Yet another magical entry to the Disney catalog. Empathy for these characters is established so effectively that it almost feels as though it’s established effortlessly — but of course, it takes great effort to make something look or feel effortless. We first feel strongly for Mirabel, then for everybody else, as they bare their souls and show the hearts within the humans that are at the core, under the superpowers that they’ve been gifted with.
9) IN THE HEIGHTS
It’s a melodic celebration of life and love and humanity, seen from the eyes of a group of people that live humbly, dream of more, but adore and appreciate what they have. After fifteen months without access to cinemas, we deserved a movie this exuberant — we deserved a movie this alive.
There comes a point in the final third of this movie where you begin to feel euphoria building in your body as all of the time that’s been spent on world-building and character development starts to come to a head. It is then that you realize that you’re so fucking in for this ride that if this 155-minute movie decides to continue on for another 200 minutes, you’d be ready and willing to experience it all right then and there.
With our hand in his, Denis Villeneuve took great care showing off this world and those who inhabit it. He took his sweet time bathing us in detail. And at some point, when we’re feeling safe but not exactly emotionally invested just yet, he lets go of our hand without us knowing, and by the time we realize it, we’re sucked into the story, feeling with these characters, thrilled by what’s on screen, and eager to see what’s yet to come.
7) SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Precedents set by many a superhero movie of the past has taught me to keep my expectations low for films like this. History and the disappointments that fill it set me up for one of the most rewarding and entertaining theatrical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
I thought that the only way this movie could work was if the characters from the other universes only appeared as glorified cameos. But I was so very wrong. Somehow, this film manages to not only effectively use all of the characters from the different universes but to also build on a couple of them, making for incredibly satisfying moments for characters we thought we may never see again on the silver screen — heroes and villains alike. This movie does all of that while still giving Tom Holland’s Spider-Man a meaty, deeply emotional journey of his own.
I went into this thinking there was no way in hell it could be good. I’m walking away thinking that No Way Home might be my second favorite MCU movie of all time.
6) WEST SIDE STORY
There is a wonderful compromise struck here between the theatrical and the roots of reality. We go from blocking to choreography without a stutter step. We go from wide shots that show off the beautifully decorated sets which feel like vast stages to close up shots of faces with eyes peering into each other. We go from spotlights on characters as they dance to three-point lights as they whisper softly to one another. The songs stand iconic. The story is a classic. The heart beats loud within this, and breaks with a crack.
When you sit through hundreds of movies every year, you learn to greatly appreciate the feeling of being in the warm embrace of a master filmmaker. You get to just sit back and get casually awed by just how good they are at what they do. Steven Spielberg is very good at what he does, and this is yet another example of it.
5) THE GREEN KNIGHT
A verbatim review from a middle-aged man as he and his two teen kids exited the theater: “In the entire 51 years I’ve been on this earth, that was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” I have spent enough time as an employee of arthouse cinemas to know that there is simply no better compliment a film can receive than that.
It is a blessing to have a master of the craft, David Lowery, at the helm of a movie that is neck-deep in elements of classic fantasy — from the expansive world, to the misty woods, to the talking animal companions, the spirits, the witches, the giants, and more. This is Fantasy, with a capital F, made by a Hollywood studio known for their appreciation of cinema, and not just for their bank accounts. This is cinematic fantasy treated as art for adults, not a blockbuster to get as many asses in seats as possible. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, it takes you on a journey, and it leaves you pondering profound thoughts on the meaning of life with all of its suffering and the inevitability of death.
This film has me incredibly excited for the prospect of seeing more fantasy stories get adapted with this level of care.
4) TICK, TICK…BOOM!
Lin-Manuel Miranda directing a musical set in New York City about a struggling artist in his late twenties building his breakout works. It’s filled with spectacular songs, electric performances, and undertones of existential dread.
This movie hits so many of my cinematic soft spots that there was absolutely no way that I wouldn’t love the shit out of it. I literally never stood a chance.
3) THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES
This was funny and inventive and engaging and moving and charming and poignant and plenty interesting enough to hold my attention for the length of a feature film — and then the movie bursts into its second act, dramatically switches lanes, and continues to be all of those things I just mentioned and, somehow, even more.
It was self-aware and referential. The animation was always a treat to look at and often was awe-inspiring. I was consistently pleasantly surprised by the creative decisions made throughout. This is a wonderful film and everybody with a family should watch it.
2) ARCANE: Season 1
As somebody who had never played League of Legends prior to watching this, I cannot fathom how somebody who had played the game (or was even familiar with the game) could enjoy this show as much as I did. The twists and turns that this takes would pack a far softer punch if you knew where these characters were going, or if you knew which characters would have to survive in order for them to end up in the game in the first place.
These protagonists change so much it’s probably better to say that they evolve — and if I knew that these evolutions were coming, or I knew where these evolutions were going, it would not have felt as satisfying when it finally did happen. In fact, since finishing the season, I’ve gone back and watched the teasers and trailers for the show — they all have that evolution on full display. For that reason, I recommend avoiding those altogether.
All of this being said, I’m sure there is plenty of enjoyment to be had in seeing the characters that were introduced at the start of the series gradually make their way toward the characters that the people familiar with League of Legends have so much affection for. Surely, the sign-posts toward those final forms would be fun for gamers to pick up on.
Spending time with your protagonists as younger versions of where the story will eventually spend most of its time is a strong narrative tool when handled correctly. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example of this tool being used better than how it was used in this series. The first third (3 of the first 9 episodes) were used to establish these characters in their younger years. Everything we need to know about why these characters are the way they are is laid out in those first three episodes. The relationships and the emotional stakes are established in those first three episodes.
This season never quite reaches the stratospheric highs of those episodes, but (and I cannot emphasize this enough) that isn’t because it falls off a cliff in the latter six — it’s just because the first three are so damn phenomenal. The season does end with a bang, however, as it takes its fingers and presses hard on the emotional heartbeat of the show: the bond between the two sisters front and center.
I’ve just gone on and on about the characters and the story’s structure but I would be remiss if I ended this review without at least touching on the fact that this show is a scrumptious three-course feast for the eyes. The animation is astonishing and the visual storytelling is truly spectacular — especially on closer examination or a rewatch.
I couldn’t help but feel like I witnessed something truly transcendent with Bo Burnham’s latest work. This special does not miss. It’s just honest, chaotic creativity — a look into the mind of this brilliant artist while under quarantine.
When I think back on art released during the pandemic, the first three projects that will come to my mind are Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, and this right here.