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April 28, 2021


[There is repetition from my last post, for which I apologize.]


In 2020, Documentaries and Little Movies Took the Day...

... but the cinematic achievement of the year is, without doubt, Steve McQueen's pentalogy for Amazon, "Small Axe." Not only does McQueen's brilliant suite of films reinforce a belief I have held for decades -- that even more than food and air and water and shelter, the human psyche needs a scapegoat -- it explores this tragedy with passion. It is my firm belief that the human race seems to hunger for someone to blame for its own sins, and more often than not, at least in its more recent historical iteration (and in the last weeks), chooses to blame its sins on people of color.


I am ceding some of my remarks to my fellow cineastes who make my film experience a loving communal endeavor (salvation, this year, streamed alone in a darkened room): my film buddy and remarkable designer and architect Rob Robbins, and especially my film mentor and friend Jerry Holt whose vast knowledge of literature and cinema has informed my understanding and appreciation of film for decades. His insights into this year's films reverberate with passion, insight, and compassion.

New York and LA critics have bemoaned streaming as the ensuing death of film, and yet, the advent of streaming has been the only way those of us in the boonies could see many foreign and independent films for years. This coronavirus year, I/we/AND THEY have ONLY been able to see films via streaming services so loathed by self-important professional critics who have found themselves in my same streaming shoes. So, thank you Amazon Prime (though I despise the domination of Jeff Bazos and giving a trillionaire even a dime) and Netflix and even Hulu, not only for allowing me to continue to watch cinema, but for bringing forth some wonderful little gems through their own productions.

Indeed, this has been the year of the little movie and the documentary. It also seemed to be a big year (perhaps appropriately) for horror films. For horror aficionados, a genre of which I have little interest, this list is not for you.


The quarantine world more or less began with "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and concluded with McQueen's trial of the Mangrove Nine in his first two-hour-plus installment of "Small Axe." In 1971, a London West Indies immigrant community was targeted by white British police officers who singled out a community-oriented restaurant owner. Based on the true story of the trail of the Mangrove Nine, the impassioned self-defense of the falsely accused exposes ingrained racism and a compelling argument for the essential decency owed each human being to basic civil rights. The subsequent four films explore ongoing racism in the UK that persists to this day.

"Lovers Rock" is the one film that mostly manages to escape the overt racism exposed in McQueen's suite, essentially because it exists in a bell jar of the immigrant community without intrusion. The film follows, almost in real time, an hour of a joyous rent/house party as it realistically unfolds in 1980s West London. Nothing much happens and yet everything happens to these young men and women exploring, projecting, and protecting their emerging adulthood. The camera is simply one of the revelers.

Red, White and Blue," also based on a true story of a London copper who created the Black Police Association, portrays Leroy Logan (John Boyega in a masterful performance) who strives against the odds to make a difference from within the racist London Metropolitan Police law enforcement system. The result exposes the oxymoron of any such attempt.

"Alex Wheatle" explores another true story, this time of an incarcerated black man (Sheyi Cole) who educates himself in prison to become, upon his release, an influential young adult author.

"Education" is the most autobiographical of McQueen's "Small Axe" films. A sharply intelligent young boy (Kingsley Smith), because his skin is dark, is relegated to a so-called sub-normal track school. It is a heartbreaking story of the seemingly eternal story of shutting down the endless potential of promising children.


The other long form achievement of the year was...

The Good Lord Bird ~~ Review by Jerry Holt:

START THE BALL TECTOR: There is a moment at the beginning of the final episode of Showtime's "The Good Lord Bird" when Abolitionist John Brown, jaw set and both guns ablazing, bursts forth from Harper's Ferry flanked by what is left of his army, shouting his defiance in a Let's Go Why Not moment that Sam Peckinpah himself would have loved. I sure loved it: I jumped off the couch and shouted something about as coherent as ROCK ON JOHN!! and suddenly realized that the damn series had gotten me -- I was in the moment; existing in a reality larger than myself -- the very place that Sam used to take me. It was ... wonderful.

