By Marianna Kaimakliotis
2020 saw a lot of unexpected developments, which goes without saying. Amidst a pandemic, a global lockdown, wildfires, and more, theatres shut down, meaning some of the year’s movie releases got pushed back indefinitely, while others were moved online with releases through streaming platforms. At the same time, films that just hit theatres at this time last year lost traction due to health priorities and global unrest, which means that it’s likely that a few of them may have missed your, and the general public’s, radar. So, to catch up, I watched a few films that were released last year and have written this list to let you know what I thought. Hopefully, as 2021, develops you’ll find time to check a few of these out.
[SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD]
Released July 10; Available to stream on Hulu
Palm Springs is a film packed full of tonal shifts and existential dread, set in the shining, picturesque desert of Southern California. The film follows Andy Samberg’s Nyles, who has been stuck in a time loop for who knows how long, forcing him to relive his girlfriend’s friend’s wedding over and over again. In the process, he has become a nihilist, learning to move past embarrassment and apologies because nothing really matters, not if everything resets and everyone forgets. Meanwhile, Cristin Milioti’s Sarah, a heavy drinker and work-in-progress, entangles herself in the loop after Nyles and her escape to the desert to hookup. After being presumably hunted for sport by a camouflaged J. K. Simmons, Nyles crawls into a cave of energy orbs and glowing yellow light, and like a silly moth, Sarah wanders in as well. Thus, her journey with Nyles begins, and begins, and begins.
Throughout the film, Milioti is a natural comic, filling moments that could be cheesy and cliche with genuine clarity, and she doesn’t shy away from intensity or solemn personal reflection, either. Samberg is playing a fresh role in this film as an existential drinker with a dark humor, which is a strong and great contrast to his network role on Brooklyn 99.
Note, however, that the film falls to cliche once or twice, relying too heavily on montages to sell the development of their romantic feelings — something the film should have set two or three more scenes up to discover. Additionally, the tonal shift in the second act is strong, but it feels rushed — we barely broke from a montage enough to see Nyles and Sarah’s genuine connection before they are apart for most of the film’s remainder. But, overall, it was a fast-paced, funny film that brought up some interesting themes regarding life and what living means, all while never being too on-the-nose and serious, which really allowed moments like J. K. Simmons' reflection on his family to shine. This one is definitely an easy rewatch and a nice, modern, rom-com.
Watch the trailer below.
Released June 19; Available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube Movies
Miss Juneteenth, the first feature from Channing Godfrey Peoples, highlights the pains of motherhood, working class struggles, and finding balance between realism and dreams. Actress Nicole Beharie shows great patience and hope as lead Turquoise Jones, a former-beauty-queen-turned-working-mother who struggles to make ends meet. As the film begins, she works doubles at a bar to afford to enter her daughter, Kai, in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, where the winner is able to attend any HBCU with a full scholarship.
Kai, played by Alexis Chikaeze, is her own person, strong in her desire to do what she wants, and while she hopes to join her school dance team, Turquoise would rather she focus on the pageant, where winning would give her the opportunity to make a name for herself and have a better life. As Kai has a boyfriend and has other goals, Turquoise is hoping to help her grow up and avoid making mistakes, to catch her before she falls. Where one might deduce that there’s a strong divide between mother-daughter in this regard, what Peoples shows best through Kai and Turquoise’s dynamic is balance, and this balance brings Miss Juneteenth to greatness — Turquoise and Kai share as many moments bickering as they do celebrating one another, and Kai stands up for her mother when her father makes promise after promise he doesn’t keep, helping Turquoise to realize what she wants is “something for her own.” This is a theme that sings throughout the film.
Miss Juneteenth celebrates identity and Black history, and shows, especially in Kai’s final performance, how prioritizing yourself will leave you feeling the most fulfilled and hopeful, as opposed to living for someone else. There are moments where Kai made me want to yell in a way that only hindsight vision would — How can she not get the importance of being respectful and taking this seriously? But, she is only 15, after all.
The film ends with the pageant, and though Kai doesn’t win, her intent to stay true to herself makes Turquoise just as impressed and proud. Thus, the film ends on a high, with Turquoise, fresh from the pawn shop, putting a downpayment on the bar she’s worked at so she can own it, something for herself. The mother and daughter sit outside, Kai still in her pageant dress (which was altered from the one Turquoise wore years before), and they sit in silent joy. Hope is ever present.
Watch the trailer below.
