Arts & Media

2020 Movie Reviews

Alyssa Leong ’23
Staff Writer

At first, 2020 seems like it was an awful year for movies (as it was for pretty much everything else). The movie industry has been one of the most affected by the pandemic. Cinemas, which were arguably already on the decline due to the rise of streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and 123 Movies, have faced widespread coronavirus-related closures. As a result, most big-budget movies, such as the new James Bond movie No Time to Die, Marvel’s Black Widow, the newest remake of Dune, and much more were postponed to 2021 release dates.

However, delays on bigger movies pushed more small films into the spotlight, especially as many had video on demand (VOD) releases. It’s also been a great year for female directors, with movies such as Birds of Prey, Emma., First Cow, The Half of It, Miss Juneteenth, Promising Young Woman, and more gaining acclaim.

Without the experiences of “normal” life, movies were a way to escape the chaos of 2020, if only for two hours. But they also served as a mirror, reflecting both the surreal truth of 2020 sociopolitical events as well as a reminder of the way things were, and will hopefully (soon) return to be. As a result, many of the year’s releases were poignant in unintentional ways.

The Half of It
Unexpectedly, this turned out to be my favorite movie of the year! As someone who watches a lot of coming-of-age movies, this one was especially unique as it centers around Chinese American straight-A high school student Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis). When she is hired to write love letters to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) for loveable himbo Paul Munskie (Daniel Diemer), things change when Ellie starts to fall for Aster herself.

I’ve watched a fair share of teen romcoms, but this was one of the first coming-of-age movies that I saw my own teenage experience represented in. I found myself relating to Ellie — both in her Chinese American upbringing, but also in her thoughtful personality. I also loved the characters (Ellie’s friendship with Paul especially) and it was refreshing to see a wlw romance.

Overall, The Half of It is such a unique coming of age movie in its unconventional plot, its poetic writing full of teenage yearning, and the beautiful way it frames suburban teenage life and the moments of beauty found within it.

Director: Alice Wu
Runtime: 104 mins
Where to watch: Netflix

Soul
Pixar asks the existential questions kids want answered such as “what is a soul?” and “what makes you you?” in their newest movie. For fellow college students who don’t know what to do with their life: this is the movie for you! Personally, both the pandemic and college in general have recently made me question my future career plans. However, Soul reminds its viewers to take a moment to simply experience life when jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) dies just as he catches his big break and gets sent to another realm to confront his life.

The animation is also up to the stunning standard of Pixar movies. I loved the way Soul experimented with new art styles and beautiful color palettes. And of course, the attention to detail was immaculate. Even on my TV, I could catch the tiny details like the pilling on Joe’s sweater, stray wisps of hair catching the sunlight and more. The gorgeous animation further emphasized the way Soul wants its audience to appreciate the little things in life; I only wish I could’ve seen it in a theater to see it up closer.

In the context of the pandemic, Soul’s messages have taken on a whole new meaning; not only in a loss of work and home life separation, but also because of the chaos of the ever-evolving news cycle. These factors make Soul’s reminder to find the beauty in everyday moments especially poignant, in Pixar’s usual heartwarming yet heartwrenching nature.

Director: Pete Doctor
Runtime: 102 mins
Where to watch: Disney Plus

Minari
This was one of my most anticipated movies of 2020 and it did not disappoint! Unlike the story of Minari, I am not Korean nor did I grow up in 1980s rural Arkansas; however, this story still felt steeped in youthful nostalgia and somehow familiar. The cast, while small, is fantastic, especially the adorable 7-year-old star Alan Kim who gives a heartfelt performance.

Although Minari provides a unique immigrant perspective on what it means to be American, The Golden Globes have faced backlash for placing it in the foreign film category. Not only is this overtly racist (considering movies like Inglorious Basterds, which did not meet the 50 percent English criteria, was still nominated for Best Picture), but it also contradicts the very premise of the American Dream in its elimination of a non-white perspective.

Despite the Globes’ attempts to separate Minari from so-called American movies, its portrayals of hardship and struggle but also familial love and youth are widely applicable and make for a heartwarming watch for everyone.

