The 2020 Movies Madness Tournament

Last week one team of basketball players beat another team of basketball players to determine who is the best semi-amateur basketball team in the United States made of players above the age of 17 and below the age of 22 who have all graduated high school.  And in a few weeks’ time the Academy Awards will determine what the best movies of 2020 were.  Which means two things, it’s been a whole year and a month of this collective nightmare and it’s the perfect time for a tournament themed movie piece.

The perfect time would have actually been two weeks ago while the tournament was still going on but here we are.

Last year was a strange year for movies; with theaters closed worldwide and streaming and in-home rentals becoming even more prevalent it became even more difficult to figure out what movies people were actually watching.  The box office would suggest that the most popular movie of 2020 was Bad Boys for Life and award season seems to indicates that Netflix was king of the movies this year with Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Trail of the Chicago 7, and…. The Prom for some inexplicable reason. But what movie really deserves to wear the crown?  Which 2020 film is the best that this truly strange year had to offer?  Is it Mank or Ma Rainey’s?  Or perhaps the indie darling Nomadland or maybe we’re all wrong and it really was The Prom’s year.  It wasn’t don’t worry.  But that is the question we’re here to answer.

Why a bracket?  The short answer is SEO.  Trying my best to get those sweet sweet search engine clicks.  But the more complicated answer is to create some form of objectivity.  When you make a best of list there is, no matter how hard one might try, some agenda.  You go into the exercise with an idea of what you want it to look like in your head, what narrative you would like your list to convey.  You’ll tell yourself my top 10 or 25 or whatever it may must have this movie or that.  “I can’t possibly rank this movie over that one.  But do they really both deserve to be in the top 5?” you ask yourself.  We all sort of collectively decide together what the 15 or 20 best movies of the year were and we shuffle them around in our lists.  “Is this movie better than this movie?” is simply an easier question to answer objectively than “what were the ten best movies of 2020?”  And if I answer that question 63 times maybe we come out the other side of this with an answer to the question, “what was the best movie of 2020?”

The Methodology

Divisions

I collected data on 123 movies released in 2020 for this tournament.  “Released” meant something different this year.  Normally the rule would be any more released theatrically, wide or limited, or on a major streaming site between the dates of January 1st and December 31st.  It was in the past a safe bet that if a movie skipped theaters and went straight to in-home rental that it was likely not worth anyone’s time; certainly not anyone deranged enough to put together a 64-film single elimination style bracket to decide once and for all the best film released in a year.

But obviously that all changed this year.  So, the rule is now: any film that someone without access to critics screeners or festival releases could have watched during the calendar year of 2020.  That means some amazing movies you’ll be hearing about during award season are not featured in this bracket, Minari and Judas and the Black Messiah the best example of this.  But don’t fret, if this undertaking doesn’t finally put an end to me, they’ll feature in the 2021 bracket.

The first task was to separate all 123 movies into four categories that would make up our divisions: comedy, drama, thrills, and other.  The first two, comedy and drama, are pretty self-explanatory I would imagine.  Thrills is more of a gut reaction than a perfectly definable category; any action movie and any horror movie certainly but also films like Paul Greengrass’s fast-paced western, News of the World, and flawed Tom Hardy vehicle, Capone, which despite my best efforts to fudge the numbers I couldn’t find a way to sneak into the final 64 were also placed in the Thrills division.  Other, is a little more fraudulent even I’ll admit.  Other consists of all foreign language films as well as any film that felt too in between genres to reasonably put in either of the other three categories.  Movies like endearingly strange Kajillionaire which is neither funny enough to be a comedy nor self-serious enough to feel like it belongs in the same category as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Kajillionaire
Gina Rodriguez (left) and Evan Rachel Wood (right) in Kajillionaire (2020)

Even after my meticulous ministrations over the categorization there are some placements that may raise an eyebrow or two.  And to those people I say, “if the Golden Globes can call Get Out a ‘Musical or Comedy’ I will happily call Promising Young Woman a comedy and lose no sleep.”  The intent of the divisions and the seeding of the bracket is to achieve something that feels like a fair sample of the 64 movies that best represent the 2020 year in film.  As you may have guessed the drama and other categories were far more stacked than the other two, so I was happy to make some borderline decisions in order to clear up space for deserving movies.  Even still some films I adored from this year didn’t make the cut.  Tigertail, the beautiful Alan Yang written and directed story of identity and family just missed the final cut.  Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s historical drama that feels like a lineal descendant of the golden age of Italian cinema, was another painful borderline cut.  And The Midnight Sky, which had an overall seed of 117 out of 123 never stood a chance of making the bracket but I still stand by the movie.  And that brings us nicely to how this whole ordeal was seeded.

Seeding

There was that animated movie bracket that was making its way around social media a few years back.  As with all things on social media from white and gold dresses to shrimp in your Cinnamon Toast Crunch it built up steam by getting people to react in anger.  And the most rage inducing part was the seeding, it had first round match ups like The Incredibles vs Wall-E and Aladdin vs Hercules which meant 50% of those movies never made it to the second round in any bracket.

Seeding is important, there’s a reason the 76ers won’t play the Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs this year.  However, the 76ers and Nets, by the time they make the playoffs, will have played 72 games to determine the seeding of that tournament.  So, without the advent of a six-month season to determine the ranking of these movies what is the best way to seed them?

Long time fans of the pod will know that this isn’t the first time I’ve gone in feet first into this exact gimmick.  It would be disingenuous to suggest that this is the first time I’ve considered this question.  The first thought is just to gut reaction rank them, same way Cory and I do our end of year lists.  But on one hand, while the shambolic NCAA can get away with such a slapdash and unscientific ranking system, we are more respectable here at Next Time On… incorporated.  Also, the logistics of watching all 123 movies is just not feasible even for someone as obsessed as me (this March piece is coming out in April because the logistics of watching 84 of those 123 movies was barely manageable).

The second option is to find some kind of objective measuring system to rank these movies.  Lucky for me we are obsessed with assigning a numerical value to all things and there are a plethora options of where to pull that number from.  But which one?  Metacritic, IMDb, Letterboxd, iTunes reviews?  Or would it be the big bad, Rotten Tomatoes?  None of the options are perfect, but that’s okay because if there was a perfect answer to this question this we would simply look up which was the highest rated 2020 film and I would get a lot more sleep.  IMDb is a pretty easy cut, while it’s very high up on my most visited websites list it has zero barrier to entry for rating and reviewing movies on it.  The IMDb rating of a movie is a better measure of how controversial or not a movie is than it is it’s quality; currently on IMDb the highest rated film of all time is The Shawshank Redemption with a 9.2 rating.  An amazing movie to say the least, the best movie of all time?  Not by a long shot.  What The Shawshank Redemption is, is a good movie that no one hates.  You’d be very wary of a person that told you they saw Shawshank and loathed it.  For reference Moonlight has a rating of 7.4 on IMDb which rates it below Monsters, Inc., Logan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  If I was making a bracket about which movie high school educated white men liked most in 2020 IMDb would be my first choice for seeding though.  Maybe next year we’ll give that tournament a shot.

Letterboxd and iTunes or Amazon reviews aren’t much better; they’re more or less the same group of voters with just a much smaller sample size.  Which leaves us with either Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes.  Anyone who knows me, knows I find them both pointless tools for measuring the quality of a movie and barely more helpful in deciding whether or not something is worth your time to watch but one has to be better than the other.  Metacritic has very vocal supporters, mostly form people who are simply anti-Rotten Tomatoes.  They pull from mostly the same group of critics, although RT samples more reviews, and Metacritic obfuscates their score slightly more.  RT classifies critic reviews as either fresh or rotten while Metacritic categorizes them into positive, mixed, or negative.  Rotten Tomatoes score is a percentage of how many of those reviews they classify as “positive”—which believe me is in quotes for a reason.  While Metacritic generates a weighted average based on the scores they “pull” from each review.  Both are flawed black boxes that spit out flawed numbers but which is best for this exercise?

Liu Yifei Mulan
Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020)

Take for example Mick LaSalle’s review of Mulan for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This review caught my eye late last year, partially because I’ve read some of LaSalle’s work before, he’s far from a brilliant critic but based on what I’d read previously I wouldn’t have called him a hack either.  But when I saw his review of Mulan on Metacritic was a 100 out of 100 I must admit my attention was piqued. The same review is classified as a 3.5/4 on Rotten Tomatoes which seemed even more curious.  So I read the review, which one, does not have a numerical value assigned to it, and two, while incredibly effusive of the film I’m not sure I would have classified I as a perfect 100/100 even though LaSalle had some wild praise of the movie.  It’s unrelated to the overall point I’m making but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up some of my favorite quotes from Mick’s reviews of the latest live-action adaptation Disney cash grab.  “The film represents another triumph for New Zealand director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife), who must now be recognized as a top talent.” I didn’t know there was a Zookeeper’s Wife hive out there, it’s not even the best Niki Caro movie, who I’m sure is a lovely person, but is not what I would call “a top talent,” unless you really love schlocky affair brought to you by the woman who gave us McFarland, USA, A Heaven Vintage, and let me not forget The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Also this gem, “[Liu Yifei] is so strong in the role of Mulan that it’s only later that you might realize that you were not watching Mulan herself, but someone giving an exceptional performance in a difficult part.”  I genuinely don’t know what to say to that.  It’s almost like LaSalle watched a different movie than the rest of us.  Possibly he was privy to the Caro cut of Mulan.

But I’ve gotten distracted as usual.  Ultimately the point is that while both systems are a mess the percentage output of Rotten Tomatoes just seems much more useful here.  And the fact that they pull from a larger sample of critics is helpful here because if we’re going to create a weighed score for seeding these movies a higher number of reviews is helpful.

So now we have it, plug in 123 Rotten Tomatoes scores and number of critics’ reviews into a weighed score formula the product of a year of AP Stats and some Googling and we get an objective seeding that I can feel pretty good about. 

Soul Weighted Score
Driveways Weighted Score

Astute readers will probably be putting two and two together and have realized that with the seeding system and the previously mentioned divisions this is not a bracket consisting of the 64 highest seeded movies.  It’s pretty close to it actually, closer than it was last year when I finished the seeding process.  Part of that I think is that big screen action movies have been pushed in a hope of returning to theaters and action movies especially big blockbuster ones preform worse on Rotten Tomatoes than dramas and foreign language films.  Of the films that missed the bracket the highest seeded movie was Prentice Penny’s Uncorcked which at 53 overall missed the cut off from the drama division by one spot.  The lowest seeded movie to make the bracket is Wonder Woman 1984 at a staggering 109 seed.  Actually, the eight lowest seeded movies are all action movies of one sort or another in the thrills division.