Thanks to Ethan Hawke, who produced this series and who plays John Brown with such intensity you can't call it anything but Channeling. This adaptation of the 2013 novel by James McBride is nothing short of a Come-To-Jesus good time. Not that you are necessarily gonna LOVE this guy: as Hawke creates him he is equal parts prima donna, bat shit crazy, and blowhard. But he means it. God, does he mean it.

What makes this remarkable endeavor work so well is its premise: the United States spent most of the 19th century suspended in a world where, for white and black alike, slavery was SANE. Imagine that; Imagine that. Sane. To go against it was to be perceived as being as daft as ... Old John Brown. "Crazy," of course, can also mean funny, and "The Good Lord Bird" has plenty of laughs, many of them created by our narrator, Little "Onion" (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a teenage slave who has found it safer to disguise himself as a female. Old Man Brown adopts him (thinking he's Her) and then here comes Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs, from "Hamilton"), who in this telling turns out to be a cognac-swilling braggart who will prove to be of little help to John Brown. One extended sequence between Onion and Douglass is just about as heartbreakingly funny as anything I have ever seen.

Again and again "The Good Lord Bird" turns out to be an uproariously cold-eyed view of the truth We Americans don't want to face: how can any body of land call itself a "country" when it has this kind of idiotic legacy -- the strange notion that it was somehow God's will to enslave for profit -- or for any damn reason. The series says that this experiment called the United States was built on insanity -- and only the recognition of that fact will lead to change. BIG shoutout to the Soundtrack: I have never heard such a brilliant use of archival music. From "Amazing Grace" to "She Caught the Katy," this series flows merrily along to some of the greatest music ever composed, not to mention sung.

Folks -- this is a truly wonderful way to spend seven hours -- total immersion in a fever dream of an all too real past that, in the heat of its action, cries out again and again: DO something! ACT! THINK! Start the damn BALL. Yep. Just like Sam used to do.
(Thank you, Jerry!!)

The Trial of the Chicago 7

1969 is still vivid in my memory, so Aaron Sorkins's "The Trial of the Chicago 7" was a raw experience. Brilliantly cast, Sorkin recreates the travesty of what was little more than a First Amendment protest that a right wing judge turned into a witch hunt. If you would like to explore remarkable companion films, ferret out Haskell Wexler's 1969 monumental achievement "Medium Cool" (a fictional film featuring actual footage of Wexler's actors and film crew engulfed in the police brutality of the peaceful anti-Vietnam protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago) and Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown's 1979 documentary "The War at Home" about the peaceful anti-Vietnam War protests at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

2020 documentaries were all over the map – and what a wonderful and diverse map it was. I may have gone overboard in the Documentary category, but I couldn't help myself.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

"Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin" is Werner Herzog's eulogy to his artistic soulmate who died of AIDS in 1989, writer and world explorer Bruce Chatwin. An artifact in Chatwin's childhood family home sparked his lifelong curiosity into the prehistoric mysteries of humanity's intertwined spiritual and material heritage, and as always, Herzog strives to place our present moment into that quest.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint

In “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,” director Halina Dyrschka has created a tour de force of a directorial debut. In 1906, when no such term as “abstraction” existed in the world of art, a Swedish woman began to produce an extraordinary body of work. Like many of the abstract artists who would come after her, she was deeply moved by science, nature, and the spiritual. Upon her death, in 1944, little was known of her trailblazing oeuvre, until a 2013 exhibition at the Moderna Museet Stockholm and a 2018 exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. Her visionary works are revelatory.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 Lifeline: Clyfford Still 

Director Dennis Scholl mines audio and visual archives to present a cinematic biography of an iconic abstract expressionist in “Lifeline: Clyfford Still.” The film’s distributor, Kino Lorber, notes that “Jackson Pollock said, ‘...he makes the rest of us look academic.’ Mark Rothko acknowledged him as  a ‘myth-maker’ and Clement Greenberg called him ‘a highly  influential maverick and an independent genius.’”
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Friedkin Uncut

Francesco Zippel's "Friedkin Uncut" is a tender memoir narrated by William Friedkin himself with interviews by the many with whom he has worked and others who have known him. If you know his oeuvre, you will know "The Exorcist" (his one film o f which I am not a fan), "The French Connection," the beyond brilliant "Sorcerer," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Killer Joe," et al. He's a spontaneous one-cut director and a professional who refuses to refer to himself as an artist. 
Amazon Prime

Our Time Machine

The opening title card quotes H.G. Wells: "We all have our time machine, don't we. Those that take us back are memories... and those that carry us forward are dreams."

