Blah blah blah COVID blah blah blah Trump blah blah blah winds of change blah blah blah burning down gas stations for justice blah blah blah extremely labored pivot to the social importance of movies. That said, here are my favorite theatrically released pictures of this asterisked year.
10. Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. The Ireland-reared London punk-rocker-turned-lead-singer of the Irish folk-rock band the Pogues is, to everyone’s amazement, still alive, albeit much the worse for wear after a life lived rather extremely. After many bouts with the bottle, he is at the moment confined to a wheelchair, and his speech is slurred. MacGowan’s combination of rage, wit, self-deprecation, and passion is something like the ur-formula for a charismatic rock star, and Julien Temple’s inventive documentary, a stream-of-consciousness rush of crazy animation and stock photos, captures the anarchic headlong feel of MacGowan’s maxed-out existence. In theaters and on demand.
9. On the Rocks. Bill Murray enters a ring-a-ding, rat-pack phase in a funny Sofia Coppola movie about a suave retired art dealer who rides to the rescue when his daughter (Rashida Jones) starts to suspect that her seemingly perfect husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. Murray’s hilariously off-kilter insights on romance sound as though he wrote them himself, as he did with his big speeches in Stripes and Meatballs. This movie is a sort of self-critique of his career, reminiscent of John Wayne’s tweaking of his own legend in True Grit. On Apple TV+.
8. Balloon. This is a nail-biter about one family’s yearning to escape the quiet desperation of life in 1970s East Germany, perhaps the most successful socialist country ever and yet one where the relative prosperity (compared to, say, Cuba’s) was accompanied by an ever-expanding, lethally effective machinery of state surveillance. Every conversation, every transaction, every interaction with a neighbor is conducted under an implicit threat of arrest and imprisonment. The dreary, everyday feel of the infringements on human flourishing and liberty give the film the force of a documentary, which is fair enough because it’s based on the true story of a family that did manage to escape. On Kanopy and on demand.
7. Desert One: The two-time Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.; American Dream) revisits a largely forgotten event that proved to be an inflection point of history: the disastrous attempted helicopter rescue, launched in April 1980, of Americans taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Islamist radicals demanding the return of the shah. President Jimmy Carter, who appears in the film both in tapes recorded at the time and in new interviews, suffered the political consequences of a failed reelection bid; but it was a horrific chain of spectacularly unlucky events that doomed the mission, and the men who tried to bring it off, many of whom are still around to reflect on it, deserve the nation’s deepest respect. On Kanopy and on demand.
6. Apocalypse ’45. Released to mark the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, this documentary implicitly demolishes the fatuous argument, advanced every August, that the U.S. should never have dropped atomic bombs on Japan. The other options — invading mainland Japan or starving it via blockade — would have caused even more suffering for the Japanese, and the U.S. was under no obligation to spend more of our servicemen’s lives while vanquishing an insane and evil death cult. Vivid color footage, some of it never seen before, set against matter-of-fact voice-over narration by veterans of the Pacific War, illustrates the agonizing toll on both sides of the island-hopping campaign across such thunderously defended rocks as Iwo Jima. The film is punctuated with harrowing footage of kamikaze attacks and civilian suicides that illustrate how grotesquely warped was the culture of Imperial Japan. Coming soon to Discovery.
5. The Father. A brilliant, if hard-to-watch, adaptation, directed and co-written by Florian Zeller, of Zeller’s stage play about the dementia that is overtaking the personality of a gruff former engineer (Anthony Hopkins), The Father makes the audience experience a taste of what it’s like to lose track of one’s memories, one’s mind, one’s self. Hopkins makes the most of this wide-ranging role, in which his character (also called Anthony) slips from grouchy to gleeful to domineering to forlorn while his daughter (Olivia Colman) tries to manage his decline. Alzheimer’s has never been presented more devastatingly, and Zeller has a firm grasp of some important, if unpleasant, truths. Previously released but returning to theaters in February.
4. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. An astonishing Viola Davis plays the title role, one of the most accomplished blues singers of the 1920s, in a sharply executed adaptation of the August Wilson stage play that made the name of this great American artist. Directed by Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe, the film is a showcase for the late Chadwick Boseman, here in his final role as a lean, sardonic, hot-headed horn player. The character is an archetype for every great black artist who was forced to compromise with, or exploited by, white-run businesses. On Netflix.
3. The Forty-Year-Old Version. The delightful Radha Blank stars as an isotope of herself in this indie, which she also wrote and directed. A high-school drama teacher (her classroom, full of sex-obsessed, clownish, yet charming idiots, is like 2020’s adaptation of the Sweathogs) on the verge of turning 40, Blank is trying to get a play produced without selling out to the white progressive vision of what black life must be like. She’s a black artist exploring middle-class black life in a culture obsessed with steering her into what she wittily calls “poverty porn.” On the down low, she starts recording rap songs with the help of a Brooklyn music producer (Oswin Benjamin) whose story overlaps with hers. A stellar first effort from Blank, it’s the second-funniest film of the year and the best rap movie since 8 Mile. On Netflix.
2. The Gentlemen. The funniest movie of the year features a terrifically unexpected performance: Hugh Grant plays a sleazy, swishy tabloid journalist circling a London mob enforcer (Charlie Hunnam) who works for an American entrepreneur (Matthew McConaughey) running the biggest weed business in Britain. Writer-director Guy Ritchie returns to form from before he met Madonna, piecing together in hilarious style a complicated plot about rival gangsters’ efforts to seize control of the marijuana trade and creating slam-bang opportunities for everyone in the brilliant cast, which also includes Colin Farrell, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, and the world’s best-dressed hip-hop acrobatic robbery squad. On Showtime.
1. Onward. A transcendent new Pixar classic about brotherhood and lost loved ones, this film is ingeniously set against a backdrop of a fairy-tale world that has gone stale and routine — a pointed reminder that societal decadence can look more like rot, repetition, and stasis than orgiastic overindulgence. Emotionally, the film climbs to great heights as two brothers work to reestablish a connection with their departed father. Underlying the action is a surprising plea for restoration of the soul-nurturing powers of mysticism and wonder. Onward is not only a celebration of the imagination, it’s so right-wing it practically demands a return to the Latin Mass. On Disney+.