The WW84 Problem

Relax.  I can hear the shouting already, just breath.  As previously discussed, Rotten Tomatoes is a flawed system, taking it’s word as gospel would not only be silly but it would undermine the exercise.  Ultimately, it better serve the endeavor to find a bracket that encompasses the totality of 2020 cinema.  WW84 is not an unfamiliar case actually.  Last year I had the same issue with The Joker, also not a very good movie, also missing the final cut off in any of the divisions I thought I could reasonably put it in.  But it The Joker was in a lot of ways the biggest movie of 2019; would any real substantive discussion about the year in film feel valid without considering The Joker?  Sure it was almost guaranteed a first round exit, and objectively speaking I can’t imagine in a vacuum there are a lot of movies that Wonder Woman 1984 could go up against in the first round that it would best.  But there is a reason that they keep inviting 16 seeds to the tournament every year to get beaten by 1 seeds.

The Small Axe Problem

Small Axe is in the bracket, it’s a collection of feature length films starring movie stars directed by a movie director I don’t’ care what anyone may tell you.  But does it really seem fair to have all five Small Axe movies in this bracket?  In the same division no less?  The lowest seeded of the moves, Education, would still have made the made the drama division.  As much as I loved Small Axe, seemed ridiculous to say the least.  So, I made the executive decision to include only one.  Mangrove, the highest ranked of the five, and I think the best of the collection.  And I promise that is the last piece of chicanery before we get down to business.

The Tournament

Click on the round below to be taken to the section. But don’t read ahead that’s no fun!

And here we are, the tournament begins. It’s been broken up by rounds and divisions for ease of consumption. Buckle up; it’s a big one. But once we’re all done we will have the undisputed champion of the 2020 Movies Madness Tournament and isn’t that exciting. Fill out the bracket below, see if we agree on the last year in movies.

Movie Bracket

Round One

Round one, the most exciting round in your typical March Madness bracket.  Full of upsets and Cinderella stories.  And it always blazes by faster than you thought. At first, it feels as if there is a never-ending barrage of games on and then suddenly, it’s all over.  The goal is to have this first round feel the same; some good movies will be unceremoniously dumped off the back of tough first-round match ups, some match ups won’t be worth talking about at all.

Comedy
1) Soul vs. 16) Bill & Ted Face the Music

Starting the tournament off with a damp squib feels rather fitting for some reason.  Especially after all that bluster about the integrity of the format and how obsessed with this I’ve been for the past two months.  Starting the whole thing off with a matchup of two okay movies with a clear winner is the exhilarating crash right back down to Earth we need don’t you think?

Soul is pretty much what you expect from Pixar at this point.  Smart story telling with beautiful animation and a clever premise.  Much like another Pixar classic, Up, however, Soul is a strong opening ten minutes away from being much lower down in the seedings.  But on the other hand, Bill & Ted Face the Music is not a very good movie.  It’s fun to see Reeves and Winter return as their beloved characters especially for fans of the series.  And it was one of the first movies to come out after the beginning of the plague and people are starving for movies and Bill & Ted Face the Music is a fun, feel good movie, that delivers what people sought.  But as far as which of the two is better, it’s a pretty clear winner here.

Winner: Soul

8) Shithouse vs. 9) Onward
Dylan Gelula (left) and Cooper Raiff (right) in Shithouse (2020)

The first of the two Pixar movies released in 2020 — and with a March 6th release date, one of the unluckiest films of the year — Onward ended up flying as much under the radar as any Disney-Pixar production is capable of doing before getting unceremoniously dumped onto Disney+.  Onward is almost sickly sweet at times, it lacks the subtlety of Soul or classic Disney-Pixar fare such as Inside Out or Toy Story and while Tom Holland and Chris Pratt give likeable enough performances, the characters are too forgettable.  Shithouse, on the other hand is wonderfully nuanced.  A movie that seems like it will be another forgettable college rom-com elevates itself to much more on the back of two captivating performances by its leads Dylan Gelula and writer-director Cooper Raiff.  Raiff expertly captures the crippling loneliness that can come from being surrounded by people having the time of their life while you’re miserable.  Shithouse,despite its name, is beautiful and personal and makes me both simultaneously very jealous and excited about the prospects for Raiff’s career.

Winner: Shithouse

5) Palm Springs vs. 12) On the Rocks

A Bill Murray movie matching up first round with a Groundhog Day-style movie is the kind of poetry that March Madness needs.  “One shining moment!”  Or whatever the fuck college sports fans say.

There will be a lot of people who will only ever think of Sofia Coppola as the worst part of the worst Godfather movie, which part of me thinks is fair enough — it’s undeniably a terrible performance indicative of the worst of the nepotism that plagues Hollywood.  The other, more sensible part of me, however, thinks it’s a real shame the career of one of the best working directors we have is soured by such an unfortunate asterisk.  Coppola’s strength is getting scene-stealing performances out of her actors in roles that would normally feel so quiet and still.  Her best muse is clearly Bill Murray — no one who has seen Lost in Translation would argue that point — but I unapologetically ride for The Bling Ring Ring is such a beautifully strange big swing of a movie that I’m charmed by it despite myself.  On the Rocks is Murray at his best with Coppola once again demonstrating that dash of chaotic energy that makes Coppola’s work so successful.  The running Jenny Slate gag throughout the film is hilarious and Rashida Jones delivers a typically accomplished performance.

Unfortunately, Palm Springs is just a buzzsaw.  And sometimes good teams run into buzzsaws in the first round.  On the Rocks is a clever reimagining of a familiar film trope starring two charismatic leads that is romantic and funny. Unfortunately for Coppola, Palm Springs is also all those things, just better.  Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are a perfect pair and end up being a joy to hang out with for 90 minutes.  That, for Max Barbakow’s clever reimagining of a familiar Groundhog Day trope, is really the icing on the cake.  Perhaps Palm Springs, a movie about trying to find a way out of a time loop where you relive the same day over and over again, getting released in July 2020 is a bit of a cheat, but you play the cards you’re dealt.

Winner: Palm Springs

4) Saint Frances vs. 13) The Trip to Greece

The Trip series is unique. If there exists another television show that gets cut into a theatrically released feature-length film every season, then I have not heard of it.  It’s also unique in that there are not many comedy film series that produce even one worthwhile sequel, much less three.  I can’t say I’ve done the deep dive research to fully back up this statement, but I feel pretty confident saying that The Trip to Greece is the greatest fourth film in a comedy series—not exactly an illustrious list but the point remains.  The Trip series is a cheat though, sending two of the funniest British comedians alive around on a lovely vacation and recording them as they have semi-scripted conversations is only about a half a degree removed from being a travel documentary. Doesn’t mean I love it any less.

As fun as The Trip to Greece is, it’s about as complex as a coloring book.  Saint Frances on the other hand sees writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan in her first film writing credit taking on myriad significant topics.  Saint Frances explores relationships, abortion, the feeling of familiarity that plagues the millennial generation, interracial marriages, work-life balance — the list does go on.  Saint Frances can at times feel like one of the many quarter life crisis indie comedies of which we’ve seen an uptick for the last decade and a half (think 2007’s Juno) but it avoids many of the cliches and O’Sullivan gives a worthy leading performance in a smart and funny film.

Winner: Saint Frances

6) The Personal History of David Copperfield vs. 11) Emma.
Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020)

I swear it’s only chance that the two eccentric adaptations of classic novels that came out this year matched up against each other in the first round.  Any bracket rigging will strictly be reserved for getting Birds of Prey deep into the tournament, I promise you that.

I won’t pretend to be a massive fan of either Jane Austen’s Emma or Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  I have read David Copperfield, but it’s been so long ago I barely remember it and I’ve never read Emma, In other words, these films as adaptations don’t interest me.  In general, I don’t find the ability of a film to accurately or fairly adapt source material that important a measure of the film’s quality.  I’m sure there are David Copperfield fans who were livid with Iannucci’s whimsical take on the Dickens classic; your objections have been noted.

The similarities between the two does make the comparison simpler.  Both are period dramatic comedies that feature the rapid witty banter that normally defines the genre.  Both films field an ensemble cast of incredibly talented familiar, mostly English, faces—one collection of faces much whiter than the other perhaps, but the point stands.  Both Emma. and The Personal History of David Copperfield feature stellar titular performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Dev Patel, respectively.  Both films feature performances from alumni of the too short-lived Scrotal Recall—which is a piece of trivia that only I will appreciate.

It’s what’s different about them that really counts here though.  The biggest difference between Emma. and David Copperfield is the creative team behind the films.  The writer-director team Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton adapt Jane Austen’s work to screen well.  De Wilde has an eye for color and framing. That comes as little surprise given her music video background and leads to some gorgeous scenes throughout the film. Catton does well in her first writing credit; I look forward to checking out her new show, The Luminaries, once I can leave my writing cave.  It’s that the veteran talent of Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell simply stands out here.  Iannucci, normally a satirical genius most famous for mockumentary style shows like The Thick of It and Veep, works off type here. He shows a softer showier side in David Copperfield and in turn elevates the performances of his cast.

Winner: The Personal History of David Copperfield

3) The 40-Year-Old Version vs. 14) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan aka Borat 2 is not only the new official holder of the Guinness world record for longest title of a film, it is a brilliantly sharp comedic masterpiece.  It is in many ways the film that 2020 needed most, and arguably Sacha Cohen’s best work.  On the other hand, The 40-Year-Old Version, while it feels equally of the time and in a lot of ways as welcome an arrival as Borat 2, it’s far more interesting as an artifact than a film.  The fact that there are movie studios willing to bankroll and distribute a debut film written, directed, and starring a relatively unknown black woman is a welcome change that the film industry desperately needs.  The film itself is mostly forgettable.  Radha Blank seems to have a compelling story to tell but lacks the cinematic talent to tell it in the way it deserves.  There is a Hamilton joke that feels so painfully ironic that it must be intentional because The 40-Year-Old Version is so frequently undercut by the bad hip-hop throughout that it’s frequently hard to tell what is working and what isn’t in the narrative.

Winner: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

7) Promising Young Woman vs. 10) Let Them All Talk

There is a lot to unpack about Promising Young Woman. Regardless of how one feels about it, it’s impossible to argue that it doesn’t make you think.  And certain aspects of the movie are without debate — Carey Mulligan is magnificent in the lead role, as she always is.  Mulligan is one of my all-time favorite actors; she is criminally underrated and I would watch her in anything.  (This is evidenced by the fact that I spent 15 of my own dollars to see The Great Gatsby, 15 that I will be getting back from Baz Luhrmann if I ever meet the man.)  The second the credits rolled on Promising Young Woman, I revisited Wildlife, my favorite Mulligan performance of all-time.

We can tackle the complexities of Promising Young Woman in a future round and my mixed feelings on the movie because Let Them All Talk is one of the most disappointing products of immense talent I’ve ever seen.  Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Let Them All Talk, which is a restrained, intimate character portrait of complex character.  A solid movie, I was not upset to have spent two hours viewing it.  But when you collect the talents of Steven Soderbergh, Meryl Streep, Lucas Hedges, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest, you expect far more than solid.