Had my dear friend, painter Vikki Fields, not recommended this 86-minute Chinese film to me, I might never have watched this remarkably moving film, and what a loss that would have been. This has to be one of the most artistically profound films of 2020. “Our Time Machine,” co-directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang, chronicles the herculean effort of Shanghai artist and puppeteer Maleonn to realize a production of his theatrical puppet creation in honor of his father, Ma Ke, who was director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater and responsible for a remarkable 80 productions during his prolific career -- but is now a victim of Alzheimer’s. Maleonn’s wood and metal and nuts and bolts and found object puppets have a bit of a Steam Punk aesthetic, but they are perhaps more compellingly, emotionally life-like than any puppets ever created. The stage production that ultimately ensues is heartrendingly magical. A stunning meditation on creativity, art, love and legacy.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Like “Our Time Machine,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead” came about as a result of a beloved parent’s deepening dementia. Documentarian Kirsten Johnston collaborates with her father in an often macabre, yet deeply loving, meditation on familial love and loss.

The Mole Agent (Chile)

In this fascinating semi-documentary, Maite Alberrdi enlists octogenarian Sergio Chamy as an undercover detective to infiltrate a nursing home and investigate possible abuse. What he encounters is anything but abuse. Rather he finds a loving, supportive community of which he becomes the most integral part. One of the most touching films of the year.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Welcome to Chechnya

We naively want to believe we have evolved, but reality perpetually tells us otherwise. Inspired by the New Yorker article “Forbidden Lies: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” (Masha Gessen, June 26, 2017), director David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya” invites us to witness the late winter of 2017, when a drug raid triggered a witch hunt against the LGBT community, which has resulted in a perpetual onslaught of extrajudicial torture and killings. Chechnya is primarily Muslim and is now controlled by Putin appointed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Our narrator, a human rights activist with the Russian LGBT Network that resettled 151 people abroad in the two years since 2017 explains, “It is a disgrace to be gay in Chechnya. And for a family to find out someone is gay? It is a shame so strong, it can only be washed away by blood.” Ordinary citizens and police alike claim, “All of our problems are because of you.” A whole cast of face and voice doubles was employed to provide digital disguises for the persecuted who were willing to speak out. The end title cards inform us that “Canada granted refugee status to 44 [refugees] with the help of Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad. The Trump administration has not accepted any LGBT refugees from Chechnya.”
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy and HBO


Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s “Collective” investigates the October 15, 2015 fire at a Bucharest nightclub with no fire escapes and its aftermath. The deaths of 27 people in the fire would have been tragic enough, but the known septic conditions in Romanian hospitals that eventually killed 37 more burn victims is the more shocking story in this relentless investigative story.
Amazon Prime Rent

 What the Constitution Means to Me

If you ached for something to distract as you watched election returns on November 3, you had need look no further than Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Schreck begins with my favorite Constitutional amendment, number NINE, which states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” From the time I started teaching college freshman English in 1973, up through 2003, I managed to somehow insert a discussion of this amendment into every class I taught. I don’t think anyone ever got it. I have always wanted to discuss this little analyzed amendment with a constitutional scholar.

Schreck also dissects the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, to ensure equal protection under the law and due process, and goes on to address women's rights, immigration, and domestic abuse, as well as the American failure to live up to its legal, judicial, and moral responsibilities on any of these fronts. It is perfect post-Election Day viewing.

