Like everyone in the time of Covid, I'm watching a lot! I'm also reading a lot and walking more than ever, so I have zero qualms about an increase in screen time.
The annual recap has started to use too much real estate, so this year, I'm putting it at the end of the post.
Last year I used 💉 -- the syringe -- as the rating symbol. This year I'll use perhaps the most enduring symbol of the pandemic: the mask.
There are some viewing themes this year, as we completed The Guardian Top 10 Noir Film list, and I became interested in the modern western genre.
Also, since I now see movies much closer to their release dates (because I'm not watching baseball), I'm noting the best movies of the year.
* * * * *
Here are the movies and series I watched from April 2020 to April 2021, alphabetically, ranked on a scale of five.
Five = the very best and most memorable of what I saw, flawless (fives include images)
Four = excellent, a real stand-out, not to be missed
Three = good, solid, worthwhile
Two = something kept this from being completely horrible
One = crap
A solid little detective series. It would be better if Martin Freeman were a better actor.
This three-part series was originally a PBS "American Experience". Those documentaries are consistently excellent, and this was no exception. It drives home the extreme danger faced by everyone in the anti-slavery movement, and how utterly vast and hopeless their cause often seemed. History both chilling and stirring.
Alex Wheatle (Small Axe #4) (Best of 2020)
Similar to the work of Ken Loach, the Small Axe films have a deeply authentic feel, an immediacy that seems to transcend fiction. The personal is always profoundly political. This one follows the development of writer and activist Alex Wheatle, through the 1980s Brixton riots, imprisonment, and self-discovery. See all five films in order.
All In My Family
A lovely little autobiographical documentary about a gay Chinese-American couple raising two children, and how they deal with their traditional family's response. The filmmaker's surprising point of view makes the film unusual and thought-provoking.
filmmaker Kitty Green interviewed about 100 assistants who had worked for Harvey Weinstein's production company. One of the most powerful movies I have seen in a long time.
Ball of Fire (1941)
A hilarious, ridiculous screwball comedy, full of laughs and more than a little social commentary. It includes this priceless line, as someone looks down the the cheeky dame's throat to see if she's sick: "It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore!"
The Bay S1
Another good British detective show. Doesn't break any new ground, but so far so good.
The Big Sleep (1946)
(Guardian Top 10 Film Noir #1 pick)
A Howard Hawks adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, a script co-written by William Faulkner, starring real-life couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. What could be better? Not much, actually. I've been an avid Humphrey Bogart fan since around age 10, and I love that these films have held up for me.
The show features plot holes a cast of thousands can walk through, and it won't stand up to reality testing. But Raymond Reddington may be the greatest anti-hero of all time, and I'm kind of in love with him. With storylines that are constantly doing backflips, a killer soundtrack, and the best collection of secondary characters I've ever seen -- who doesn't love Dembé and Mr. Kaplan? -- I find this show irresistible.
Blood Simple (1984) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
Not sure how we missed this in the 80s, but thank you to The Guardian for turning us on to the Coen Brothers' debut (also the feature-film debut of Frances McDormand). An absolute corker of a noir -- harrowing, suspenseful, with a sickening sense of foreboding that never ends.
The Bodyguard S1
Police-detective meets paranoid thriller in this above-average series.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Exactly what you expect from a Borat film: some uneven but great laughs, at least one hideous, hilarious gross-out scene, and dead-on social commentary. Fun!
Broad City S1 only
Smart, funny comedy, plus NYC. It didn't hold up in S2, but the first season was fun.
Caché / Hidden (2005) (Guardian top 10 crime films)
This strange film has all the hallmarks of a suspenseful thriller, but the baffling ending -- or non-ending -- ruined it for me. Roger Ebert had to watch it three times before he understood the ending. It's difficult for me to see that as a valid artistic choice.
I love a good redemption story. This exploration of anger and grief, told with dark humour, is moving and compelling. Jennifer Aniston's performance is impressive.
A surprisingly complex family story -- a coming-of-age for an entire family. The descriptions online give too much away. Sweet, sad, uplifting, but not sentimental.
I love to read a detective or spy thriller that transcends the genre and offers something more profound. It's equally satisfying (and rare) in a movie or series. While every British TV detective is examining CCTV footage to solve crimes, The Capture focuses on the potential for abuse, corruption, and a much darker side of the surveillance society.
The Children Act
Stilted dialogue, endless expositions, and a script so wooden that even Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci couldn't bring it to life. Yikes.
Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?
A strange and unwatchable documentary. I loved the Big Man, so I'm giving it a generous two.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Two hours in the life of a beautiful, worried woman. Paris in the 1960s. French New Wave by the often-overlooked Agnes Varda. A delight.