Winner: Promising Young Woman

2) Blow the Man Down vs. 15) Big Time Adolescence
Morgan Saylor (left) and Sophie Lowe (right) in Blow the Man Down (2020)

Big Time Adolescence is the better of the two Pete Davidson films that came out this year.  At the start of 2020, with Davidson’s fame at its absolute peak and two movies on the horizon—one a Judd Apatow film—it felt as if this was to be the year of Davidson.  Apatow has a reputation as a perpetual star maker spotting comedic legends in unlikely places.  He did it with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and Steve Carell before that in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  If Davidson is destined to be the next face of a comedy generation neither The King of Staten Island nor Big Time Adolescence convinced me.  Big Time Adolescence is a fine movie, another in the long line of comedies about man children behaving badly and being forced to grow up.  It’s sweet and has some moments but is ultimately without substance.  Blow the Man Down is a darkly witty tale that is slickly made and well-acted.  As a first-time feature-length film from writer-director duo Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, it’s a real triumph.

Winner: Blow the Man Down

Drama
1) Never Rarely Sometimes Always vs. 16) The Way Back
Ben Affleck (left) and Melvin Gregg (right) in The Way Back (2020)

I heard someone suggest that The Way Back was Ben Affleck’s attempt at finally securing an Oscar nomination for acting.  Although you would think after essentially starting his career with a best screenplay award and later winning best picture as lead and director he wouldn’t have that need anymore.  A script can read a lot different on the page than it does on the screen.  That’s how you get all-time disasters like Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine or Denzel in John Q.  I can’t fathom how The Way Back read on the page such that would’ve made Affleck think this is the one.  He is good in the lead role, but this movie is so paint-by-the-numbers boring that it’s hard to see what anyone involved saw in it, including Gavin O’Connor, who after his directorial stint in incredible Warrior in 2011, has been on quite the slump. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t need to do much to clear the hurdle that is The Way Back, but it manages that and then some.  Poignant and beautifully acted and directed Eliza Hittman’s intimate drama is vital viewing for anyone.

Winner: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

8) Driveways vs. 9) First Cow

Beautifully tragic stories of unlikely friendship, Driveways and First Cow were two of my favorite films of 2020.  Having them match up in the first round is a cruel twist of fate that I entirely blame on Rotten Tomatoes and for which I take absolutely no responsibility as architect of this bracket.  As one of the final performances of the late Brian Dennehy, Driveways is an ironic but also perfectly gentle role for a man who was introduced to popular culture in First Blood.  Hong Chau had an excellent 2020 appearing in Watchmen and the second season of Homecoming as Audrey Temple but her performance in Driveways as Kathy, is my favorite of the three.

Andrew Ahn’s directorial style in Driveways is understated but appropriate, he makes room for the stellar performances of his cast to build on the exquisitely crafted characters of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s script.  Kelly Reichardt on the other hand is the star of the show.  She delivers a director masterclass in First Cow shooting her main characters played by John Magaro and Orion Lee as well as the harsh Oregon country with a tranquil beauty and an ever-present sense of approaching dread, aided by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, that makes the third act turn all the more shocking and earned.

Easily the closest first round matchup, Driveways would be a deserving winner, Ahn and Chau have teamed up to make something endearing and thoughtful and worthy of revisiting.  It is only by the thinnest of hairs that I believe First Cow executes its vision better.

Winner: First Cow

5) Miss Juneteenth vs. 12) The Trial of the Chicago 7

Miss Juneteenth being a fifth seed and the seventh overall seed of the tournament is everything you need to know about why Rotten Tomatoes is a terrible measure of the quality of a movie.  Miss Juneteenth is a bad movie, it’s in contention for the worst movie to make the final 64 cut without a doubt.  Not one single second of the movie works but capping off the film’s climax with one of the most dreadful performances of a Maya Angelou poem ever recorded is really something.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 on the other hand is not a bad movie; this one’s straight forward.

Winner: The Trial of the Chicago 7

4) Small Axe: Mangrove vs. 13) Herself
Writer and star Clare Dunne in Herself (2020)

After as free a matchup we’ll see in the first round we’re back to another immensely difficult one.  Difficult emotionally rather than qualitatively, unlike First Cow vs Driveways I don’t think the objective quality of Mangrove and Herself are as nearly inseparable.  Herself is a gut-wrenching excellently acted movie about the resilience of people and the restorative power of love and community.  Writer and star Clare Dunne is fantastic in an emotionally riveting performance and supported by stellar performances from Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill, Herself is powerful and rewording.  But Mangrove, the first film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, is an electrifying and rage-inducing look at a true story about the evils of institutionalized racism and police corruption.

Winner: Small Axe: Mangrove

6) Nomadland vs. 11) The Assistant

Both of these films tell intimate stories rarely shown in film.  Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an almost documentary style film that looks into the lives of middle America’s forgotten souls.  Another world class Frances McDormand performance guides the viewer through a world of self-proclaimed nomads who have left the world behind them, picked up everything and live-in vans, RVs, or their cars as they travel around America.  Zhao proves once again that she has a rigorous eye for storytelling and a unique approach to filmmaking that feels both fresh and reminiscent of a style of movie making long since passed.

Nomadland has garnered all of the plaudits this year, rightly so, earning Zhao best picture and director nominations.  Kitty Green’s The Assistant has flown under the radar comparatively for a movie that is certainly in the same ballpark.  Both films are pulling from the same playbook in a lot of ways and it’s only on the back of McDormond’s standout performance and Zhao’s use of the melancholy but beautiful scenery of middle America that Nomadland slightly edges the competition.

The Assistant is a cold, sometimes, anthropological look at the #MeToo era in Hollywood.  The film takes a third person perspective as we follow Jane (Julia Garner) who is the assistant to a high-powered executive at a talent firm—one that we only briefly glimpse in the film—who uses his powers to groom hopeful actresses.  The film is brilliantly crafted in that it’s subtle but also packs a punch.  Garner and Green deliver a film that will stick in your mind long after viewing.

Winner: Nomadland

3) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom vs. 14) The Last Tree
Sam Adewunmi in The Last Tree (2020)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is going to win, I’ll spoil it up top.  The entire cast but especially the late Chadwick Boseman are simply too good.  I won’t pretend to be a huge August Wilson fan; I find his particular brand of tragedy a little heavy handed for my liking.  When I’ve seen a staging of his work —possibly with lesser actors— it’s never appealed in the past.  But adapted for the screen, his plays in recent years, Ma Rainey and Fences, have worked.

It’s a worse movie, but not by much; I would be remiss if The Last Tree came and went in this bracket without some fanfare.  Shola Amoo’s story of belonging and history and the importance of family is beautifully crafted with a brilliantly reserved lead performance by Sam Adewunmi at the center.  The Guardian referred to the film as “The British Moonlight,” which as far as attention grabbing headlines go is not too far off from the truth.  Amoo and Adewunmi have something really special here and are names to keep an eye out for in the future.

Winner: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

7) Sound of Metal vs. 10) Bad Education

Bad Education is a lot of fun for a movie that ends up being so very sad.  It reminds me a lot of the “Petty Tyrant” episode of This America life about a maintenance man in Schenectady, New York who abuses his small seat of power to enrich himself and his friends.  I remember the first time I heard that episode thinking it was rather funny and the more I thought about it the more I realized how insidious and evil it all really was.  You get the same initial shot of dopamine from Hugh Jackman’s excellent portrayal of Frank Tassone but eventually you leave the film feeling like you need a shower.

The journey of Sound of Metal is in a lot of ways the opposite: it starts off brutally sad and everything feels so hopeless but once you’ve taken your journey with Riz Ahmed you feel uplifted.  It’s far from a Disney fairytale ending but it’s hard not to fall for the empathetic and authentic story and performances.

Winner: Sound of Metal

2) One Night in Miami vs. 15) Blue Story

One Night in Miami was released on Christmas day 2020 and capped off what will hopefully be the beginning of a much-needed shift in Hollywood.  You’ll notice that many of the films in this bracket are written and/or directed by women, many more than in years past.  A lot of those are first time filmmakers.  Many of the tentpole films of year were created by women: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Yong Woman, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Patty Jenkis’ Wonder Woman 1984, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down just to name a few.  There has also been an influx of black stories being told and the types of black stories we rarely get to see on film.  Hollywood for a while has only ever been interested in black suffering but many movies this year turned that narrative on its head: The Photograph, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Soul, The Last Tree, The Banker, Charm City Kings, and Vampires vs The Bronx.

One Night in Miami and Blue Story are indicative of this shifting tide in filmmaking.  Two films that may have never gotten made in years past and if they were unlikely to be made with the same creative teams.  Two feature length directorial debuts by Regina King for One Night in Miami and Andrew “Rapman” Onwubolu for Blue Story.  I wait with baited breath for both of their follow ups.  King, has proved with One Night in Miami that she is capable of extracting masterful performances from her leads and tackling vital topics and rich source material with a deft touch while on the other hand Onwubolu’s Blue Story is an unflinching, at times, brutal look at the gang culture in the London neighborhood he himself grew up in. 

Blue Story is a film that sweeps you off your feet from the first moment and doesn’t put you down until the last shot, leaving you breathless and shaken.  A cast of unfamiliar faces executes the material with aplomb but it’s the stand out performances from the two leads Michael Ward and Stephen Odubola that make Onwubolu’s debut film all the more grand.

Winner: Blue Story

Thrills
1) His House vs. 16) Wonder Woman 1984

The hate for Wonder Woman 1984 was overblown but that’s understandable.  Everything is either the best movie or the worst movie ever made and WW84 is certainly closer to the worst movie ever made than the best.  His House is a nuanced story about the myth of tabula rasa and the good neighbor fallacy.  Since Get Out there have been slew of horror movies in this fashion that explore the minority experience.  Some have worked and some really haven’t, but writer-director Remi Weekes’ well-crafted screenplay and expert grasp of tension and terror along with masterful performances from leads Wunmi Mosaku and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù His House succeeds on all fronts.

Winner: His House

8) Mr. Jones vs. 9) The Old Guard
From left to right: Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlize Theron, Luca Marinelli, and Kiki Layne in The Old Guard (2020)

A harried and unstructured plot often lets down a potentially notable journalistic/spy thriller. Mr. Jones constantly feels like it’s an inch from greatest and keeps letting it slip through its fingers.  Every part of it just feels off: dialogue is strong but script pacing handicaps the story and the direction is beautiful, but someone should tell Holland that not every scene can or should be so cinematic; sometimes you just need to frame two actors and let them work.  Mr. Jones is a worthy watch especially if you’re unfamiliar with the story of Gareth Jones.  The Old Guard is far too straightforward a movie to go on and win this whole thing, but one could never argue that it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do.  With skillfully shot and choreographed action sequences and a fun, if at times, conventional plot there are few action movies this year better than The Old Guard.

Winner: The Old Guard

5) Enola Holmes vs. 12) Bad Boys for Life

A popcorn movie match-up if there ever was one.  Both movies are fun watches that will unlikely disappoint their fans.  Neither offer much more than a couple surface level laughs and some thrilling action set pieces. While Enola Holmes can be forgettable at times the parts of its ability to clear a low bar will see it through here.  Bad Boys for Life is a far cry from the 1995 classic of the genre that kicked off the series.