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Runtime: 115 mins
Where to watch: In theaters Feb. 12, on demand Feb. 26

Miss Juneteenth
The movies I’ve seen about mother-daughter relationships have always been focused on a white perspective. But Miss Juneteenth’s portrayal of single mother Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) entering her teen daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into a beauty pageant was refreshing. Not only was this true plot-wise, but it was affirming to see multiple generations of mothers and daughters that, for once, was not rooted in whiteness. Seeing a story about generational expectations of BIPOC is important, especially coming from a female director. The fantastic cast, particularly Beharie’s performance, carries these topics with grace.

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Runtime: 103 mins
Where to watch: On demand

The Kid Detective
Although I randomly stumbled onto this indie Canadian movie and watched it on a whim, it ended up being one of my favorites of the year!

The term “burnt out gifted kid” is overused in my opinion. However, it certainly encapsulates the main character of Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody), the grown-up once-celebrated Kid Detective of his small time. Despite its predictability, his arc played out well, especially with Brody’s great performance.

While this movie has its extremely dark moments (as it does center around a murder), it balances them out with moments of comic levity that actually made me laugh out loud. The mystery takes some very unexpected turns and genuinely kept me guessing throughout the movie.

Additionally, the cinematography is excellent and the jazzy score sets the perfect tone of this mystery. And Kid Detective felt very nostalgic for me, as it was filmed in small-town Ontario, a part of Canada I grew up visiting multiple times a year.

I recommend Kid Detective for those who’ve spent quarantine in their childhood homes, those who are struggling to grow up, or anyone looking for an off the beaten path dark comedy!

Director: Evan Morgan
Runtime: 97 mins
Where to watch: On demand

Selah and the Spades
Selah and the Spades was such a unique and beautifully shot coming-of-age movie that was everything I had hoped Riverdale would be. Its portrayal of warring senior class factions at a boarding school was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While it had its dark undertones, the cast’s performances and the production design still resonated with the whimsy of teenage experience. It’s a poignant reminder of the first-time experiences of growing up, both the good and the bad. A fantastic debut from writer/ director Tayarisha Poe, and I’m excited to see what she creates next!

Director: Tayarisha Poe
Runtime: 97 mins
Where to watch: Amazon Prime

Palm Springs
While time loops are not uncommon movie premises, Palm Springs’ ever-looping wedding day felt more relevant than ever before in 2020. Physically and mentally, quarantine can make it feel as if we are reliving the same day, going through the motions of a routine in the same setting over and over. As many have put it, time feels like a flat circle.

Seeing this reflected on the screen is not only cathartic, but also strangely optimistic. The comedic yet genuinely touching moments that Nyles (Andy Samburg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) experience throughout their time loop feel like a beacon of hope. Nyles’ nihilism (or should I say Nyles-ism?) is something that many are all too familiar with in the pandemic, but Sarah’s persistence to escape the time loop is a reassuring bit of hope. As Sarah says, “We kind of have no choice but to live.”

Director: Max Barbakow
Runtime: 90 mins
Where to watch: Hulu

Looking Forward: 2021 Releases
One of the upsides of 2020 movies being postponed is that there are lots of great movies to look forward to in 2021. Postponed movies that I’m personally looking forward to are Dune, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, In the Heights, Black Widow and No Time to Die. Other 2021 releases, such as The King’s Man, Raya the Last Dragon, Malcolm and Marie, Luca and Cherry are exciting prospects for me as well.

As for the movie industry itself, the future is uncertain. Warner Bros’ decision to release all of their 2021 movies on both HBO Max and in cinemas, while inevitable, initially seems like bad news for movie theaters. However, it provides some upsides.

For one, offering initial streaming releases is not only safer but also makes new movies accessible. That certainly shouldn’t happen at the expense of smaller theaters, but this decision could also benefit independent cinemas. In the same way that indie movies got more recognition in 2020, smaller theaters have been able to adapt in unique ways and will continue to do so. For instance, Claremont’s own Laemmle Theater has opened up a virtual cinema where viewers can pay to watch a selection of indie movies, or pay for a larger membership. Many other small theaters, such as Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater have started hosting virtual Q&A’s and ways for moviegoers to interact, more so than they would in a traditional theater setting.

Even after the pandemic ends, its effects will certainly continue to impact Hollywood. However, the movie industry has and will adapt. Things are looking up — both for the future of cinema and the world as a whole.

Image Source: Main Street Mirror

Leave a Comment