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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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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Five

After the end of The Americans season four, it was announced that the show was being renewed for two additional seasons that would wrap up the story.  I love that, in today’s television landscape, more and more serialized dramas are being allowed the time to end their stories properly, on their own terms.  (Yes, of course great shows are still cancelled before their time, but let’s focus on the positive of the minor miracle that this terrific show, which nonetheless has a relatively small weekly audience, has been allowed to tell a complete story over the course of six seasons.)  If there is any downside of this final two-season extension, it’s that season five has a ton of setup for the final season that hasn’t paid off yet, whereas most earlier seasons felt more complete to me.  That being said, this was still a tense, nail-biting season that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I cannot wait to see how this all wraps up in the final season next year.

We’ve seen plenty of collateral damage before from the work of Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), but season five of The Americans dug deeply into exploring the impact their work has had on the children in their lives.  Paige (Holly Taylor) has lost her innocence and her sweetness, spending much of this season in something resembling a shell-shocked daze.  (The revelation that she spends many nights sleeping on the floor of her closer was horrifying.)  The episode “Darkroom” showed us plain as day the permanent damage that Pastor Tim was convinced Philip and Elizabeth had done to their daughter.  Meanwhile, after a while in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) had almost completely dropped out of the show, the character popped back into the foreground this year, suddenly seeming to be far more put-together than his older sister, who previously had always been the best student and the most responsible one.  But looming over all those scenes of a happy Henry, who was excelling in school and finding a great relationship with his friend Chris, was the Sword of Damocles represented by his parents’ secret.  It’s hard to imagine Henry’s life not being destroyed by whatever goes down in the show’s final season.  Then there is Philip’s Russian son Mischa.  The first half of the season spent a lot of time with lonely Mischa’s desperate quest to find the father he never knew, an effort thwarted by Gabriel and the Centre.  This season also introduced us to the young Korean agent Tuan.  At first I just pitied Tuan for all the time the poor, lonely kid had to spend all alone in that house, with his fake parents Philip and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews HBO’s All The Way

The HBO film All the Way, directed by Jay Roach and written by Robert Schenkkan (adapting his play of the same name), is an in-depth look at the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Specifically, All the Way focuses on the time between Johnson’s stepping into the Presidency following JFK’s assassination in 1963 and his re-election in 1964, and his long journey during that times working to get Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The film explores President Johnson’s often cantankerous, adversarial manner, and explores his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key figures in his administration and in Congress.

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I very much enjoyed All the Way.  Jay Roach has made some wonderful political films in the past (Recount, Game Change), and he continues that win streak here.  I loved the way the film so deeply explores the nuts and bolts of how the sausage gets made in governance.  The film spends a tremendous amount of time following all of the political maneuverings that President Johnson had to do, over the course of such a long period of time, to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  I suppose some might find that boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  (Though I freely admit the film’s lengthy run-time is challenging.  I watched it over two nights, which I think is a good way to enjoy this film, more as a mini-series than as one single long film.)

As I was watching All the Way, I was struck by the ways in which it felt to me like something of a counterpoint to the recent film Selma.  I adored that film, but like many reviewers I was struck by the ways in which that film seemed to minimize the involvement of President Johnson in Dr. King’s attempts to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  In many ways, Selma cast LBJ in something of a villainous role, as someone obstructing Dr. King’s efforts.  Here in All the Way, it seems like we get a completely different picture.  LBJ is squarely the central heroic figure of this film, and instead it is Martin Luther King, Jr. who feels minimized, and cast in the role of someone who is not so helpful in ensuring the bill’s passage into law, but who is instead someone LBJ has to maneuver to get to do what he wants.  Reality, I suppose, is somewhere in between.

The chief reason to watch this film is to enjoy Bryan Cranston’s fierce, mesmerizing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson.  Mr. Cranston eats up every inch of the role, commanding the screen in his bulldog-like depiction of President Johnson.  This is a bravura, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Four

While there are many shows that take a while to find themselves, The Americans was strong right out of the gate.  I was hooked very quickly in the first season, and the show has continued to develop and deepen.  The recently concluded fourth season was superb, very possibly the show’s strongest season ever!  (It’s hard to say for sure, because in this era of Peak TV — a term popularized by Hitfix’s amazing television critic Alan Sepinwall — there is so much great TV out there that it is incredibly rare that I have a chance to watch anything twice.  This makes it a lot harder for me to compare and contrast different seasons of shows, because without having an opportunity to re-watch things, it’s harder to remember the specific details of individual episodes or seasons.  Ahh, the curse of too much great TV!)

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For those of you looking to be kept completely spoiler-free, let me just say that this was a terrific season of a terrific show.  If you’re looking for a new dramatic series to watch, I highly recommend The Americans.  For everyone who is looking to dive into my analysis of The Americans season four: onward!