I finally watched this cult favourite, created by Jimmy McGovern and starring Robbie Coltrane. If you like characters who are difficult and initially unlikable, who may or may not grow to reveal the darkness that drives them, Cracker fits the bill. It's also notable for the darker, more realistic perspective on policing, similar (but not as good as) Prime Suspect.
A solid, serviceable British crime drama, notable for David Tennant and a healthy dose of ambiguity.
Designated Survivor (S1 and part of S2)
Is this The West Wing or a paranoid thriller? It's a hamfisted amalgam that just doesn't work. Note: if a bomb blows up the U.S. Capitol building during a State of the Union address, killing the President, Vice President, and every member of Congress, you might want to show some evidence of a country in shock and mourning.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
My first time seeing this Hitchcock classic, and it did not disappoint. Suspenseful, creepy, and unpredictable.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Best of 2020)
A breathtaking, heartbreaking, joyous documentary about memory, love, life, and loss. An attempt to understand life's most profound mysteries, and a realization that we simply cannot. A triumph.
A blood-soaked, action-packed, hilarious burlesque of revenge, and a completely over-the-top tribute to the spaghetti western. I've never been a Tarantino fan, but seeing Black slaves take revenge on slavers and collaborators in this deadly comic way was just so much fun.
Dolly Parton: Here I Am
We all love Dolly but this doc is a carefully managed PR piece, with too much left unsaid. It's also sad to see Dolly's exuberant beauty mangled by so much cosmetic surgery. I understand that looking visibly old may be off-limits for entertainers, but on the other hand, would Dolly's legions of fans desert her?
Echo in the Canyon
This is a nice little documentary about the music scene in Laurel Canyon, California in the 1960s. I could have lived without the recreations by contemporary artists. Really.
Education (Small Axe #5) (Best of 2020)
The final Small Axe film focuses on the failures of the formal education system, and a community's determination to change it. I especially loved learning about the British West Indian "Saturday Schools", reminiscent of the community-created learning Ken Loach depicted in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Heartbreaking and inspiring.
Elevator to the Gallows / Lift to the Scaffold (1958) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
I am indebted to The Guardian for introducing me to this, Louis Malle's first feature film. You can feel the Hitchcock influence, and see the infancy of French New Wave, all folded into a tense noir -- plus a young Jeanne Moreau and an original score by Miles Davis. A perfect, brilliant movie.
I didn't mean to see a rape movie. I confused the title with a movie I've been searching for -- Pour Elle (which was remade into The Next Three Days). Elle was all rape, all the time. I give it credit for the scenes being purely violent and not sexual. But there's a lot of it.
The Expanse S5
Seasons 1 through 4 of The Expanse blew me away. S5 is very good, but on plot terms, it dipped down to the 4 category. War alliances and strategies are just not as spectacular as the protomolecule. I eagerly await S6.
This begins as the story of two long-ago travelers with a scheme to strike it rich, a kind of quiet, period-piece buddy movie. But the plot thickens. And becomes unstable -- and dangerous. Although it didn't rise to the level of 5, First Cow is an excellent film.
Flight of the Conchords (re-watch)
We loved this the first time we saw it, but I found the humour didn't hold up. The music video spoofs are as clever and dead-on as ever, but the sitcom scenes in between are tedious. Everything is too one-note. But it was great the first time.
Most reviews of this movie praised the cast's great performances. I'll have to take the critics' word on that, because the movie is too awful to watch.
The American West in the 1880s. Survivors, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, and more than a little feminism. Plenty of western-style violence, including a shoot-out for the ages. I loved it.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a disgraced lawyer in a show that feels written for him. Conspiracies grow wider, deeper, and less predictable. A solid series, with some particularly disturbing violence.
The Good Lord Bird
I suppose this was an attempt to tell the story of John Brown while avoiding the white-saviour route. John Brown is a fascinating historical figure -- a political terrorist committed to abolition, a white man more than willing to die for the Black cause. His story is gripping and surreal. This, however, feels like an afterschool special.
This Welsh detective series was mostly good, but the blatantly bad detective work that served as a plot device was too obvious for us. Still worth it if you're running out of things to watch.
Hold the Dark
A ridiculous premise, horrendous acting (why is everybody whispering?), and a completely predictable plot. I guessed the supposedly twist ending immediately, then fast-forwarded to confirm. One saving grace: wolves.
A dark comedy-drama about loss and redemption, bright-siding and gaslighting, love and loyalty. Jim Carrey and Frank Langella are both wonderful. Rarely a sour note.
Another genre-blender, mixing dark humour and drama with a cold-hearted spy thriller. There are the plot holes and inconsistencies that one often finds in thrillers, but they didn't detract from Sandra Oh's and Jodie Comer's performances. I really enjoyed this.
Funny, entertaining, cute. Meh.
Line of Duty
Police conspiracy, corruption, murder... who can be trusted? There are a few clunkers here and there, but it's a solid show.