P.S. A young student debater comes in toward the end of the film with whom you will fall in love. She and Schreck proceed to engage in a REAL debate with REAL debate rules unlike anything any presidential debate has ever had to follow, even under the leadership of the League of Women Voters. (Those were the days, my friend...)
Amazon Prime

People You May Know

You know that Facebook emoji "WOW"? Watch Katharina Gellein and Charles Kriel's "People You May Know," a title mined from the Facebook troll that asks you to add "friends." At about the 50 minute mark, rather blithely, we become aware that much of Facebook's marketing strategy is based on fundamentalist Christian's decades-long, tried-and-true tactics, which their proponents candidly discuss in this terrifying exploration of our Orwellian social media world.
Amazon Prime w/ Documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham's “Crip Camp” opens on the 1971 class at the upstate New York summer retreat Camp Jened, a hippie-run newly conceived concept for teens with disabilities, then follows its attendees through their lifelong camaraderie to become activists in the fight for what would ultimately become the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA). It is an absolutely absorbing story and yet another testament to that cohort of my Baby Boomer generation who did not opt for greed, but instead worked to make our society an inherently better place.

The Pollinators

Almonds in southern California are the first crop in early spring in the United States requiring honey bee pollination. 100% of the honey bee hives extant in the country are necessary to accomplish that harvest. From there, this valuable bee population travels cross-country to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops that feed the nation, and for that matter, much of the world. Yet very few policy wonks know or care how fragile this ecological system is, especially in light of the overuse of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc., that are killing these precious insect resources – not to mention climate change. “The Pollinators” brings together apiarists, scientists, and ecologists to make a quiet plea for sustainability. Peter Nelson's “The Pollinators” should be paired with John Chester’s 2018 documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” in a concerted effort to try to convince us once and for all that industrial agriculture will be our doom.
Amazon Prime

My Octopus Teacher

It’s an unfortunate title for an amazingly phenomenal -- and utterly gorgeous -- film. Over the course of a year, directors Pippi Ehrlich and James Reed follow South African documentarian Craig Foster who, in a proactive attempt to recover from a serious depressive episode, becomes increasingly fascinated by and then intimate with a deep-sea wild octopus. Founder of the Sea Change Project to protect marine life and kelp forests, Foster practices deep or extreme diving, though he does not characterize his practice as such. Rather, he engages in an almost Zen approach to his daily excursions into a world of which the rest of know next to nothing. Exquisite cinematography is directed by underwater cameraman Roger Horrocks, with additional footage by Foster himself. 

The Cordillera of Dreams (Chile)

Patricio Guzman's phenomenal documentary begins with an exquisite meditation on the Cordillera of the Chilean Andes -- a sculptor, a writer, an historian and the filmmaker all reflect on the profound experience of living under the spiritual aura of this geographical phenomenon, but it gradually shifts into an equally deep inquiry into the bloody Pinoche coup d'etat and the neoliberal economic capitalism it left in its wake. "Cordillera" concludes a trilogy that began in 2010 with "Nostalgia for the Light" (available on Amazon to rent/buy) and 2015's "The Pearl Button." Guzman sees the Cordillera as an eye-witness to his homeland's fate. 
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World 


David Byrne’s American Utopia

“David Byrne’s American Utopia,” brilliantly directed by Spike Lee, opens with Byrne spotlighted, seated at a table. As far as I am concerned, this opening tableau can only be read as an homage to the genius monologist Spalding Gray, and the ensuing performance bears this belief out. A number of 2020 films have screamed to be experienced on a classic cinematheque big screen, but of all of them, “American Utopia” screams the loudest and most persistently.

Cinematographers are always due credit. Here Ellen Kuras (“Lou Reed’s Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse,” “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party,” “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” among many others) delivers a virtuoso accomplishment. Yet, in the case of “American Utopia,” it may be the lighting technicians manning the spots who deserve their own special Oscar. The set is simple: a bare stage bordered on all but the fourth wall by towering, showering chain-mail like scrims, so that those lighting spots, in addition to perfectly conceived camera positions, accomplish a stunning filmic artistry.

Had I bought this music as an album, I would have hated it, with the exception of the couple of Talking Heads oldies that I know and love. That is because this is a performance production in every sense. It is necessary to experience it (Had one been fortunate to have been in the Broadway theater!) on the screen in order to take in the kaleidoscopic mastery and magic of music, theater, choreography, lighting, and cinematography – a multi-dimensional experience that brings to its realization 1930s Dada, the aforementioned Spalding Gray, historically contextualized references, and the ability to raise the political to fine art.
HBO or Amazon Prime with HBO subscription


I'm Thinking of Ending Things

When I Google Charlie Kaufman's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," the film is identified as "Thriller/Horror," and it does indeed have some aspects of those genres, but that's not where I would place it. Kaufman is the meta director's meta director, and "Ending Things" is no different. "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and "Synecdoche, New York" -- all are metafiction tour de forces, of which this most recent film might be his greatest. Except that it may try to out meta its meta self. Had it been paired down a bit, eliminating, for instance, the musical comedy and ballet aspects, I think it might have been a stronger film. To say much about it would be to spoil its meta-fun. Suffice it to say that the channeling of a Pauline Kael review was for me pure bliss. 

