunts New York City…

FantasticBeasts.cropped

I can completely understand the desire to continue the Harry Potter saga beyond the adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels.  I can of course see the studios’ financial desire — the eight Harry Potter films were huge money-makers, so of course the studio would want to make more.  But as a fan, I can also understand the desire to tell more stories in this rich universe.  Although the seven books told the story of Harry Potter, and that story has been completed, the wizarding world created by Ms. Rowling — and brought to life on-screen by so many talented craftsmen and women — has such life in it that I can see there being plenty of room for further adventures.  Just as I believe there is room for more Star Wars adventures beyond the story of the Skywalker family (and I am excited to see the first on-screen attempt at this, Rogue One, in just a few weeks!), so too do I believe there is room for additional Harry Potter adventures that don’t involve Harry Potter.

So I have no automatic objection to the notion of a Harry Potter spin-off film.  And this film has been assembled with some key creative people in place to help make this feel like a legitimate expansion of the Harry Potter universe rather than a cheap cash-grab.  First and foremost, the script was written by J.K. Rowling herself.  What better way could there possibly be to ensure that this spin-off is legitimate??  It’s a clever move, and although Ms. Rowling did not write any of the screenplays for the previous Harry Potter films, her work here is strong.  But it’s the legitimacy that her involvement gives Fantastic Beasts that is the most important aspect of her participation, I think.  On the film-making side, Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films.  After … [continued]