Best and Worst Movies I Saw in 2020


You could call this a pre-Oscar look at movies. There will be Academy Awards, but does anyone care? Most theaters shut down in March, so this year’s Oscars will be voted upon by the 14 people in New York and the 23 in Los Angeles who saw the films in an actual theater, and another hundred or so who watched them on their tablets and phones as if they were TikTok tripe.


My list of 2020 films is based on the 75 films I saw this year–mostly on DVDs. It includes older movies, but I pushed them further down the honor list to give first nod to the newer ones. I also included films that were made in 2019 because they hadn’t yet made it into wide circulation.  Here are Full Reviews of all of the films, except for those marked * which have not yet been reviewed.

Best Of:


1. 1917:  A World War I drama from director Sam Mendes shot through with surrealism, class bias, the futility of the conflict, and how lives were cavalierly wasted.


2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire: At last! A film about lesbianism that’s more than a 100-minute striptease. We only had to wait for an 18th century tale set on a French island.  


3. Little Woods: A 2018 film, but tremendously overlooked. Would you risk jail to walk into Canada to buy drugs to help a family member? Gritty and gripping.


4. They Shall Not Grow Old: Peter Jackson’s painstaking restoration of World War I soldiers (and their voices) brought to color as it would have been seen then.


5. Joker: A surprise. This backstory of Batman’s nemesis is akin to a dystopian update of Day of the Locust.


6. *Duck Soup: The Marx Brothers greatest film. It’s silly, but also one of the best antiwar movies ever made because the Marxes refused to take war seriously.


7. An Education: A 2009 film in which high schooler Carey Mulligan succumbs to the charm of an older man who is dodgy on several levels.


8. Parasite: Won Oscars last year, but made it here in ’20. A South Korean grifter film in which laughs yield to darker things.


9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: I never tire of this Ken Kesey story of lunacy inside the asylum. In 1975, Jack Nicholson was a real actor.


10. *White Heat: A 1949 James Cagney noir crime masterpiece directed by Raoul Walsh. Watch for a review later this month.


Almost Made It (Alphabetical order): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, *A Day at the Races, The Dreamers, John Lewis: Good Trouble, *A Night at the Opera, Notorious, Pain and Glory, Secret Honor, Sorry We Missed You.



The Stinkeroonies. Watch at your own risk:



1. *Love Happy: Last Marx Brothers film; Harpo’s idea and he never again spoke of it!


2. Soup to Nuts: The Three Stooges when they played second fiddle to others. Even the Rube Goldberg machines are lame.


3. Wild Nights with Emily: Dickinson as a lesbian? Maybe, but this film lacked everything that was brilliant about Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


4. The Gorgeous Hussy: Proof from 1936 that Hollywood has a long track record of screwing up history. Intrigue as it did not go down in the Jackson administration.


5. One Upon a Time in Hollywood: Counterfactual and self-indulgent nonsense from Quentin Tarantino, America’s most self-indulgent director.


6. The Long Day Closes: That describes the experience of watching this stultifying 1992 film of a little boy in post-WWII England.


7. The Souvenir: A film student in Sunderland, UK so clueless that one wonders how she managed to make it out of primary school. Semi-autobiographical and totally dull.


8.  In a Lonely Place: Once considered a noir classic, but its psychology is so outdated that all we watch is how Bogart’s pants begin below his breastbone.


9. The Searchers: 1956 John Ford Western starring John Wayne. Once a classic, now a dinosaur of rejected values.


10. First Cow: Some have hailed it as 2020’s best film. Nope! This one telegraphs more than Western Union.    





The Vanishing Half "Almost" a Great Novel


The Vanishing Half (2020)

By Britt Bennett

Riverhead, 345 pages.





Scholars often claim that race is a social construct, a fiction we choose to believe. If sounds obtuse, read The Vanishing Half. Britt Bennett’s book is a novel, but it speaks a sort of truth. That’s why it tops a lot of lists of the best novels of 2020.


The Vanishing Half is a six-part series of vignettes set between 1954 to 1986. Its ground rule is set in the opening chapter. Mallard, Louisiana, is a “black” town with a difference established a century earlier: a scheme to breed away blackness. In Mallard, the whiter one appears, the higher one’s status.


The Vigne family bought into this. The problem, though, is the outside world. Lighter skin means something in Mallard, but not much beyond if one looks and acts black. That’s one of the reasons why the four sons of Blake and Adele Vigne are dead by age 30. The girls flee Mallard at age 16, with Stella passing for white, and Desiree moving to Washington, DC, where she works before marrying the dark-skinned Sam Winston. Together they have a daughter, Jude.


The Vanishing Half then spans the next 32 years in time. Desiree’s marriage falters and she hides out in Mallard, where her lover is the dark-skinned Early, who was supposed to find her and Jude for Sam. Stella, one the other hand, marries a white Boston banker’s son and settles into a life so bourgeois that she teaches statistics at California college, has a daughter named Kennedy, lives in posh neighborhoods, and even adopts racist attitudes toward African-Americans. It is a story of separations, Jude’s and Kennedy’s as well as Desiree’s and Stella’s. The opening chapter, “The Lost Twins,” makes us wonder if the paths of the two sisters will cross in the future, or whether either will ever again see their mother.