Family Romance, LLC

Werner Herzog doesn’t reference “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry,” an April 30, 2018 article in the New Yorker, but his remarkably touching and engaging film “Family Romance, LLC.” certainly came about as a result of his awareness of an odd industry emerging in that country. As Herzog says, in the must-see interview after the conclusion of the film, he foresaw as early as 1980 that the cascading communication possibilities multiplying before us at that time would have consequences of greater and greater “solitudes.” To this end, Japan has developed enterprises that – for a fee, and with agents and stables of role-playing actors – provide substitute companions, dead relatives, estranged spouses, absent parents, et al.

“Family Romance, LLC.” is not a documentary. Rather, it is a Russian doll of a film. Herzog enlists the talents of non-actors, central to which is the star of the film, entrepreneur Yuichi Ishii who does and does not play himself. Among other relationships he cultivates as an avatar for his clients’ wishes, is his central role as father to Mahiro, a ten-year-old girl whose father left her mother when she was a tot. This relationship is the thread that creates the through-line for the film and acts as its moral compass as we explore what love, family, and human connection in general mean – in the contemporary world of technology and robotics, as well as in the most ancient sense of human community.

Herzog and the other great contemporary documentarian Errol Morris share a quest into the question of truth. Art is artifice and yet it reveals truth with a capital “T.” Morris wrote an entire book exploring this question on the subject of photography, “Believing Is Seeing.” Once we distill anything, it is no longer lived experience. So, is it truth? That is the question.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

LITTLE FILMS (Where Netflix Reigned Supreme)


Andrew Ahn’s film is a story of lonely souls who find redemption in each other – with one of the most beautiful birthday parties ever committed to film. 

After recommending it to my fellow cineaste, architect and designer Rob Robbins, wrote:

This is probably the greatest intergenerational film I have ever seen. It is hard for a young actor to go toe-to-toe with Brian Dennehy [in his last role before he died], but boy howdy did this kid do it! He holds his own next to a great who gave a stellar performance.

The movie is slow and deliberate, but cuts to the core of what connection really means. And by contrast, what it doesn’t (example: sisters who barely knew each other). We don’t always connect with the anticipated. Sometimes, the connection is at the soul level rather than the social/familial one. The young boy character is an old soul who matches perfectly with Dennehy’s character.
Thank you, Rob!!
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The Devil All the Time

For the formidable Netflix film that is “The Devil All the Time,” let me filch: 

My mentor and film critic extraordinaire Jerry Holt’s definitive review:

“SOME FOLKS ARE JUST BORN TO BE BURIED": So says one of the many whack jobs in "The Devil All the Time" … directed by Antonio Campos. Indeed, pretty much everybody but Jack The Dog fits this description in this Dantesque stroll though Upper Appalachian Hell, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock. He writes the kind of prose that would boil the balls off of a Ross County hog, and does it in such a matter-of-factness that you would think incest, serial murder, and ritual suicide are everyday matters. And, of course, in Pollock’s world they are.

“he central genius of Director Campos’s movie is that he has Pollock himself narrate it – and in this way the author’s prose informs the movie in ways that don't usually happen. Don't doubt it – this is a true freak show, featuring a murderous pair of lovers (Haley Bennett and Jason Clarke) who kill the hitchhikers they pick up and then scream "Get The Kodak!!"; a Christ-crazy bereaved husband (Bill Skarsgard) who pretty much prays himself to death – and, most memorably, Preacher Preston Teagarden (Robert Pattinson in his best performance yet) as the most thorough hypocrite you are likely to meet this side of Mitch McConnell – who, by the way, would be right at home with this bunch. 