Winner: Enola Holmes

4) The Invisible Man vs. 13) The Gentlemen
Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (2020)

I’m not a horror movie fan, never have been.  I enjoy the standouts of the genre: The Shining and Psycho are two of my favorite movies ever.  During the recent horror movie renaissance, there have also been others I thought are masterpieces: His House from this year, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, The Witch and The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers, and A Quiet Place to name a few.  But for the most part the genre doesn’t do it for me.

I polled as many horror movie fans in my life as I could about their opinions on The Invisible Man after I watched the movie.  It seemed to me it was neither scary enough nor layered enough to be deserving of all the praise it was getting.  But maybe this is the sort of thing real hardcore horror movie fans are seeking.  None of them had seen it so they weren’t helpful at all.

Are you really going to pick a Guy Ritchie movie over The Invisible Man?  It would be so easy not to; people hate Ritchie, his brash, bro-ish approach to movie making has turned off people even when he was at his peak with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and he’s now far from his peak.  People even hate people who make movies kind of like Ritchie; Ben Wheatley’s 2016 action-comedy Free Fire was panned by many as a lazy Guy Ritchie knock-off.  It would upset no one to pick The Invisible Man, a movie about how shitty men have used their power for millennia to abuse women and gaslight them when they try and stand up for themselves, over The Gentleman, a movie about guys selling a lot of weed made by a man who has possibly never in his career created one interesting female character.  Neither of these movies have any shot really of winning this tournament, what’s the harm really?  Need I remind you that people hate—like really hate—Guy Ritchie.  And yet…

Winner: The Gentleman

6) The Outpost vs. 11) Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey has some scenes in it that if dropped into a better movie would really pop.  But ultimately everything about it lets down its star Margot Robbie, who is doing her absolute best to save the film.

Winner: The Outpost

3) Possessor vs. 14) Mulan

Mulan is the latest in what appears to be an endless run of lazy cash grab live-action remakes of Disney classics.  It’s not the worst of the lot but apart from The Jungle Book none of these have ever worked—not when they asked Tim Burton to remake Alice in Wonderland, not when they asked the guy who directed the Twilight Breaking Dawn movies to remake Beauty and the Beast, and not when they brought Tim Burton back to remake Dumbo.  These movies are never good; they’re rarely even watchable.  Mulan is inoffensive and that’s the best that can be said for it.

Winner: Possessor

7) News of the World vs. 10) True History of the Kelly Gang
George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)

News of the World is an effective western drama with some harrowing action set pieces.  It’s everything you’d expect from a Paul Greengrass movie – all so competent and polished.  Tom Hanks elevates the dulcet narrative with a poise and importance that only a few can bring to a movie.  And yet I feel cold about the whole affair.  Possibly this is another casualty of the year of in-home rentals.  I’m pretty psychotic when it comes to watching movies even from home, I turn my phone off I always watch them all the way through at least the first time and I have access to a large-ish TV.  It’s not a movie theater experience but it’s the best I think the average person could have done this year.  But maybe you really needed to see this on the big screen to be drawn fully into the sprawling western epic.  Perhaps one day I’ll find out.  But True History of the Kelly Gang is a stylish epic that takes a literary classic and translate it on to screen in a way that will stick with its viewers upon leaving the film in a way that News of the World, despite its heartfelt message, is incapable of.

Winner: True History of the Kelly Gang

2) Da 5 Bloods vs. 15) Tenet

A disclaimer that plagues this entire bracket almost none of these movies were seen in theaters.  That has been addressed before but perhaps for no movie is it more important to note than with Tenet.  I still remember when I saw Dunkirk in IMAX; it was the second time I’d seen the film and yet it so transformed how I felt about it, Nolan is—if nothing else—a visual master.  Having watched Tenet at home and not in theaters is possibly entirely unfair to Nolan’s vision.  But alas, here we are.

This matchup is the story of two directors.  Christopher Nolan one of the only remaining directors studios will entrust with original material made with a blockbuster budget.  And Spike Lee, the man behind the most important American film ever made, one of the first modern celebrity auteurs, who appears to be in the midst of a critical revival after a long down period.

I don’t worship at the altar of Nolan like many do; those people put the fear of god in me.  I love Dunkirk; may just be my favorite war movie ever.  On the other hand, I think Interstellar is a genuinely terrible movie.  Tenet is far closer to Dunkirk than it is to Interstellar on the Nolan continuum and if we were being subjective, I like Tenet way more than I do Da 5 Bloods.  Da 5 Bloods suffers from most of the things about Spike’s films—especially in recent years—that have so frustrated me: chief among them his complete lack of subtlety.

Chadwick Boseman’s larger than life performance is the only thing that is giving me pause here.  I objectively Tenet is functionally a more successful action thriller than Da 5 Bloods is a cautionary tale of the Vietnam war.  Tenet is grandiose and visually captivating; it proves once again that Nolan is a master of the action set piece and also that he is far too obsessed with time for his own good.  Spike Lee through much of the film is in rare Spike form once again. When Da 5 Bloods works, it really sings.  It’s able to tell stories of the black experience that no one besides Spike has the capability to do.  He is also an expert at getting unforgettable performances out of his stars and from top to bottom in the film everyone is delivering something special.  But Spike’s heavy hand lets him down again, as it did in the disastrous third act of BlacKKKlansman in 2018.  Delroy Lindo as Paul is doing his best with a character that simply doesn’t work.  It’s not as preachy as when he played news clips of actual terrorist attacks to close out BlacKKKlansman but it still feels like Spike is yelling at his audience to get his point across.

Both films are far from perfect, Tenet struggles from Nolan’s fascination with mystery box plots that undercuts what could have been two exciting action lead characters and Da 5 Bloods when it’s at its worst feels more like a lecture than a film.  But Chadwick Boseman and a solid third act elevates Da 5 Bloods over Tenet.

Winner: Da 5 Bloods

Other
1) Corpus Christi vs. 16) I’m Your Woman

I’m Your Woman fascinates me.  It’s an ambitious movie and big swing by Julia Hart who seems to have some really interesting ideas here.  Up against other movies in this division, it’s possible it would have made the second round, but Corpus Christi was such a shockingly good movie.  From the synopsis: Polish youth, upon leaving juvenile correction, pretends to be the vicar for a small-town parish and discovers that he needs them as much as they need him. Corpus Christi sounds like a hokey Lifetime movie but on the back of a scene-stealing performance by Bartosz Bielenia and beautiful filmmaking from director Jan Komasa, the film is elevated above what could have easily been a tired premise.

Winner: Corpus Christi

8) Beanpole vs. 9) Shirley
Vasilisa Perelygina (left) and Viktoria Miroshnichenko (right) in Beanpole (2020)

Neither Beanpole nor Shirley are a fun viewing experience in the traditional sense.  They are in a lot of way quite similar movies about the lengths people will go to survive the abuse the world throws at them.  Beanpole is an undertaking that will not suit all viewers.  The first act of the film contains an unbroken shot of a women accidently smothering to death a boy you believe to be her child.  It’s not long after that scene that in the viewer discovers that in fact it was not her child and instead was the son of her friend that asked her to watch him as she was stationed at the front of the line at Leningrad during the war.  I would love to assure you that infanticide is the worst this movie has to offer but that would be a lie.  Beanpole is as much about resilience as it is about trauma.  And while it would be a stretch the likes of which not even I am limber enough to achieve to call this an uplifting movie there is an indelible charisma that is impossible to shake.

Shirley is a character study of Shirley Jackson the author of “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill HouseShirley caps the peak of a sort of renaissance of Jackson’s work that included a new collection of her short stories and a Netflix television adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.  And if you’re a massive Shirley Jackson fan there is a lot to enjoy about this movie.  It touches on the theories of her lesbianism as hinted at in the themes of many of her work, it chronicles the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, and it tells an almost entirely fictionalized version of her life as she writes her 1951 novel Hangsaman.  If you are not fascinated with Shirley Jackson there is not much else the movie can offer you.  Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg prove once again they are two of our greatest living performers it’s a pity the material is so lackluster.  Fred and Rose Nemser, a fictionalized couple who serve as the audience’s entry point into the marriage of Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman.  They function narratively as a parallel to Shirley and Stanley as we watch over the course of the film how this happy, newly engaged couple can devolve into an emotionally abusive relationship identical to that of Jackson and Hyman’s.  Unfortunately, neither character is developed enough to make the transition at all rewarding which leaves the final sequence of the film feel hollow and unearned.  Shirley is still worth watching for the incredible performances of Moss and Stuhlbarg, but not for much else.

Winner: Beanpole

5) Bacurau vs. 12) Deerskin

Two absolutely wild films.  Bacurau may just be my favorite Brazilian film since City of God.  It’s unsettling and raucous and unrelenting and directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles play with so many different genres from fantasy to thriller and grindhouse to western, Bacurau is a must watch.

But then there is Deerskin.  Writer-director Quentin Dupieux is either a genius or a master conman and has managed to fleece me.  Yes, that Quentin Dupieux, director of 2010’s Rubber, the horror movie about a murderous tire.  He is no less weird in Deerskin, but he has smoothed out many of the edges.  This thriller-comedy on its surface is an absurd story of a man who is so obsessed with his deerskin coat that he is driven to homicidal madness.  But under the surface the film is about loneliness and the plight of the artist.  Paired with two of France’s greatest living actors Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel star of my favorite movie from 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, manages to skate the line brilliantly between satire and camp.

Winner: Deerskin

4) Vitalina Varela vs. 13) Mank

Vitalina Varela is a test of what one looks for in a movie.  Pedro Costa’s Portuguese drama about its titular character finally arriving in Lisbon from Cape Verde after waiting for over two decades for her plane ticket only to land three days after the death of her husband is beautifully shot and artistically composted.  Costa has demonstrated a mastery and a fixation with chiaroscuro in his work before and Vitalina Varela is no different.  It’s closer to a series of hauntingly gorgeous paintings than it is a movie.  Shots are meticulously composed and almost entirely stationary, we linger in the shadows with Varela as she makes her way through a desolate version of Lisbon and once we are finally exposed to the sun in the closing scenes it feels almost triumphant.

Vitalina Varela is undeniably stunning to look at, and a thought-provoking film that challenges its audiences to sit with its stillness and contemplate.  Weak performances and a narrative that leaves something to be desired make it hard to pick it over David Fincher’s Mank.

Winner: Mank

6) Sylvie’s Love vs. 11) The Nest
Carrie Coon (left) and Jude Law (right) in The Nest (2020)

I remain confounded by the positive response to Sylvie’s Love.  So confounded in fact, I’ve watched it again in preparation for this bracket.  That, despite the fact that listeners of this podcast will know it was one of my least favorite things from last year.  It doesn’t improve on second viewing.  While Tessa Thompson is as fun to watch as always, no single other performance in the movie worth watching.  Eugene Ashe’s script is either an unintentional blatant rip-off of 2016’s La La Land, an intentional rip-off, or a response to the perceived white washing of La La Land’s central themes.  I’m not sure which of those options is the least interesting but whatever it may be, it’s a clear choice between Sylvie’s Love and the brooding unsettling family thriller that is Sean Durkin’s The Nest.