Released February 21; Available to stream on HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime
Autumn de Wilde’s feature film Emma. captures the abundance and excess of 19th-century high society through charm, candy-coated colors, and overly stylized frames. Our titular character, Emma (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), is first introduced in the morning dawn, picking flowers with the aid of house staff. The music flourishes and the scene breaks with Emma’s first sentence, a sharp and passive aggressive, “Not that one. The next,” immediately setting up her curtness and headstrong nature.
Emma is a young woman who, by Jane Austin’s writing, is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” As the plot unfolds, the beautiful and flippant protagonist spends her time playing matchmaker amongst her friends and acquaintances, despite her lack of knowledge and, frankly, despite her lack of historic success (note: her associates Isabella and John Knightly seem a bit tense in this remake).
Emma. is best, however, when our titular character is growing, realizing that her shallow understandings of love and connection are in need of a rude update, one that our love interest, a humble and honest Mr. Knightly — played wonderfully by Johnny Flynn — isn’t afraid to deliver. Their love is something that surprises both of them, something stunning to see and experience with the characters, as they grow from foils, a rich brat and a rich gentlemen, to a strong pair. Knightly is the only one who doesn’t kiss up to Emma, as he has nothing to gain from her, and in that way, he’s the only one who puts her in her place. All the while, Mia Goth plays Harriet with wonderful childlike grace — she licks up everything Emma advises, despite Emma’s selfish intentions.
Throughout the film, De Wilde paints the world of 19th-century England with pastels and florals that fill the halls of each estate. She shows the lack of struggle present within high society, and highlights the lack of work that the privileged men and women of Highbury need experience. Henceforth, she doesn’t shy from judging the upper class, from showing their indulgence and out of touch nature — she shows their lives as highly stylized in a way to show they live above regular society — which works in the long run The film’s ironic tone is one that keeps it light and moving quickly, capable of strong bites and jabs.
All-in-all, Emma. is a bright, springtime classic, and while Emma the character has a lot to learn, seeing her realize she is just as clueless as her predecessor Cher, makes the film a great view!
Watch the trailer below.
Released January 24; Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Google Play
Aubrey Plaza is a true Indie beauty queen, which is greatly highlighted in her recent film, Black Bear. At any moment throughout the film, she could be playing lead character Allison (an actress turned writer-director making films about her life), Allison acting as a fictionalized version of herself in a film, or, she could be playing Allison behind the scenes of a film where she’s being directed by her partner, Gabe — she definitely had a great task to undertake with this role.
Secrecy, semantics, and sex push the plot along, with Christopher Abbott as Gabe and Sarah Gordon as Blair playing a great film archetype: Gabe and Blair are a couple who despise each other, while being extremely codependent; they constantly bicker over specifics to the point that I had to pause from such extreme second-hand embarrassment at one point. Note, too, that Blair is also nine-months pregnant, but that doesn’t stop her from her allotted glass of wine. And creating a further rift, Abbott’s Gabe is the type to want Plaza’s Allison, the “cool girl” who’s characterized by cliched insecurity while being strikingly beautiful, a reluctance to open up about her “troubled” past and a strange preference for “traditional gender roles.”
In one scene, Allison reveals that she'd been high the whole time the three individuals had been talking, which pushes the film into a striking climax and opens the floor for a dynamic character study of these three lonely people. There’s some cheating, some revelations, an accident, and then it’s over. Then it starts again, just as it did the last time, but this time, Plaza’s Allison is being directed by Abbott’s Gabe — the film has now restarted or pulled back, and we see Plaza, Abbott, and Gordon playing new versions of their initial characters, similar to the ones witnessed in the last scene that played, but new. Now, we’re watching a film about a film where Plaza plays an actress whose partner-director gaslights her to get the performances he needs while she unknowingly succumbs to the psychological torment; Abbott plays a sociopathic asshole, not unlike his role in the first half; and this time around, Gordon’s character is strong at times, playing off the other characters, but lacking real beats and feeling less complex.
Black Bear has moments where jokes fall flat, and, in the second half, the AD seems to have IBS or some form of chronic diarrhea which doesn’t serve nor bring conflict to the plot — it’s just there. At times, it’s hard to judge if the writing feels cliche on purpose, to make some point about first drafts and shallow characters, or if the script is just on-the-nose for time’s sake. Even so, the film is fun and Plaza shows just how dynamic she can be when given the moment to, and much like a Cassavetes heroine, she shows that a drunk and unhinged speech may be just as striking to watch as any other monologue about faithful marriages. There are many questions left unanswered by writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine, but I think Black Bear is an interesting exploration of writing and directing, of filmmaking and what it means to insert yourself in a narrative, and what separates, in that regard, life and fiction.
Watch the trailer below.