Donald Ray Pollock is basically what would result if Charles Bukowski and Flannery O'Connor had a baby, and Believe Me he is NOT everybody's shot of whiskey. But he is mine: I love the way that Pollock and Campos find the beating heart of this gothic and godless land and make us care about these folks anyway. There is a moment when one of the few truly sympathetic figures in this inferno, Emma (Kristen Griffith), poverty-stricken, brings an offering of chicken livers to a church supper only to have them ridiculed. Her reaction cut me to the heart, and that's what Pollock can do. This is pitiless but brilliant filmmaking – especially if you believe, as I do, that the best artists are always writing Beatitudes for the Least of Us.  Walk a mile in these folks' Brogans.     

Thank you, Jerry Holt, yet again, for a brilliant analysis of Americana.

Miss Juneteenth

Set in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, one of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’s producers was fellow Texan David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”), yet another heartening example of independent filmmakers supporting one another. A mother tries to vicariously relive her youthful pageant title through her daughter, yet in the end, each achieves her own redemption on her own terms.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The Last Tree

Sam Adewunmi as an adult Femi and Tai Golding as a his younger self both shine in Shola Amoo's coming of age story of a boy who has known nothing but an idyllic childhood in foster care in Lincolnshire, England. When he is ripped away from the camaraderie of childhood friends and his devoted foster mother to live in London's projects with his birth mother, his world devolves.
Amazon Prime

Uncle Frank

My Uncle Jack, John Kempf, was one of the most influential people in my life, described throughout my childhood as a "confirmed bachelor." Therefore, it is no surprise that Alan Ball's "Uncle Frank" spoke to my deep love for a man who enriched my life in incalculable ways. It is also a road movie, the journey brought on, of course, by a death in the family. The road trip, from New York City to South Carolina, queries how literature professor Frank (Paul Bettany) and his Saudi Arabian partner (Lebanese actor Peter Macdissi) will potentially fit into the familial puzzle.

Wade in the Water

In "Wade in the Water," Mark Wilson makes his directorial debut with a low-key thriller in which the main character, known to us only as Our Man, inadvertently receives a package not addresses to him in his post office box. When Our Man, a recluse and social outcast, opens the package, a mystery ensues involving the dark secrets of a minister, the revelations Our Man makes to the minister's daughter, and the existential consequences of his actions.


In Alan Yang's "Tigertail," a parentless young boy, Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee as the young Pin-Jui and Tzi Ma as the adult) works his grandparent's rice fields. In an odd coincidence, he befriends a girl of means, but their class disparity ensures their estrangement. As a young adult working in the brutal factory where his mother is employed, the factory boss makes a deal with Pin-Jui: in exchange for marriage to his daughter, he will pay for the couple to move to New York City. "Tigertail" turns the feel-good immigrant story on its head.

WWII DRAMA: “The Painted Bird,” “Beanpole” and “Mr. Jones”

The Painted Bird

“The Painted Bird” is the brilliant creation of Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul – who wrote, directed and produced. The film is adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel and has been compared to the sensibility of Andrei Tarkovsky. As a Tarkovsky devote, I beg to differ. Though apparently many film critics walked out on its various 2019 premieres, citing its violence as gratuitous, I found it rather tame by comparison to Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See,” a much more parallel comparison. Both films see the devolution in Eastern Europe of fascism into nihilism, as WWII wore on, from a child’s point of view. The power of this perspective can not be overstated. Adults are already inured. The film has also been described as a catalogue of Nazi atrocities. As a percentage, the Nazi atrocities figure to a much lesser degree in the film than the sadism mounted by peasant superstition, scapegoating and misdirected revenge. I see "The Painted Bird" not so much as a film about the evils of Nazism as about the ever eternal evils of the human race.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy


Russian director Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole” is another WWII narrative (and as far as I am concerned, there can never be enough). New York Times critic Manohla Dargis makes the insightful observation about this post WWII drama, set in 1945 Leningrad, that "the men and women in this startling movie don't complain or even speak much about their suffering, perhaps it would be because it would be like describing the air they breathe."
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Mr. Jones