Winner: The Nest

3) Another Round vs. 14) The Whistlers

This is my first experience with Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s work, but I intend to delve into his catalog.  The Whistlers is an incredibly fun ride, absurd and unexpected but it offers little more than amusement.  Another Round on the other hand blew me away.  I enjoyed Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen’s last film together, The Hunt, a great deal.  But I never expected something of this quality from the duo.  Another Round takes that partnership to another level.  This may be Mikkelsen’s best performance in his very storied career.

Winner: Another Round

7) Kajillionaire vs. 10) Les Misérables

I found Kajillionaire so utterly charmingly weird.  When the credits began to role, I admit confusion at what I just watched.  At times, it feels weird for the sake of being weird.  There is a Gina Rodriguez-Richard Jenkins hot tub scene that feels like it was copy and pasted from a different movie.  But even at its most baffling, Evan Rachel Wood is so delightful to watch that her performance gets viewers through the times where you feel most unmoored and in a performance that couldn’t be more different than Dolores in Westworld, which is the role that most fans will know.

Les Misérables on the other hand is as straightforward movie as you can ever see.  You know exactly what you’re getting into from the title alone.  Not to suggest it is a simple movie by any means.  Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, not to be confused with the 2012 Les Misérables brought to you by the same man who wrought Cats the movie upon us, tells the story of ever-increasing unrest and chaos residents and the police in a poor, mostly black, neighborhood in Paris.  Based on his 2017 short film of the same name, Ly tours his narrative through Paris giving the viewer a beautiful but melancholy look at a side of the city rarely scene in film.  He expertly builds the tension of the film to the point whereas the approaching climax feels like a fishing line stretched taught, ready to snap.

Kajillionaire is strange and fun, and it begs to be revisited but Les Misérables is something special.

Winner: Les Misérables

2) The Vast of Night vs. 15) I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Jake Horowitz (left) and Sierra McCormick (right) in The Vast of Night (2020)

I’ll readily admit to not understanding the appeal of Charlie Kaufman’s work in general.  Being John Malkovich is a masterwork but aside from that I can’t say the likes of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind or Synecdoche, New York speak to me.  But even in films of his I don’t like, I can’t deny his ability to get amazing performances out of amazing actors and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no different.  My experience with The Vast of Night was completely the opposite.  I went in with zero expectations or preconceived notions about first-time director Andrew Patterson or unfamiliar faces Sierra McCormick Jake Horowitz and it didn’t disappoint.  Patterson proves in The Vast of Night that he has a knack for tension and suspense and can craft a beautifully eerie and unsettle tale on a shoestring budget.  I think a lot of people going into this will be expecting a Twilight Zone knockoff, but The Vast of Night manages to stand on its own and makes me very excited to see what James Patterson has for us next.

All that being said, I can’t deny the success that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  Don’t get me wrong there are some Kaufman-isms in here that I can’t stand.  The dance number at the end I think is a huge mistake and undercuts a lot of what is working in the closing act of the film.  But even with some missteps, this story about the horrors of the passing of time is as unsettling as it is captivating.  And coupled with the masterfully executed performances of the main cast of Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, and lastly Jessie Buckley—who is unbelievably good in this movie—this may just be Kaufman’s best work in 21 years.

Winner: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Round 2

The second round of the tournament.  Everyone’s least favorite segment of March Madness.  Not far enough into the tournament to have completely weeded out the wheat from the chaff but also deep enough that all those Cinderella stories start to drop to the one and two seeds.  Bound to be a lot of these games on TruTV and TBS; don’t you worry we’ll blaze through.  We’re all familiar with the movies in question at this point anyway.

Comedy
1) Soul vs. 8) Shithouse

Fitting of two comedies in 2021 that this is a match-up between a movie about coming to terms with mortality and dealing with depression and loneliness.  Two topics ripe with comedic opportunity of course.

As a learning tool, Soul is more equipped to teach your children about the harsh realities of the world.  Pixar has proven over the years that they are never ones to go for the hokey, simple answer.  I kept expecting Soul to wrap up its story in a nice neat bow about finding your purpose and feeling like you belong on this planet, but it bucked my expectations all the way until the end.  Shithouse on the other end is a disappointingly neat ending for a movie that is not afraid to get messy when it needs to.

Shithouse is a stronger ending away from being something truly special but Soul’s foibles in the second act of the film are more damning.  Soul introduces a strong concept and wraps it up well at the end, but for much of the middle of the film it drags.  Pixar’s beautiful animation and magical world building is enough to entertain the audience through much of Joe Gardner’s journey but it’s unlikely Soul will stand the test of time as one of the Pixar classics.

Winner: Shithouse

5) Palm Springs vs. 4) Saint Frances
Andy Samberg in Palm Springs (2020)

Neither Saint Frances nor Palm Springs can claim to be the most original films.  Saint Frances, looks and feels like any one of a dozen indie comedies over the last decade.  Blink and you could be watching 2019’s Brittany Runs a Marathon or 2014’s Saint Vincent.  You’re unlikely to mistake it for Two Night Stand because it’s not terrible, but you get the point.  Saint Frances plays a familiar set of tricks, but it plays them successfully and is willing to tackle more interesting topics than lighter fare in the genre would, and it does so successfully.

Palm Springs, of course, is in the Groundhog Day lineage, which has given us so many great movies and TV shows over the years.  Everything from Happy Death Day to Edge of Tomorrow and Russian Doll.  It’s an evergreen concept that no matter how many different ways I see it, it still works.  It’s rare that a time loop movie or TV show is unsuccessful, even Boss Level,a movie where Mel Gibson is second billed is pretty entertaining.  But it takes something special to elevate your time loop movie to its full lofty protentional; it’s much more likely you end up with Russian Doll than Edge of Tomorrow.  But when it comes to Palm Springs, it seems the secret formula is Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti whose chemistry is palpable.

Winner: Palm Springs

6) The Personal History of David Copperfield vs. 14) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I thoroughly enjoy the cast of The Personal History of David Copperfield and was pleasantly surprised by Armando Iannucci’s ability to work off type.  But there’s just nothing in David Copperfield that approaches the blinding heights of the attorney for the president of the United States being caught on camera preparing to have sex with an underaged reporter or an English Jew getting a crowd of Republicans to chant antisemitic slurs in broad daylight.

Winner: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

7) Promising Young Woman vs. 2) Blow the Man Down
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020)

I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis in the face of Promising Young Woman.  It’s not the first movie I find myself having a dissenting opinion on positive or negative.  It’s not even the first best picture nominee I’ve found myself on the outside looking in on.  “Promising Young Woman isn’t that good,” is so lukewarm a take it barely registers on the Richter Scale of shit I’ve said.  Regular listeners to the podcast will be familiar with my thoughts on Hamilton.  The crowd consensus has never been something to make me sway my thoughts on anything much less a movie.

So why am I having such a hard time with Promising Young Woman?  I think the answer is four things.  Firstly, I look around and I don’t really like my peers with whom I share this opinion. This is far from a universally praised movie; according to the seeding it’s 26th overall.  But a lot of the people who share my opinion are the exact worst kinds of people you would assume would have a problem with a movie about a woman, scarred from her experience with sexual assault, seeking revenge on the male abusers of the world.  Secondly, I really like Carrey Mulligan, as previously referenced, and her performance in this movie is typically fantastic.  Thirdly, I just want to like this movie.  It’s precisely the type of movie I really enjoy, a black comedy about revenge in which shitty men—including the guy from GLOW—get their much-deserved comeuppance.  Sign me up!  But lastly, and most importantly, I worry I’m simply incapable of understanding the appeal of this movie.  Possibly being a man, and a straight man to boot, it’s impossible for me to understand the catharsis of Promising Young Woman.  Maybe in the same way it will never get old for me to watch men in tailored suits and skintight spandex kill waves of faceless bad guys, maybe this is every woman’s John Wick.  I don’t see how, especially with an ending that seems to suggest its protagonist was ultimately incapable of overcoming the past traumas wrought by the men in her life and eventually succumbed to them—despite some viscerally satisfying revenge on the way out—this movie could be cathartic.  But I worried nonetheless, that this was simply not a movie for me.

The existential crisis rages on although it simmers beneath the surface for the moment, fully prepared to flare back up when Promising Young Woman sweeps the Oscars at the end of the month.  But for the moment I am happy enough saying, “Promising Young Woman just isn’t that good.”

Winner: Blow the Man Down

Drama
1) Never Rarely Sometimes Always vs. 9) First Cow

First Cow is excellent at what it sets out to do.  It’s a serene journey through the old west that packs a punch both thematically and in execution.  Two near seamlessly executed films separated only by ambition; Never Rarely Sometimes Always has lofty goals and still manages to stick the landing.

What makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always so successful is not bells and whistles; it’s stylistically well-crafted but rather run of the mill. It’s not that the film is a groundbreaking look into one of the most important topics in American culture today; the film is essential viewing but it’s not the first movie film to explore how we as a culture are far more interested in controlling women than making sure they’re genuinely safe, especially when it comes to sexual health and abortion.  No, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is successful because it is singular in its unflinching approach to its subject and its main characters.  Never Rarely Sometimes Always could easily have been sensationalized, or over-dramatized, and instead serves as more proof that Eliza Hittman is a filmmaker capable of unrivaled intimacy and refinement.

Winner: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

12) Trial of the Chicago 7 vs. 4) Small Axe: Mangrove
Letitia Wright in Small Axe: Mangrove (2020)

Every year there seem to be two films that feel as if they were birthed from the same pitch meeting by chance or because both films perfectly reflect the moment they were released.  My favorite example of this is when Dunkirk and Darkest Hour came out within months of one another.  Two stories of the same event in WWII, two films about the ability of man to persevere in the face of unimaginable evil and insurmountable odds.  Trial of the Chicago 7 and Small Axe: Mangrove both tell the true stories of people faced with an unjust and cruel system being forced to seek recompense through that same unjust system.  Both films feel like vital additions to the 2020 film lexicon especially as I write this while we are in the middle of trial of Derek Chauvin for a murder the whole world saw captured on video.  Both Mangrove and Trials of the Chicago 7 are rage inducing, partly due to the realism and composure with which McQueen and Sorkin tackle their respective movies and because of how timely both feel, despite the more than 50 years since the events of both films.

I believe that Small Axe in totality is Steve McQueen’s best work to date and that Mangrove is his best stand-alone film.  Yet because he already won for 12 Years a Slave in 2014 and eligibility of Small Axe is up in the air with some awards ceremonies treating it as a film and some as an anthology series, there is likely not to be much outcry about McQueen, Mangrove,or Small Axe in general missing out on this award season.  But it will be a shame.

