16 Dec 2020

At The Movies for 16 December 2020

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 16 December 2020

If ever there was a year that most of us would be pleased to see the back of, it’s 2020. The Coronavirus rampaged through the world like some opening scene of a dystopian future blockbuster.  

And I’m not sure if this counts as irony exactly, but we can probably wave goodbye to movies about dystopian futures for a while. Just as, sadly, we’ve been deprived of blockbusters in general this year.

No caption

Photo: Supplied

The one blockbuster worthy of the name was Disney’s final Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker – which squeaked in at the start of the year, when the disquieting rumours of a possible pandemic were still tucked away on page 15.

This was a year of closed cinemas – in the rest of the world – shut-down movie productions – in the rest of the world – and a sharply reduced film industry – everywhere but New Zealand.

I know, it’s hard not to gloat, looking back at one of our best movie years ever.  

But that’s still to come.  2020 opened with business as usual, and a strong slate of summer titles leading up to this year’s Oscars – 1917, Bombshell and Greta Gerwig’s popular Little women.

The Oscars happened just before the plug was pulled. 

The big winners were the Korean film Parasite, Joker and Judy.  And – completing the J’s – Jojo Rabbit’s Taika Waititi got an Oscar for Best Script.  

Next year’s Oscars have been delayed until April – at least – but we’re rather used to delays of big movie projects now.  

I’ve lost count of how many premiere dates the next James Bond film No time to die has missed.

Not to mention Marvel Comics’ Black Widow prequel, the Steven Spielberg West Side Story remake and the Wonder Woman sequel.

Otherwise it’s been bad news if you judge a movie year purely by its big, star-studded blockbusters. But this year audiences got used to smaller movies. And one of the big winners was the New Zealand film industry.

Without the usual competition from Hollywood, local films became first calls for audiences wanting to be entertained. 

And coincidentally, 2020 happened to have an unusually strong collection of Kiwi comedies to do just that.

Lowdown Dirty Criminals, This town, The Legend of Baron To’A, Dead and Guns akimbo… It’s been ages since we’ve seen so many lively, confident comedies – nearly all featuring Tom Sainsbury in a cameo role.  

My pick of the crop was Baby Done – great script, terrific performances, and the best line of the year.

The year’s biggest hit wasn’t a comedy though, but a deep dive into gang culture.  

Following on the heels of Once were warriors and The Dark Horse came Savage.

Outside the New Zealand film industry, other communities benefitted from the lockdown of big films.

Suddenly old people became cool – possibly reflecting the fact they were the ones most likely to head to the neighbourhood art-houses when they reopened.

Old people movies tended to be feelgood tales like the dog-lovers’ romance 23 Walks, the French old people’s romances La Belle Epoque and Two of us, and from Sweden Britt-Marie was here.

There were also an awful lot of comedies starring Robert De Niro.

Less demeaning use of De Niro was happening away from the cinemas – on streaming service Netflix.   He was brilliant in Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman, and shared the platform with other top film-makers this year.

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago Seven, Ben Wheatley’s remake of the Forties classic Rebecca - Netflix has proved a boon for ambitious film-makers and audiences alike.

My personal favourite was Mank, film-buff David Fincher’s tribute to Citizen Kane, told in the style of Citizen Kane.  And aside from the technical achievement, the film wasn’t afraid to draw parallels with our own unsavory Charlie Kanes in the media, the business world and politics.

Back in the cinemas, a lighter touch was brought to bear on that subject in Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, starring Steve Coogan.

Greed was a good example of the mid-range movie – bigger than a little independent, but not quite blockbuster status. 

Let’s call them “mini-busters” - films like Greenland with Gerard Butler, Liam Neeson in Honest Thief, and road-rage epic Unhinged, starring an outsize Russell Crowe.   

By far the biggest of the mini-busters this year was Christopher Nolan’s huge, if bewildering, Tenet.

It did pretty well here, with its undoubted entertainment values outweighing the fact that possibly only Nolan understood what was going on by the end.

Two disappointments for me were the latest renditions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. 

This despite the award-winning scriptwriters - respectively, New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton, and Armando Ianucci.

Copperfield was “all right I suppose”, while Emma failed to reach even that modest target.

Fortunately, there was better to see if you just looked hard enough.  Films like a little gem called Babyteeth.

Babyteeth was a touching little Australian drama-comedy-tearjerker tucked away in a few obscure cinemas around the country. I had to drive for miles to find it, and I’m so glad I did. A beautiful piece of work.

And since we’re looking at personal favourites this year, come in Bill and Ted face the music.

The lovable doofuses from Nineties comedies Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and subsequent Bogus Journey had no business plying their trade again 30 years on, or for the film to be as funny as it was.

I’d also like to put a word in for the French film that breathed new life into the old To Sir with love/Dangerous Minds formula – School life.

There were also a pair of French celebrity biopics this year – Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in Radioactive, Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau Action Hero – believe it or not - in Resistance. 

But I was taken by the story of a real-life American, initially hailed as a hero, then damned as a dangerous criminal by the media. It was called Richard Jewell.

Incidentally, the director of Richard Jewell turned 90 this year.  Clint Eastwood is currently making his 42nd movie – Covid or no Covid.  He’s also starring in it.  

Another favourite film-maker is about to release his latest film.  Sadly, like Mulan before it, Soul will miss the cinemas and go straight to streaming service Disney Plus.

The reason Pixar Studios are still the best in the business is they never take the easy route.

Their technology is head and shoulders above the competition.  So is their voice casting.  The boy delivering the pizza is just as likely to get the gig as the Hollywood superstar.

And then there are Pixar’s ideas.  Not for them pedestrian fairy-tales, cute dragons or wacky vampires.   Pixar often tackles the big questions of life, the universe and everything, but still makes them hugely entertaining.

And top dog at Pixar is Pete Docter.  He made audiences cry in the first 10 minutes of Up, then did it again in the last ten minutes of Inside Out. 

His new film is called Soul, and it’s about what makes us us.  It’s told through the eyes of a middle-aged jazz musician called Joe. 

And that brings this show – and indeed this series to a close.