Based on the true story of Welch journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), who, in 1933, attempted to reveal the truth of Stalin’s politically created famine (known as the Holodomor or the Terror-Famine), which killed an estimated 3.5 million, Agnieska Holland’s film, in its early scenes, rhythmically shifts between its primary narrative and George Orwell penning his allegorical masterpiece "Animal Farm." Juxtaposed against the investigative journalism of Jones is New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who won a Pulitzer for his Stalin apologia reportage -- an honor that has never been revoked.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy


 Sorry We Missed You

Ken Loach has been committed to stories of oppressed people for decades.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

First Cow

In completely different ways, directors Ken Loach (aged 84) and Kelly Reichardt (aged 56) have devoted their poetic voices to gagged, disenfranchised nobodies – from historical colonial and labor repression to contemporary capitalist/corporate greed. “First Cow” opens on a contemporary discovery of remains and then imagines the lives of those northwest settlers whose quiet lives quested for a bare minimum of survival played out against the powers that – forever and ever – be.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The Assistant

Though there are a few other actors in this tensely wrought film, directed by Kitty Green, for all intents and purposes it is a one-actor show. Julia Garner (“Ozark”) gives a riveting performance as a female employee who is not herself physically violated, unless one considers the slimy passive aggressive behavior of her co-workers. She has to navigate, against her conscience, the scheduling of appointments for potential ingenues who will have to give it up for a chance at a job. Even though we never see the scumbag in the executive office, we feel his creepy presence. Garner holds the screen for all 85 minutes, and her character ultimately faces her fears.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” could serve as a companion film to “The Assistant.” Both explore the prehistoric plight of women in spite of media campaigns to the contrary: feminism’s various “waves”; “You’ve come a long way, baby”; “You can have it all”; @MeToo; et al. NRSA gives the lie to so-called women’s rights. In this case, the backsliding of women’s right to abortion is brutally, yet compassionately, explored. Sidney Flanigan should be among the actors considered for Best Actress Oscar and Talia Ryder, who plays her patient and self-sacrificing cousin, for Best Supporting Actress. Other films this year took on the subject of abortion head-on, among them: "Saint Frances" and "The Surrogate."
Amazon Prime Buy/HBO


Mirada July's

Sound of Metal

Were it not for Riz Ahmed's brilliant performance, Darius Marder’s commanding direction, Daniel Bouguet’s cinematography, and sound designer Nicolas Becker’s astounding artistry, “Sound of Metal” would be a fairly formulaic addiction movie. Because of its exceptional realization, "Sound of Metal" rises above any formula to become a story of extraordinary redemption and the pure love of being in the world.
Amazon Prime


House of Hummingbird (South Korea)

Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

 A White, White Day (Iceland)

Buoyancy (Cambodia)

In his 2011 book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," Steven Pinker argues that, historically, violence has been abating globally. He cites a decrease in war and improved conditions for children, claiming that we now live in the most peaceful time in the history of humanity. May I call upon Voltaire's rejection in "Candide" of Leibniz's position: "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?" Were we to take into account human trafficking in all its horrific manifestations: sex trafficking, child labor trafficking, slave trafficking, ad nauseam, would our present moment be our best possible world? (Take a look at your computer or cell phone and consider the human misery that went into the mining of tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold and other rare metals that allowed its manufacture and function.) 

Rodd Rathjen's "Buoyancy" follows the horrific plight of a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who, in trying to escape his father's exploitation, inadvertently finds himself enslaved on a Thai fishing boat. Though the film is a dramatic narrative, the story is all too true. The film's penultimate title card cites an anonymous Cambodian survivor: "Torture is every day and killing about every second day. You are afraid of people, even of daylight. No one can hear you out there. You have no papers, nobody knows you exist. I want to tell people about our nightmares."

The final title card "...gratefully acknowledges the many survivors of modern slavery in South East Asia who shared their stories. An estimated 200,000 men and boys are thought to be in slavery and forced labour in the fishing industry in South East Asia. It is an industry worth over $6 billion that supplies fish products to the world." (The same is true of Mexicans held hostage to harvest tomato crops in the U.S. And the list goes on...)
Amazon Rent


The Wolf House


Films that didn't make my list, yet are deservedly compelling...