All that said, I intend to make the same grievous error that the Academy and the BAFTAs did before me.  Mangrove is exceptional, well-acted, expertly directed, important, and timely.  Trials of the Chicago 7 is all of that wrapped in Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplay of his career.  Some will argue that designation belongs to The Social Network, some will argue its A Few Good Men  and some absolute mad men will say it’s Steve Jobs; I’m here to tell you that this is his finest work as a screenwriter.

Winner: Trial of the Chicago 7

6) Nomadland vs. 3) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the other stage-to-film adaptations attract big actors because that is the purpose of these movies.  They are showcase pieces for world-class actors.  There is very little for a director to do.  By their very nature, plays are usually long scenes of dialogue in a handful of settings. Ma Rainey’s, in particular, feels like a play in that the story takes place almost entirely in two rooms.  There is even less for a screenwriter to do: unlike adapting a book, a play is ready-made for the screen. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is credited as the film’s writer but from what I remember of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom there isn’t much different. Fences, the first of Wilson’s plays that Denzel Washington produced for the screen, used an unabridged version of the original script, even crediting Wilson as the screenwriter.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent vehicle for its stars.  Chadwick Boseman has stolen the headlines and the attention, rightfully so. But the entirety of the cast is outstanding from Viola Davis’s performance as the titular Ma Rainey to Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo who play the other three members of the band.  Ma Rainey’s is an acting tour de force, but Nomadland succeeds where Ma Rainey’s falls short.  Chloé Zhao wields the great expanse of the American west to her benefit and crafts a story that is as profound as it is stirring.

Winner: Nomadland

7) Sound of Metal vs. 15) Blue Story
From left to right: Kadeem Ramsay, Micheal Ward, Stephen Odubola, and Rohan Nedd in Blue Story (2020)

Neither Sound of Metal nor Blue Story are movies that will win over the easy-watching crowd.  They are experiences that will leave you emotionally drained but feeling rewarded.  Both are masterfully crafted and acted though Sound of Metal has the edge on Blue Story.  While Blue Story manages to avoid much of the tired troupes of many films in its genre, it is not completely exempt.  The second act pivot on Leah’s death is too on the nose and plays for shock value in a movie that besides that scene is incredibly grounded and credible.  It also turns the film’s only female character into a tool for moving along the plot of our two main characters.  Sound of Metal is devoid of cliché and its meticulous attention to detail and the care with which is treats its characters creates such an intimate movie that is impossible to look away.  Coupled with Riz Ahmed’s pitch-perfect performance, Sound of Metal just packs an extra punch Blue Story doesn’t.

Winner: Sound of Metal

Thrills
1) His House vs. 9) The Old Guard
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù (left) and Wunmi Mosaku (right) in His House (2020)

The Old Guard is such a blast; Brycen Counts and Adam Kirley, the film’s stunt coordinators craft excellent action sequences.  Counts, who has worked on many Marvel films including Black Panther and Spider-Man: Far From Home, brings his comic book savvy to the film. Paired with Kirley who has worked on films with brutal, close-up action like the Kingsman films and London Has Fallen, this is a match made in fictional violence heaven.  Yet despite the fact that The Old Guard is undeniably fun and I could watch Charlize Theron read the New York Post –she’s just that charismatic; it doesn’t hold a candle to the eerie unnerving masterpiece that is Remi Weekes’s His House.

Winner: His House

5) Enola Holmes vs. 13) The Gentlemen

The mad lad is going to do it again isn’t he?!  “He simply cannot!” they shout impotently at their computer screens, “He wouldn’t dare!  No self-respecting writer would ever risk an opinion so heinous,” they hiss between their gritted teeth.

What can I say?  I’m both a man of integrity and of complete reckless abandon.  Both sides of me are confirming Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen as the better movie than Enola HolmesEnola Holmes is inoffensive and enjoyable, and I couldn’t help but think throughout that I really wish it had more Henry Cavill.

Winner: The Gentlemen

6) The Outpost vs. 3) Possessor
Andrea Riseborough in Possessor (2020)

The Outpost is a true retelling of the events that surrounded The Battle of Kamdesh, going so far as to use real survivors of the attack in the film.  We’ve seen this go very wrong in the past as in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, which is basically unwatchable. The Outpost does not fall into that familiar trap. The soldiers appearing in The Outpost are only cameos, unlike the three subjects of The 15:17 to Paris, who play themselves in the dramatic retelling of what they did and I’ll never understand why Clint Eastwood thought that filmmaking device would work here.

The Outpost feels like a fitting tribute to the real-life soldiers while avoiding the trap of becoming a sycophantic American propaganda film that many modern American war movies are.  It’s a modern stand out of the genre without question.  It is a genre that has all but flatlined in recent years, producing the likes of 13 Hours, American Sniper, Hacksaw Ridge, and Midway, but that should take nothing away from what is working in The Outpost.  It has no qualms about showing the horrors of war, so much so that by the time the film gets to the attack itself the viewer’s nerves are already fried as they brace themselves for nonstop hyper realistic battle sequence that goes on for 35 minutes of the 123-minute runtime.

The Outpost is as true to life as you’re ever likely to get and for most fans of the genre that will be enough for them.  The Outpost effective spectacle that will leave you exhausted at its close but the bluster and shrapnel masks many of the film’s failings including weak performances and poor dialogue.  Rob Lurie’s The Outpost is a far cry from Brandon Cronenberg’s visually stunning dystopian sci-fi thriller.

While both films will leave you shaking in your seat when the movie ends one is more artfully done while the other is far more brute force.

Winner: Possessor

10) True History of the Kelly Gang vs. 2) Da 5 Bloods

Here I am, the rest of the second round filled out and staring at a blank spot under Da 5 Bloods once again.  I think many people will cynically conclude that this isn’t exactly above board.  That I know who’s going to win and it’s all a gimmick for clicks.  Well, if that were the case, I would have gotten this thing out during the actual March Madness tournament, instead here I am fretting over a second-round matchup between two movies that in all likelihood will be bounced from the tournament in short order.

The apprehension I’m feeling about this decision is less because of how exemplary both films are and instead is about how flawed they each are in their own ways.  Both are ambitious films.  Spike, as he always does, sets out to tell a story that is important and worthy and insists on telling it in a way that he also finds worthy.  Jason Kurzel in True History of the Kelly Gang sets out to experiment with the ideas of memory and a collective narrative and seeks to hold a mirror up to Australia’s ideas of itself and its history.  Anchored by an electric performance by George MacKay and buoyed by Kurzel’s eye for visual flair, True History of the Kelly Gang is a beautifully memorable swing for the fences.  Ned Kelly serves as myth and totem in the film and Kurzel’s inability to tackle the complex character will leave many unsatisfied.  Although I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to level that criticism on a two-hour and four-minute movie when all of Australian, Irish, and English history haven’t been able to adequately decide how they feel about the man.

Once again, I find myself in a situation where I have to move Da 5 Bloods on to the next round over a movie that enjoyed much more than it.  I would love to talk more about True History of the Kelly Gang; perhaps I’ll trick Cory into watching it and we’ll talk about it on the podcast.  But in this objective vacuum, Da 5 Bloods is a better movie than True History of the Kelly Gang despite the fact that I have been unable to get Kelly out of my head since I saw it late last year.

Winner: Da 5 Bloods

Other
1) Corpus Christi vs. 9) Beanpole

It would be difficult to find two films with more different outlooks on humanity.  Corpus Christi theorizes that all it takes is a chance and people can reform in a film about the redemptive power of forgiveness.  Beanpole is not interested in forgiveness—not one bit—its two main characters suffer through the experience of living with their past traumas as their country rebuilds itself around them after the traumas of the second World War.

While the films couldn’t be much different tonally, they are similar in many other ways.  Both are beautifully shot.  Kantemir Balagov and Ksenia Sereda, the cinematographer for Beanpole, turns the bleak setting of post-WWII Russia into a colorful tapestry that serves as the backdrop for the film’s narrative.  Director Jan Jomasa and cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski Jr. turn the quaint Polish village into a beautiful piece of art that fits the hopeful narrative of the film; my favorite shot is of a burning shed, which is so at odds with anything else we’ve seen in the quiet lush green and pale blue of the rest of the film that it’s breathtaking.

Both films feature an eye-catching performance from relative newcomers.  Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel in Corpus Christi manages to both exude the pathos that makes the character’s hero turn so believable but is also able to bookend that performance with unfettered rage that makes Daniel such a believable and captivating character.  Viktoria Miroshnichenko, in her first ever screen credit, is note perfect.  Miroshnichenko’s performance as Iya “Beanpole” Sergueeva is much more physical than Bielenia’s. Iya wears her trauma on her sleeve, a character trait in stark contrast to her Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) who buries her sorrow.  The characters are beautifully tuned to one another and their performances off one another are so expertly done that the ending—bizarre as it may read on paper—is both earned and heartbreaking.

It feels almost sacrilegious to dispatch a film as well-crafted as Beanpole in the second round but Mateusz Pacewicz’s script propels Corpus Christi to another level. This is a film that has no business being as gripping, well-paced and with characters so fully developed that it has to be seen through to the sweet sixteen.

Winner: Corpus Christi

12) Deerskin vs. 13) Mank
Amanda Seyfried (left) and Gary Oldman (right) in Mank (2020)

Comparing something as intentionally absurd as Deerskin to a film so meticulously structured as Mank is challenging.  Because a lot of the aspects of Mank that are so successful, such as its ability to build rich, compelling characters, or Fincher’s knack for arresting visual flair are not things that Deerskin is interested in.  Deerskin is as uninterested in its characters as it is in the beauty in its frames.  Deerskin is most interested in eliciting emotions whether of fear and anxiety or mirth.  Jean Dujardin’s Georges is unknowable, which in a way makes him all the more terrifying and buffoonish.

There are elements in which Mank surpasses Deerskin, elements that both films dabble in.  Dujardin is wonderful in a complex and layered performance but Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz proves once again that he is possibly our greatest actor of real people.  Stripped of the fat suit and waist coat that made him unrecognizable as Winston Churchill in his Oscar winning performance in Darkest Hour Oldman still manages to disappear into the role.

David Fincher proves with Mank that he is one of our greatest auteurs even when making a decidedly un-Fincher film.

Winner: Mank

11) The Nest vs. 3) Another Round
Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round (2020)

The Nest is a fascinating idea that I hope to see attempted again.  I feel there has been a lukewarm and unearned response to Sean Durkin’s familial thriller.  Durkin has crafted something fascinating here; using horror movie tropes to tell a dramatic story of a calcifying family relationship.  It looks and feels like any second we’re going to find out that the house is haunted or that one of the kids has been possessed by the devil but the truth is all the more frightening—we are capable of wreaking as much horror on one another as the supernatural forces of evil.

The Nest may have ambitious thematic approach and stellar lead performances from Carrie Coon and Jude Law, but Another Round’s unfettered beauty and magnificent lead performance have yet to be matched in this tournament.