The children have crises of their own. Jude partners with Reese, and he has major identity issues. But there is never a question of Jude’s race. Like her father, she is dark-hued, though she certainly has a mind of her own and courage to spare. She eventually parlays her studies at UCLA into a medical degree. Kennedy rebels by becoming an actress, generally not the easiest ticket to a bourgeois life. The novel eventually takes us to New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis.


There’s a lot going on in Bennett’s 345-page book–perhaps too much. Like many novelists these days, Bennett tries to check all of the right boxes: race, gender identity, outings of various sorts, poverty, domestic violence, self-doubt, fluffy popular culture, and more. Would a very good novel have been even stronger had Ms. Bennett focused more narrowly? At times, the novel’s six parts function like a long play in which we wait to find out what coheres and what does not.


A line from the book’s third part sums its most fascinating exploration. To return to the lede on the social construction of race, Stella muses, “There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belong somewhere if you acted like you did.” In this respect, The Vanishing Half is a reverse of Mark Twain’s last great novel, Pudd ’n head Wilson, which featured a slave who was white in all but demeanor and circumstance. Bennett infers appearances again when the whip-smart Jude goes to UCLA, but–shades of a Spike Lee rant–on a track scholarship. You might also pick up on long-standing discussions about “high yellow” women (those with light skin) as well as studies on passing for white.


If we put these in companion with other themes I mentioned, it means that some get shorter shrift than others. Shuffling too many “big” issues at one time comes fraught with danger. At what point does box checking become oversimplification? To be clear, I liked this book very much, but if pressed to judge whether it’s one of the best of 2020, I’d have to reply, “Almost.”


Rob Weir



In a Lonely Place Ages Badly

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Columbia, 94 minutes, Not Rated (pre-ratings system)





In a Lonely Place makes a lot of top 100 films lists and is considered a film noir classic. It doesn’t get that kind of love from me. Although its lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame–and several within the supporting cast–are excellent, the film promises a lot, but delivers junk mail.


Dixon Steele (Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter. To say he has a temper is akin to saying Donald Trump has ego issues. Bogart has his trousers hitched up to just under his breast bone, which might explain his caged tiger explosions. He’s at his favorite restaurant/watering hole one evening trading jaded lines with a drunken pal, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), whom he calls “Thespian,” an allusion to being a washed-up actor. Agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) has been trying to get Dix, his client, back into screenwriting and tells him he has a producer on the line who only wants a faithful adaptation of a novel. Dix has little interest in reading it, but an enthusiastic hatcheck attendant, Mildred Atkinson, liked the novel a lot. Dix invites her back his to place to tell him about the book rather than read it. The more Mildred talks, the less Dix wants anything to do with the project. She leaves to walk to a nearby cab stand, as Steele eyes a sexy new neighbor.


The next morning, Steele gets a call from Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who served with Dix during World War Two. Brub is now a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and discovers from him and Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) that Mildred Atkinson was murdered the previous evening. Dix’s complete disinterest in the tragedy makes him a prime suspect in Lochner’s eyes, though Brub doubts it. Luckily, that sexy neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame), vouches for having seen Dix staring into her window at the time Mildred was murdered.


Is she lying? Again, Dix does little to help deflect suspicion. He and Laurel begin a torrid love affair and, for the first time, Dix contemplates settling down. Several creepy episodes with Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell—“Jeff” is her nickname) and a list of dismissed assault complaints a mile long again casts suspicion on Dix. Laurel is both in love with and scared to death of Dix, who is controlling of her and violent towards others. So, do we have a crime tale or a love story? It’s hard to say. Oddly, for a film about a screenwriter, Andrew Solt’s screenplay is as full of holes as a bum’s sock.


Few actors have ever rivaled Bogart when it comes to portraying volatility. As noted when I reviewed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart easily switched from man to simian. When Laurel says she was initially drawn to him because that she liked his face, we can be sure it wasn’t his devolved countenance. Bogart plays Dix like he’s sitting on the lid of a boiling pot. Grahame, who was married to director Nicholas Ray at the time, is also very good. She’s a tough cookie, but she crumbles at the right moments. Art Smith is superb in a supporting role as a milquetoast agent and Warwick adds comic relief.


Normally, those fine performances would cover the leaden ones of Lovejoy, Reid, and Martha Stewart–no, not that one–who cameoed as Mildred. Alas, the film’s cheap psychology and unexplained motives don’t weather well. Solt dropped the ball in several notable places. Why introduce the detail that Dix was Brub’s commanding officer in the war if you’re not going to do anything with it? More seriously, if your central character is as violence-prone as Dixon Steele, shouldn’t there at least be a motive for his anger? Does he have PTSD? Was he jilted? Did he get screwed by the movie industry? Is he an alcoholic? Give us something, for heaven’s sake.


In a Lonely Place has a noir look and psyche, but it’s all dressed up and never leaves the apartment complex in which Dix and Laurel reside. It’s a film in which you turn over your hands in a “That’s it?” gesture.


Rob Weir