The Booksellers

Not the most spectacular documentary ever made, but if you are a booklover, you will be captivated by D.W. Young's deep dive into the idiosyncratic, OCD world of antiquarian book dealers.
Amazon Prime

Feels Good Man

“Feels Good Man” is Arther Jones's chronicle into the alt-right’s co-optation of Pepe the Frog, Matt Furie’s MySpace graphic comic creation. Furie fights to disengage from the bigoted hate conspiracy into which he is caught unawares. A troubling and insightful look into the pitfalls of the internet and social media.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Totally Under Control

"Totally Under Control" is veteran documentarian Alex Gibney's exploration into the extent to which media contorts our understanding of events, in this case, the Trump administration’s PR blitz (“totally under control”) in February 2020 to deny the dire repercussions of the onslaught of Covid19, which by the time I press publish, will probably top 300,500 in less than a year. The numbers are staggering. Yes, a vaccine is on the way, but the criminality of the presiding administration can not be understated.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

In his first documentary feature, Rick Korn wants us to share his enthusiasm for one of the great musical storytellers of our time. “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” is a standard biographical music documentary, but if that’s a genre you fall for – as I do – you will thoroughly enjoy this journey through the life of a gifted and driven musician and humanitarian.
Amazon Prime

The Painter and the Thief

Operating on an intensely personal level, but in keeping with the bizarre world as we find it, “The Painter and the Thief” is the odd story of an obscure artist whose work is stolen by an even more obscure individual. Director Benjamin Ree, using security tapes and subsequent documentary footage, tells the story of the artist’s unlikely deepening relationship with the man who absconded with two of her paintings.
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The Trip to Greece

The finale of Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to…” trilogy
Amazon Prime Rent/Buy


In Abel Ferrara’s semi-autobiographical “Tommaso,” a filmmaker
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I like Gary Oldman but found his titular  performance in David Fincher's "Mank" rather turgid. The film is a based-on-a-true-story narrative of the scripting of the screenplay for Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane." The women (Amanda Seyfried as the actress and Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, Lily Collins as Mank's secretary, and Tuppence Middleton as Mank's wife) provide the acting chops here. Fincher did a great job with the vintage look: the opening and closing vintage look for the credits, Erik Messerschmidt's stunning black and white cinematography, the costuming and sets and hair, et al. -- all the way down to the projectionists’ reel change cues in the upper right hand of the screen. And yet the attempt to structure "Mank" like "Citizen Kane," with its eddying points of view, was entirely unsuccessful, primarily because Mank's character never achieves the complexity created by Welles's incarnation of Kane. 

Bacurau (Brazil)

It wasn't until about the halfway mark of Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles' "Bacurau," cued by the soundtrack, that I realized the political narrative I was watching was structured as an homage to the great Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. The story would have seemed surreal had I not been watching it through the real time lens of 2020.

Fisherman’s Friends


The Wild Goose Lake (China)

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"The Burnt Orange Heresy"

Mick Jagger does what he does best in film, playing the Faustian devil, this time in a scheme involving a reclusive artist's (Donald Southerland) painting.

I don't know where to place this because its release dates are so hard to tally. 
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
... is a Canadian film originally released in 2017, but some sources cite is as a 2020 film, probably because it was first commercially available in the U.S. on Amazon in 2020. Whenever one wishes to date it, this is a seminal education in the influence American Indian music had on blues and rock before blues and rock ever existed. Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Link Wray, Jesse Ed Davis, Stevie Salas, Buffy Saint-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Randy Castillo, Jimi Hendrix, Taboo, et al. The eye-opening history is too vast too recount here. WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY.

BECAUSE FILM COMMENT, MY HOLY GRAIL OF FILM CRITISISM, DISAPPEARED THIS YEAR: I have had to rely on other lists. These were my sources so that I had guidance as to what to stream during the pandemic, with no reliance on previews, which I typically feast on, in the theater:

* My own intuition and my trusted personal cineastes, most especially Jerry Holt, Rob Robbins and Larry Baker
* Esquire
* New York Times Critic’s Pick (though these judgments are made at the time the film is released, so sans the introspection afforded by time)
* Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of the New York Times 
*Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post


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