Last year’s terrific third season of The Americans focused on Paige and the question of when/how Philip and Elizabeth would reveal the truth to her about their identities, and if/when they did, whether they would permit the Centre to begin to develop her as an agent.  I expected that story — and the repercussions of the season three cliffhanger in which Paige spilled the beans to Pastor Tim — to be the main driving story-line of season four.  And so I was surprised — though very pleasantly so! — that, instead, the first half of season four focused on the endgame of Philip’s long relationship with Martha.

Back in season one, the Philip/Martha story-line was my least favorite aspect of the show, mainly because I felt it stretched the boundaries of my plausible belief in the show beyond what I was comfortable with.  I just didn’t understand why Philip and Elizabeth’s kids didn’t question why their dad didn’t come home for multiple nights every week.  As the show developed, and in particular as I was won over by Alison Wright’s tremendous work as poor Martha, I engaged more fully with this story and with Martha’s plight.  Back in season one, I had expected Martha to get killed off or written off fairly quickly, because how long could this story possibly sustain?  But by now, I had been lulled into believing that this status quo would continue until the show’s end.  That, plus the season three Pastor Tim cliffhanger (which made … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Three!

I loved season one and season two of The Americans, so of course I had to continue ahead with season three.  I am thrilled to have caught up with this great show in advance of the start of season four, which begins soon!

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One of my favorite story-lines from the end of season two was the suggestion that The Centre wanted Philip and Elizabeth to bring their daughter Paige in on their work as spies.  That gave the final episodes of season two a wonderful tension, and I was thrilled that this continued as a major story-line in season three.  With Elizabeth in favor of the idea and Phillip horrified at the notion, this provided a great, natural source of tension between Philip and Elizabeth throughout this season.  It was also nice to see a spotlight shine on Paige (Holly Taylor, who has grown into a terrific young actress).  (Poor Henry didn’t have much to do yet again this season — other than play Strat-O-Matic football with Stan and look at a secret hidden photo of Sandra Beeman — but I’m OK with that.)

When the moment finally arrives late in the season (in the episode “Stingers”) that Paige learns the truth about her parents, it’s a shocking moment, a thrilling turning-point that gave the show with an extra boost of narrative energy that shot it right through to the finale and the delicious cliffhanger with Paige on the phone with Pastor Tim.  The only bit of weirdness that jumped out at me in those final episodes was that I wondered why we never saw Philip or Elizabeth actually take the time to sit with Paige and explain WHY they are spies (that is, why they think the Soviet Union is a better country with a better system than the capitalist United States) and to answer the million questions she seems to have.  Wouldn’t have have been more effective than letting her just stew and wonder on her own?  (It reminded me in a not-great way of Lost, in which the show constantly prevented the characters from taking a minute to have the normal conversation that any rational person would have in those moments, just because they wanted to keep information away from certain characters and the audience.)  But I love that we are now deep enough into the life of The Americans that we can start to see the show upending some of its status quo, most notably the dramatic revelations this season to Paige and Martha.

We’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip do some nasty, nasty things in this series so far, but that didn’t make Philip’s assignment to seduce young Kimmie (the daughter of the head of the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

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Howard/Nixon

I love movies, and I am fascinated by politics, so it’s no surprise that I am always up for a good political movie.  And make no mistake, Ron Howard’s latest film, Frost/Nixon, is a very good political movie.

Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play (which attracted notice in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2007) and directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon details the May, 1977 interviews of former president Richard M. Nixon by British TV personality David Frost.  

Right away the movie gains points in my book by allowing the two leads from the play to reprise their roles.  Michael Sheen, who came to many movie-goers’ attention (including my own) portraying Tony Blair in The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), creates a compelling portrait of David Frost.  Sheen’s Frost is an intensely likable, charismatic man who has achieved great success but who we can see hungers for something more.  At first that is just his quest to nab the next Big Fish for an interview subject, but over the course of his efforts to make the Nixon interviews happen, we see that morph into a search for something a little more serious.  Then there is Frank Langella as Mr. Nixon.  Believe it or not, I first encountered Langella in a terrific three-episode guest-starring role in the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  His intense gaze and deep voice were gripping, and I was quite intrigued, subsequently searching out many of his other performances.  His films don’t always interest me but as an actor he seldom disappoints, embodying roles as disparate as Perry White in Superman Returns or William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck.  Langella’s Nixon is the polar opposite of Sheen’s Frost in terms of appearance and temperament, but he is a powerhouse.  The moments when the full force of his personality break loose are an incredible thing to watch.

I was surprised and intrigued by  the way the film was structured as a faux documentary, continually cutting back to the actors, in their roles, being interviewed as we would expect to see in a real documentary.  I have not seen the original play, so I can’t speak to what changes or adjustments were made in crafting the film.  But as a film, it is compelling.  Frost/Nixon is a very talky movie, but that is not a weakness.  I am always enraptured by films that are able to create dramatic tension from simple conversations.  The pay-off in this film is not an action sequence or a stand-off with guns — it is when these two men finally sit down and talk.  

I should also mention the rest of the impeccably … [continued]