Winner: Another Round

7) Les Misérables vs. 15) I’m Thinking of Ending Things

In all honesty, I think if I had turned off I’m Thinking of Ending Things with 30 minutes left it would be moving on to the next round.  The first two acts of this film are Kaufman’s best work in years, possibly of his career.  A rigorous examination of the passing of time and mortality that is as beautiful as it is frightening.  There is something indelible about Jessie Buckley (The Young Woman) and Jesse Plemons (Jake) they transform Kaufman’s brooding, heady script into something human and relatable in a way that I don’t think many other performers could have.  I would have happily stayed with them as they drove through the pitch-black winter night for hours on end.  But eventually that car must end up somewhere, even in a Kaufman film, and that somewhere is the final act of the film, at Jake’s high school.

I should be clear; this is not an ending that undercuts the film entirely.  Many movies are guilty of crash landing from their lofty heights, but this is not one of them.  The ending is weak certainly, but it still offers compelling parting questions that are what make Charlie Kaufman’s work so rewarding for many people.

In a way this match-up i the story of two endings.  Les Misérables builds and builds throughout the film; you know something has to break but you’re not sure when, which raises the tension even further, a wine glass teetering on the edge of a table.  And when it finally tips over and all that tension is brought to a head, Les Misérables’s electric final act lifts the film to new heights.

Winner: Les Misérables

Sweet Sixteen

This is when it all starts to get very tough.  Before there were a handful of agonizing decisions per round but as we whittle down the competition, we reach a point where every match-up begins to feel like an impossible decision.

Comedy
5) Palm Springs vs. 8) Shithouse

It’s fitting that these two films meet late in the tournament.  Despite their flaws these are without question the best romantic comedies from last year; possibly the best two romcoms in many years.  Despite how I am partial to how fucking weird The Last Christmas is there aren’t many better films in the genre that I can think of better than either of these films.  Like many of the genre both Palm Springs and Shithouse suffer from an all-too-clean final act, especially in the case of Shithouse the neat bow tied around the ending of the film feels contrary to how honest the rest of the film is.  In fairness, lonely college kid gets too attached to one night stand and they never speak again isn’t much of a movie.

Both films lead pairings have amazing chemistry; but it is Sandberg who stands out here.  The film allows him to tap into a melancholy that he is so good at expressing on screen but rarely gets the chance to because he has been unfairly typecast as the goofy little brother type character—a character he is also funny enough to pull off with great success and one that makes an appearance in Palm Springs.

Winner: Palm Springs

2) Blow the Man Down vs. 14) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Maria Bakalova (left) and Rudy Giuliani (right) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Blow the Man Down succeeds in transforming it’s bleak and seedy New England fishing town setting into a lively, intriguing backdrop for its black comedy crime story.  The film is beautifully shot, and the story is expertly paced and draws you in to the sleepy Maine town full of unsavory characters.  Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor deliver two convincing lead performances and Mago Martindale is typically fantastic.  But Sacha Baron Cohen’s ability to transform the bleak and seedy setting of modern-day America into a hilarious and disturbing backdrop for a story of the fall of an empire is all the more impressive.

Winner: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Drama
1) Never Rarely Sometimes Always vs. 12) The Trial of the Chicago 7
Sidney Flanigan (left) and Talia Ryder (right) in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

The painful truth is that we’re looking what a difference of about $30 million gets you.  Both films are led by excellent stewards. Aaron Sorkin in his second feature-length film as director proves he’s up to the task and Eliza Hittman gives her best directorial performance to date.  Both Sorkin and Hittman have produced the best scripts of their careers for these two films. I know there are some Beach Rat fans out there that will be disagreeing with that statement, but I stand by it.  But there is a certain polish that big ViacomCBS checks can buy you that Never Rarely Sometimes Always was never going to have.

Now budget isn’t everything, or else Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would be the best movie of all-time.  But it’s not, and I don’t revel in the fact that I am the one that has to break that news to you.

I’m sorry, I feel like we have to take a moment to address the fact that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is the most expensive movie of all time.  What a patently insane decision by Disney to spend $400 million to make that movie.  They spent less to kill Thanos and bring Spider-Man back from the dead.  I looked it up for a bit and now I can’t stop thinking about who Johnny Depp must have had to blackmail to get all that fucking money.

But what money does, is it buys you better secondary and tertiary actors, it buys you better editors and cinematographers, it buys you better music and better locations.  And while the margins are thin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a slightly better produced movie by an equally talented writer-director that also has an incredibly essential story to tell.

Winner: The Trial of the Chicago 7

6) Nomadland vs. 7) Sound of Metal
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020)

This match-up is a story of its two lead performances.  Frances McDormand feels like the most likely nominee to walk away with the best actress award at the Oscars and in any other year Riz Ahmed’s performance in Sound of Metal would likely be the front runner.  Both films explore the heartbreak of loss and how we can find community to get us through those challenges.  Both Chloé Zhao and Darius Marder meticulous craft delicate and evocative films that explore communities that film and popular culture often ignores.  Both films bring people from their respective communities into the film, making them feel authentic and imperative in a way that few films can.  The fact that these are the 6th and 7th seeds in any division is either a scathing indictment of Rotten Tomatoes and every critic that has ever had their review collated by them or an insight into how strong this year in film actually was—or both.

Both films are essential viewing if you’re making a list of films to pull from this bracket that you should watch both of these have to be at the top.  Nomadland and Sound of Metal are not afraid of quiet contemplation and their leads are magnetic enough to make those moments riveting and powerful.  But it is in the loud moments that Sound of Metal really shines.  Ahmed can modulate his performance to perfection guiding the audience through the film’s emotional highs and lows.

Winner: Sound of Metal

Thrills
1) His House vs. 13) The Gentlemen

Guy Ritchie’s reign of terror comes to an end.  It may seem silly to some that The Gentleman has made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen while films like Beanpole, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, or The Assistant were sent home early.  I agree in a sense.  But this is yet more proof that this tournament, and single-elimination tournaments in general, are terrible tools for determining the second-best thing.  Luckily for everyone involved we are not interested in the second-best film of 2020 we’re here to find the best.

I maintain that The Gentlemen is an enjoyable movie but despite being a fun ride it’s in no way on the same level His House; despite the fact that only one of these movies has a Bugzy Malone music video in the middle of it and it’s not the one advancing to the Elite Eight.

Winner: His House

3) Possessor vs. 2) Da 5 Bloods
Chadwick Boseman in Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is as disorienting visually as it is narratively.  It’s a beautifully executed feat by Cronenberg to uses all the techniques at his disposal to make his film about literally losing your mind feel like a psychotic break.  Possessor is a fitting evolution to Cronenberg’s 2021 debut, Antiviral, which was conceptually quite interesting but entirely over the top.  No one would accuse Possessor of being subtle but it’s clear that in the nine years Cronenberg has refined his technique and found a better packaging for his well-crafted sci-fi horror narratives.

It is not Spike Lee’s story telling or filmmaking prowess that let him down here, in fact I would argue he surpasses Cronenberg in both categories.  It’s once again his inability to trust his audience, a problem that Possessor does not suffer from.

Winner: Possessor

Other
1) Corpus Christi vs. 13) Mank

When Mank works it sings. Jack Fincher’s script paired with his son’s expert directing and a cast full to the brim with amazing performances can pop off the screen.  Both Finchers’ reverence and understanding of cinema history is on full display here codified in some of my favorite film moments of last year.  The dinner party scene at William Hearst’s home is the best example of when every cog clicks in to place: Jack Fincher crafts an amazing monologue for Herman Mankiewicz that Gary Oldman delivers perfectly and David Fincher’s ability to control and space out a room for his actors is on full display.

But there are moments in his late father’s script that David Fincher appears to be too precious about, understandably so.  At 132-minutes in runtime Mank has to justify every moment it’s on screen and while they are few and far between there is fat that needed trimming.  A fact that feels all the more disappointing in the face of Marion Davies’ (Amanda Seyfried) disappointingly low screen time.  Corpus Christi is without fat, not a moment is wasted and not a scene squandered.

Winner: Corpus Christi

3) Another Round vs. 7) Les Misérables
From left to right: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, and Djebril Zonga in Les Misérables (2020)

Despite the difference in stakes, Another Round and Les Misérables are similar in that they are both films playing with balancing the tension on a knife edge.  Another Round starts off as a joyous exuberant affair that, even as things seem innocently banal, Mikkelsen and Vinterberg inject the film with an impending sense of doom.  While the tension in Les Misérables is far more overt, you can see the smoke, and you’re gripping your seat waiting for the fire.  It’s Vinterberg’s mastery of his craft and subtlety of touch that makes Another Round so successful.

Winner: Another Round

Elite Eight

Imagine the state of my existential meltdown, wrought upon me by Promising Young Woman, when I looked up, and in a very strong year for women in film I—painstakingly and meticulously and at great personal sacrifice to my sleep—narrowed down 123 movies to eight movies made by a bunch of dudes.  I guess at least they’re not all white dudes. I’ll have to contend with this mini breakdown later; there is work to be done.

Comedy
5) Palm Springs vs. 14) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Maria Bakalova (left) and Sacha Baron Cohen (right) in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Sacha Baron Cohen had an amazing 2020, he starred in two of the year’s most important films Borat II and The Trial of the Chicago 7 and earned himself a best supporting actor nomination for the latter.  Considering the arc of his career in recent years, 2020 probably felt like a shot to many of his fans.  It’s 15 year since the first Borat movie catapulted Cohen to a new level of fame and recognition.  Since then he has appeared mostly in supporting roles in films of varying quality and two other Borat style films: Brüno and The Dictator.  Neither were as critically successful as either Borat films.  While both Brüno and The Dictator have their moments and are in many ways as culturally relevant and insightful as Borat I & II but they lack restraint.  Cohen often shows a penchant for letting a joke run too far.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is not exempt from them either — the debutante ball could have used with some trimming.

Cohen is inches away from perfection with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm but gets in his own way once again.  But if someone could tell Cohen what to do and which jokes to cut, he wouldn’t be the comedic genius that we get to experience today; so, we take the good with the bad.

Winner: Palm Springs

Drama
7) Sound of Metal vs. 12) The Trail of the Chicago 7

What more can be said about these two movies that I haven’t already?  They are both master works; two perfect examples of the power of a talented writer-director paired with an excellent cast.  A feat all the more impressive considering Sound of Metal is Darius Marder’s directorial feature length debut and only his second screenwriting credit.

There isn’t much at all that separates these two films in quality.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 is flashier and more stylistically ambitious but Sound of Metal’s more deliberate intimate style is a perfect fit for the film.  It’s Ahmed’s performance that tips the balance. Ruben Stone, is such a complex and challenging character, one who wears his emotions on his sleeves. It’s hard to picture many other actors being able to pull of this performance with as much credibility as Ahmed.