Look Through Any Window
A good documentary about The Hollies, a band whose members intersect on a large music family tree, and whose influence is often overlooked.
I am a huge fan of the playwright August Wilson, and grateful that I lived in New York while his plays -- each representing a decade in the African American experience -- were being staged. The screen adaptation of Fences was disappointing, but this one hit the mark. Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, in what turned out to be his final role, stand out, and the view into the exploitative music industry is well done. Madeline's Madeline
If you like watching film from a distance and contemplating postmodern-self-conscious-meta structures, this may work for you. For me, this felt like a concept rather than a movie.
Mangrove (Small Axe #1) (Best of 2020)
The first entry in Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is a singular triumph. Among many things I loved about this movie, the filmmaker understands movements -- how they are born, how they grow, what makes them succeed. If this were a Hollywood film, it would probably focus on Ian McDonald and tell a white-saviour story. Instead, it's about a community. Don't miss this. Mank
I wanted to love this movie. It was clever, and visually beautiful. But similar to Madeline's Madeline, I couldn't get past the concept; the self-consciousness held me at a distance. (At this point, someone usually tries to explain the concept to me. Trust me, I got it.) Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
This biopic focuses on Miles Davis' music and his career, and barely mentions his very problematic personal life. If you've banned Miles from your playlist because he was a violent asshole, you might not approve. But if, like me, you separate art from artist, you'll like this. Miles was a genius, and a pioneer, and this film captures the how and why.
Money Heist S1-3
I love a good heist movie, and this series delivered and then some. An abundance of suspense and plot twists more than compensate for the non-credible story. And really, isn't that what a good heist movie is all about?
Murdoch Mysteries S13
Can you believe I'm still watching this? It's like an addiction to Froot Loops. Or maybe spinach?
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Best Film of 2020)
An austere, gritty, incredibly authentic look at a pregnant teen. A ground-level view of what the anti-abortion-rights laws do to real people and real lives. Painful and essential. The best film of 2020, closely followed by The Assistant.
One Night in Miami
A bad idea made into a ghastly movie.
Out of the Past (1947) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
Robert Mitchum, silent and inscrutable as always, and a femme fatale for the ages. "She can't be all bad. No one is." ... "She comes the closest." A satisfying, classic noir. Pretend It's a City
I enjoyed watching Martin Scorsese interview Fran Lebowitz, had some good laughs, and felt wistful for my old hometown. But several of Lebowitz's assessments are obtuse and seem to contradict her own expressed principles. It's a fun documentary, but I liked it more in the moment than I did in retrospect. Rebecca (1940)
Daphne du Maurier's novel, and Hitchcock's classic adaptation, have always been two of my favourites. No matter how many times I see this movie, I always find it satisfyingly suspenseful, creepy, and gothic. There have been multiple failed remakes, and I don't have high hopes for the most recent adaptation on Netflix. Why does anyone remake Hitchcock?
Red, White and Blue (Small Axe #3) (Best of 2020)
Can a system be changed from the inside? Can the policing of a Black community in a white-dominated society ever be just? Can a Black man embrace the system with his integrity and identity intact? The third film in the Small Axe anthology explores these and other questions through the real-life story of Leroy Logan. It's a stunning film and the fulcrum of the series.
I thoroughly enjoyed this comedy-drama about a rebel teacher, her school, and her family. I stopped watching only because reading subtitles (from the Danish original) plays havoc with my evening relaxation. I can do it for a movie, but for binge-watching, it's too much work. The show -- or more likely, Denmark -- gets major bonus points for normalizing abortion.
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb
We stumbled on this documentary, and since we visited Saqqara on our 2017 trip to Egypt, we clicked, albeit with low expectations. To our surprise, it's a rich, engrossing look at archaeology and how ancient history can be known. Truly fascinating.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
I was surprised to discover a 1940s Hitchcock movie that I had never seen. (This only means the New York-area station that showed all the old movies didn't have this one.) A solid psychological thriller in the 40s style.
Silicon Valley (re-watch)
When the final season of Silicon Valley became available on Crave, I decided to re-watch the whole series from the beginning. It's a really smart comedy that manages to skewer pretty much everything while also being warm and compassionate. It keeps you rooting for the little guy, even when that little guy is a jerk.
The Sisters Brothers
This western is funny, entertaining, and surprisingly tender. As much about brotherhood than it is about murder. Solid and worthwhile.
Slings and Arrows (re-watch)
I'm grateful to the former wmtc reader who urged me to see this, more than 10 years ago. It's as funny, clever, and thoughtful as ever. And so Canadian! Really a joy to watch.
Sorry to Bother You
Wow! This movie was a wild surprise -- a darkly comic, slightly surreal labour story. So clever and funny, with a touch of magic realism that makes it startlingly unique.
