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Good Movies from the Bitter End of 2020



I have no intention to recap, relive or relitigate the year just past. I would not suggest I understand what happened to those of us who, so far, have survived. Further, I think anyone claims to is likely a liar, maybe a bigot and probably has something to do with attempts to overturn elections and block progress in all quarters.

Pretending trauma did not occur is no way to heal, of course, and I don't imply that I will or we should. The year 2020, the tail of which I fear we'll be riding for some time, should be probed and dissected, all of its cancerous innards isolated for further study so we — or some better smarter species — might learn from it, develop a cure for humanity. But that is not going to happen here, today or likely anytime soon.

And so it seems specious to offer some sort of Best-of, or Top-However-Many list. It has been a year of feeling, for most, trapped in amber, the business of movies included. A year of crazes, backlash and confusion, and, vitally, a year in which entertainment felt more personally important and less socially significant than ever in my lifetime. Almost all of us were and are desperate for the solace of the familiar and the rushing relief of new distractions, be it baking sourdough or bingeing Tiger King (regrettable, I think we can all now agree). But many of us have also sought out art and entertainment that, intentionally or not, somehow speaks to this moment, or at least tonally resonates with our often inarticulable feelings about it.

And, its persistent atavism perhaps finally rattled by undeniable global crisis, the entertainment-industrial complex began to evolve, to provide a little bit of everything in our time of need. (Unless you were looking for Marvel movies but we are not having that conversation right now.) Netflix was almost preternaturally well-positioned for the year that was, as previously discussed here. But it has been and will be the 800-pound gorilla, so it was only a matter of time before the universe knelt at its feet. And in all fairness, Netflix has given us as much forward-looking and meritorious content as it has salacious trash, so good on it. But a number of other industry leaders have stepped in to fill the void, providing more opportunities to spend or waste time than can be counted. Amazon continues to quietly produce and distribute an increasingly interesting slate of material, Disney elected to release the latest Pixar production for "free" on Christmas Day and, again as previously discussed, HBOMax will play host to all of Warner Bros. forthcoming major releases (unless some of the lawsuits do not go their way).

In looking back and deciding not to focus on looking back, I realized that the completely uncurated selection with which my wife and I closed out the year in its waning days serves as a better coda than I could have engineered. It reaches across a number of streaming platforms, formats and genres, including both new and not-as-new releases, and creates, for me, a montage of the moment/year/era that, while not offering any answers, gets at some sort of inscrutable emotional truth.

THE WILDS, an Amazon series that appears to be poised for a second season, crash lands a group of young women on a desert island (or in the ocean just off-shore), disrupting their trip to an ill-defined female-centric therapeutic workshop getaway. Things are immediately not as they seem, but neither we nor the castaways seem to have the full picture. Subverting the ubiquitous YA girls-in-peril paradigm of last decade, the show unspools the story of each of the troubled protagonists — of varying ethnic, religious, sexual and socio-economic backgrounds — to reinforce the notion that we can never assume we understand another's suffering. It is also a fun, twisty, moody thriller underpinned by a discomfiting synth-dirge score. TV14. AMAZON.

SOUL, Pixar's aforementioned latest, has been much discussed as perhaps "not for kids." More likely it's not for parents who shy from frank conversations about existence, but that is not for me to say. Like Inside Out, the movie strives to examine the oft-unexamined, in this case the nature of the soul and the meaning of life — yeah, just those things. Jamie Foxx stars as Joe, a band teacher and aspirant jazz pianist who finally gets his big break, only to die unexpectedly and awake as a soul en route to the Great Beyond. He subverts the process though, returning to Earth with a disembodied soul, 22 (Tina Fey), in tow. Fear not, it has a cute talking cat. PG. 100M. DISNEY+.

DEATH TO 2020, a Netflix production from the creators of Black Mirror (never seen it), is just what the title implies; the digital poster is a picture of a dumpster fire. With an Onion-esque acid tongue firmly in its cheek, it deploys Samuel L. Jackson as a fictionalized reporter to re-contextualize whatever-the-fuck that just was in heightened, somtimes chilling tones. It features more footage of the ex-president than I had previously seen, or would ever care to again. TVMA. 70M. NETFLIX.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. In an uncharacteristic move — perhaps in a moment of weakness/hope — we began the New Year with something that has been oft-recommended, but from which I have shied, possibly as a defensive tactic. Again from Netflix, it's about a South African documentarian who rediscovers his passion for life and work through a year-long relationship with an octopus. Sure, it is sentimental, the interview portions are occasionally stiff and the suspense is sometimes manufactured in editing. All of that is easily put aside if one simply sits with the amazing unknowableness of so much of the world. What was I saying earlier about some smarter species than us? 85M. NETFLIX.

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