Winner: Sound of Metal

Thrills
1) His House vs. 3) Possessor

It’s the final act twist that takes His House from a cleverly made allegory about the immigrant’s struggle in the western world and the fear of what has been left behind to an earth-shaking modern horror classic.  Remi Weekes understands something that Cronenberg doesn’t about what scares us when it goes bump in the night.  Cronenberg is a master of the macabre and has crafted a technically masterful, visually arresting body horror thriller that will satiate even the pickiest fans of the genre.  But where he excels in craft he lacks in understanding of character and it is Weekes’ expertly crafted character arcs and stand out lead performances by Wunmi Mosaku and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù’s that lift His House over Possessor in another very close match-up.

Winner: His House

Other
1) Corpus Christi vs. 3) Another Round
Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (2020)

There was a map circulating on the internet a few years ago that showed all the churches in Poland and it was almost comical — it looked as though someone had colored in all of Poland in black.  There was a similar map I recall seeing with all the McDonald’s in the U.S. and all the pubs in England.  I had never really known how religious Poland was, but I couldn’t help but think about that map again while watching Corpus Christi.  Christianity is ingrained in the film, which I imagine many frequent listeners or readers will expect me to have an issue with.  But Corpus Christi is light years from what I imagine many people conjure in their mind when they hear about a film centered around Christian ideology.  Many people immediately think of the sanctimonious drivel that comes out of studios like Pure Flix, which are the only thing keeping Kevin Sorbo employed.

Corpus Christi is far from the unwatchable refuse that American evangelical film studios produce.  It’s neither preachy nor dumbed down to the point of being insulting.  But it has a problem where it expects its audience to bring their own baggage into the film.  It’s a small criticism and barely criticism at all, but when comparing films of this quality with performances this magnetic, it’s the small differences that count.

Winner: Another Round

The Final Four

Now that we’re in the big time—four movies left before we crown a victor—I thought it would make sense to be a bit more meticulous about these match-ups and break them down into specific elements.  There are four categories on which I’ll focus: acting, directing, script, and technical.  The first three I think everyone will be pretty familiar with what they mean. The fourth, technical, is a catch all for anything else worth talking about: editing, sound design, production design, cinematography, etc.  Not all categories are created equal; this isn’t a matter of if a movie “wins” three of the four categories, it moves on.  It’s just a way to collect the scattered thoughts of a mad man who has been doing nothing but writing for what feels like a lifetime at this point.

5) Palm Springs vs. 7) Sound of Metal
Cristin Milioti (left) and Andy Samberg (right) in Palm Springs (2020)

Acting:

Although the chemistry between Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti is the best I’ve seen in a romcom in years and J K Simmons is typically fun and charming in his cameo, there’s not much argument here between Palm Springs and Sound of Metal.  Not only is Riz Ahmed’s performance fantastic, as previously referenced, but the entire supporting cast is pitch perfect as well.  Paul Raci as Joe has drawn much of the attention, rightfully so, but Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric are also great in their small roles.  But it is Olivia Cooke who is the standout among the supporting cast.  She only bookends the film, appearing in the opening act as we watch everything turn for Ruben and in the final, gut-wrenching act where Ruben and Lou are briefly reunited.  Cooke’s performance is not likely to get much attention because Lou is not a major character in much of the film, but in a lot of ways Cooke is as essential to the film as Ahmed.

Directing:

There was no universe in which Max Barbakow was going to get any awards recognition for his excellent directing in Palm SpringsPalm Springs is an inherently unserious movie and thus gets treated un-seriously.  But Barbakow demonstrates that he is deserving of being taken seriously in his feature length directorial debut.  It’s the middle act of the film where Nyles and Sarah fall into an eternal routine where Barbakow shines.  He expertly conveys the passing of time—or lack thereof—and plays with montage and rapid editing in a way that makes the second act excel.

Script:

Palm Springs, although a clever take on an existing idea, is just that — a reimagining of a theme and narrative we’ve seen before.  Andy Siara’s script is funny and sweet and was a perfect salve for movie watcher trapped inside in the early months of the pandemic. But Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance beautifully craft a story of a man losing everything and everyone he holds dear and finding a way to persevere despite that.  It’s simultaneously melancholy and up-lifting–a masterpiece of character building.

Technical:

The sound mixing in Sound of Metal is amazingly done and is so essential to the story that it had to be.  A little tip for the better folks out there: Sound of Metal is a very good bet for your money to win the best sound Oscar this year—I’ll save my rant about them combining sound mixing and editing for a later date.

I think Quyen Tran, who is the cinematographer on Palm Springs needs to be recognized.  Comedies are often very sloppy technically, especially in this era that is mostly hours of improv cut into an hour and 30-minute movie, it’s hard to have really interesting or expertly done camera work when you’re often just dropping a camera in front a scene and shooting two comedians riffing for ten minutes at a time.  In Palm Springs, Tran is given the task of shooting action, slapstick, trippy drug sequences. She does the lot, and she does them all beautifully.  I hope many more movies learn from Palm Springs: comedies don’t have to be boring to look at; a beautifully made film is never going to have a downside.

Winner: Sound of Metal

1) His House vs. 3) Another Round
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in His House (2020)

Acting:

I think in the four final four movies, we have three of the five best performances in a film from last year: Dìrísù in His House, Mikkelsen in Another Round, and Ahmed in Sound of Metal, and possibly these are the top three.  Dìrísù’s performance is more manic and unkempt than Mikkelsen’s as he plays a character losing grip with his reality as guilt eats away at him.  As the ghosts from his past literally begin to crawl out of his walls, Dìrísù ratchets up the tension and terror in his performance beautifully so that once the film reaches its inevitable conclusion and he is finally broken, his resignation and stoicism seem well earned.  While Mikkelsen as Martin is playing a more reserved character in a story about battling the doldrums mid-life, when allowed to cut lose or when rage flairs, he rises to the challenge beautifully coming to a head in a surprising and beautifully effected dance number to close the film.

If I had to choose one, and it would be by the slightest of margins, I would say Mads Mikkelsen gets the edge here.

Directing:

I’ve said on the podcast a few times now as we cover award season in the approach of the Oscars, that Thomas Vinterberg should win best director for Another Round.  I don’t think he will. In fact, of the five nominees, he seems the least likely but that’s more the result of narrative and/or reputation than quality of performance.  Another Round is a an expertly crafted movie without a hair out of place — a standout in the tragicomedy genre. 

Script:

It takes a lot to get me invested in a horror movie, especially in a year without theaters.  But Weekes’s story of a refugee couple arriving in a seemingly innocuous English town, only to discover what they’d been fleeing had followed them, is so beautifully written that it transcends the genre.  Horror movies often set out to say big things about society at large but the ideas they have to convey are rarely ever profound or singular.  In the early years of the horror movie boom, films were rife with morality allegories about not having premarital sex or doing drugs.  In recent years, it’s improved and there has been an influx of horror movies that actually have something interesting to say: Let the Right One In, Hereditary, The Witch, and of course Get Out, to name a few.  But a truly brilliantly written horror movie is still rare enough that they are worth celebrating when they come along.

Technical:

His House is not as flashy as many horror movies as much of the suspense resides in the unseen, but when it needs to, the film is capable of using the medium to its advantage to illicit scares.  So much of the effectiveness of horror movie scares are down to editing. Julia Bloch (Green Room) did the editing for the film and does a fantastic job.  But while Another Round is a far less technically eye-catching movie, it’s no less proficiently made.  I was struck by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography, especially the scenes of celebration in the middle acts that bring the film to life and makes the scenes of despair and weariness in the opening and closing acts feel so stoic.

Winner: Another Round

The Finals

And so here we are, the finals.  Narrowed down to two.  I have to admit, if I had made a prediction before this whole exercise of watching and re-watching these movies and all the writing was completed, these would not have been my picks for the likely finals match-up.  I probably would have said something like Never Rarely Sometimes Always against Mank or Les Misérables versus Borat or that Da 5 Bloods would make the finals from a comparatively weak division.

You might say that’s all bluster and bullshit, you’re probably exclaiming, “but you decided all this yourself, you handsome fool!”  That’s what I imagine you’re saying right now.  It’s fair. I did decide all of this, but I tried to do it all as honest as possible.  When it came to each match-up, I did my best to decide in a vacuum which of these movies was genuinely, objectively the better of the two.  If this was the what’s Che’s favorite 2020 movie bracket, the finals would’ve been Tenet versus The Last Tree or Driveways against Mank in the finals or something like that.  But instead here we are, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round against Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, and whether you believe it or not, as I’m writing this sentence, I have no clue who I’m going to pick.

3) Another Round vs. 7) Sound of Metal
Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round (left) and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal (right)

Acting:

Between Ahmed and Mikkelsen’s performance, I think it’s Mikkelsen’s performance that has stuck with me more.  The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve written about it, I think it’s the best performance I’ve ever seen from Mikkelsen in his career.  We often remember the larger-than-life performances when we think about the best acting performances of all time: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.  They stand out because there is so much meat to chew.  The actors get to flex all their thespian muscles all across the screen.  But it is often the reserved performances that are more difficult, it takes an actor of immense skill to fill the screen without moving and both Mikkelsen and Ahmed demonstrate that here.

Directing:

I haven’t waivered on my claim that Vinterberg’s directorial performance in Another Round is the best of the year but Darius Marder’s directing in Sound of Metal is a close contender.  It takes a master of his craft to conceive and communicate a story as delicately and honestly as Marder does in Sound of Metal.

Script:

Both stories are stories of coming to terms with the new normality of your life—qualitatively different degrees of adjustment maybe but categorically the same idea.  The respective stories of character development by Ruben and Martin are both beautifully done.  But it’s Ruben’s story as we watch him struggle through the phases of grief finally, stirringly ending up at acceptance that is more compelling.

Technical:

I’ve mentioned it previously, but it bares mentioning again how outstanding the sound mixing is in Sound of Metal.  There are too many names in the sound department on the film to list here but a special shout out is deserved by Nicholas Becker, who started out as a foley artist and has worked on grand sweeping films such as Gravity, The Golden Compass, Babylon A.D., and Arrival and is an integral part of the team that made the sound mixing, editing, and design on Sound of Metal so exemplary.

As good as Becker and the team were, I think Grøvlen and his team were as impressive if not more so.  Another Round is simply gorgeous to behold and Grøvlen’s cinematography is a big key as to why.

Winner: Another Round

And there we have it, the winner of the 2020 Movies Madness bracket is crowned and it’s a small Danish film about drinking.  It is in a way rather fitting of a weird movie year like this that something weird is our best movie.  I’m happy with my choice and it’s a worthy winner for sure but it should be pointed out that this is no 2001 Lakers situation (I have no college basketball references because I don’t watch college basketball, that should be abundantly clear by now).  Another Round in no way walked this bracket, I agonized over these last two rounds in particular—more so than this overly long piece that no one will read—maybe deservedly so but I’m okay with it.  There are films that went out early that could have easily made the final four or even the finals with better seeding luck.  But I think when it’s all said and done, Another Round is the best movie I saw last year and writing all of this has made me only more excited to revisit it.

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