Another devastating story by the incomparable Ken Loach, this one focusing on the lies and deceit of the so-called gig economy. A companion to I, Daniel Blake, with the same immediacy and authenticity that makes them both among Loach's best.
Every time I see this movie, I appreciate it more. Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Alfred Hitchcock, Salvador Dali -- and the nascent recognition of the effects of the unconscious mind. Brilliant. (You may notice we were on a Hitchcock tear.)
Star Trek: Discovery S3
I really enjoyed S1 of Discovery, and liked S2 with some reservations. In S3, the pompous, overwrought tone I disliked in S2 became the whole show, and I gave up. Oh well.
A solid thriller, with the usual gaps and plot holes, but also good mystery and suspense, from Harlan "Name Above the Title" Coben.
A strange, compelling story of obsession, paranoia, misplaced loyalty, betrayal, and murder. This is the documentary, much better than the fiction version.
The Third Man (1949) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
The masterful Graham Greene screenplay, the haunting zither score, the atmospheric cinematography -- everything about this film draws you in and keeps you off-balance. Not a wasted word or an extraneous shot, not an extra intake of breath. Plus a surprising Orson Welles! I don't know why I had never seen this film before, but I look forward to seeing it again. Truly a masterpiece.
They Live By Night (1948) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
It can be a fine line between noir and parody, and this movie crosses it too many times.
Touch of Evil (1958) (Guardian Top 10 Film Noir)
An aura of threat and menace hangs over this movie about murder, revenge, and police corruption in a border town. The racial overtones don't hold up -- it's tough to buy Charlton Heston as Mexican -- but there's quite a lot of evil without it.
True Grit (2010)
This movie skillfully avoids the many plot clichés the premise leads viewers to expect. A good movie with some nice moments. Won't change your life, but I wasn't sorry I saw it.
The Twelve S1
An interesting legal drama from Denmark with enough potential to wait for S2.
The Two Killings of Sam Cooke
I love Sam Cooke's music, but I think this movie oversells his activism and influence. Despite that, it's a solid, concise documentary about a committed and talented artist.
This movie is full of noteworthy performances, especially Adam Sandler bringing a scary, manic energy to his role as a gambling addict. Alas the story -- like every story about compulsive gambling -- is entirely predictable. You've probably seen it many times before, but it's quite well done.
This show -- an understated British version of Bones -- continues to bring a level of profound emotion to the forensic procedural. Each cold case reveals a web of people who have been affected by the loss. Always moving and very well done.
The Vast of Time
A wonderfully suspenseful period piece, with the creepy, supernatural vibe of The Twilight Zone. Very enjoyable.
See the excellent documentary Man on Wire, and skip this silly nonsense.
There is some very fine acting in this movie, and it was great to see J. K. Simmons in a central role. But I found the premise disturbing enough to ruin the movie: abuse is justified, even celebrated, if it produces great art. Might this art have flourished under some other teaching method? We don't know. Is it OK for humans to treat each other this way if there's a claim to a higher purpose? Nope.
This modern western is all about land -- who owns it, who controls it, who has moral, ethical, or legal claim to it. It often explores Indigenous issues, including racism and missing and murdered women, and how the past reverberates in the present. It's also action-packed and super violent.
I really wanted to love this series. I loved Wallander, and I hoped this would be its Endeavour. Alas, I couldn't make it through S1. Not complete garbage, but when you can't stand the sound of the lead actor's voice, it's tough to watch.
Tried but didn't take
Mad Men (second attempt)
Sons of Anarchy
Comedy Before Sleep
Community (entire series; re-watch S1-4)
On my second time through the series, I appreciated it so much more. It's no small feat for a show to be simultaneously earnest and ironic. Clever, smart, hilarious, and meaningful.
New Girl S5-end
A few years ago, I quit this show when the focus changed. Picking it up again, that no longer bothered me. Very enjoyable.
Big Bang Theory S1-7
A smart, funny, meaningful, character-driven comedy. A wonderful surprise. However, the best opening theme since Malcolm in the Middle does not make up for the most intrusive laugh track I've heard as an adult.
30 Rock (entire series; had previously seen S1-2)
I thoroughly enjoyed this. It did get a bit zany, but it never jumped.
Recap of previous years
- Canadian musicians and comedians (2006-07 and 2007-08)
- my beverage of choice (2008-09)
- famous people who died during the past year (2009-10)
- where I'd like to be (2010-11)
- vegetables (2011-12)
- big life events in a year full of Big Life Changes (2012-13)
- cheese (2013-14)
- types of travels (2014-15)
- famous people who died plus famous people who died, part 2 (2015-16)
- the picket line (2016-17)
- movies (2017-18)
2018-19: 1-5 ☮s
2019-20: 1-5 💉s