Search This Blog

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Films of 2020

This is my annual post about the new movies I watched in 2020. It is not a comprehensive list of every film I saw -- just the ones that were released this year. There is some slight overlap with last year's list because a couple of the 2019 Traverse City Film Festival films I saw were not commercially released until 2020. 

Needless to say, I saw nearly all of these films at home rather than at my local multiplex. I think the last movie I saw in the cinema was Little Women in December 2019. On Long Island. I vividly recall the experience and miss it dearly. 

The top tier list:

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
First Cow
Sound of Metal
Saint Frances **
The Assistant
Palm Springs
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm not sure how many of these movies are Best Picture Oscar-worthy, which means I'm not sure what the Academy Awards are going to be like after this extraordinary year. Some of these films and the acting performances are definitely award-worthy, but if feels weird to be making assessments without the clear end-of-year Oscar-bait movies (and ad campaigns). Nomadland, which I have not seen, may be in that category. And I read that the Academy will make films released through February 2021 eligible for 2020 Oscars.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is fantastic, though sometimes a difficult film to watch. It is a realistic movie about a teenager's efforts to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. She has to depart small town Pennsylvania for New York City with her cousin to make this happen.

First Cow was a strange but interesting film. It's worth your time, though it tells an unusual story and sometimes moves at a slow pace. The film provides somewhat subtle commentary about economic inequality, arguably, and mostly focuses on the ingenuity of ordinarily people (including a cook-for-hire and an immigrant). 

As a side note, my spouse and I watched another very good Kelly Reichardt film this year, Night Moves, about eco-terrorism. Previously, I'd seen Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy. She might be nominated for Best Director, which is too rare for female filmmakers.

I didn't have high expectations for Sounds of Metal, partly because I'm not a fan of that musical genre. However, the film is excellent, focusing on a drummer's unexpected loss of hearing -- and his struggle to regain control of his life. 

My wife and I caught Saint Frances at the 2019 Traverse City Film Festival and it was a highlight. The acting was first rate and the story was compelling. 

The Assistant is another film that is difficult to watch at times, but it reveals a good deal about the world in covering just one day in the life of a young female assistant to a prominent individual in the entertainment world. 

I'm a sucker for the Groundhog Day plot (it is one of my favorite films) and Palm Springs does a very good job with that conceit. It's genuinely funny and entertaining. Feel free to watch it on repeat.

Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis are outstanding in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The film was apparently based on a play and it often seemed like a filmed play to me. Like The Assistant, it primarily focuses on a series of workplace interactions on a single day in the arts world. This may be the best Netflix original film I've seen over the years. 

Elisabeth Moss's performance in Shirley is almost over-the-top, but the script is relatively strong and the other acting is top notch. I've seen Moss several times this year (I watched last year's Her Smell early in the year in addition to The Invisible Man) and she can get under my skin in a lead role. Her characters are often unlikeable, even when they are supposed to be more sympathetic (such as the heroine in The Invisible Man). This may be my fault. 

Most of these are genre films

Blow the Man Down
Sometimes Always Never
Vast of Night
Lovers Rock
The Trip to Greece
Invisible Man
Da 5 Bloods
Extra Ordinary **
Standing Up, Falling Down
Frances Ferguson
Love Birds
Happiest Season
Troop Zero **

Both Blow the Man Down and Sometimes Always Never are humorous, but also feature serious storylines that make the films unique. Both have elements of the thriller genre. 

Vast of Night is sci-fi and not for everyone. The first half of the film proceeds at a very slow pace -- my spouse stopped watching, in fact. The second half of the film zooms by and the payoff made watching the entire film worthwhile to me. It is set decades ago in a remote western US town. The main characters are producing a radio program that takes an unexpected turn even as most of the town is focused on a high school basketball game.

Lovers Rock is another film about a single day in an artistic setting -- this one centers upon a house party in West London in 1980. Much of the film seems like a series of music videos as the story about the first and second generation West Indian immigrants is a bit thin and very few of the characters receive extended time on screen. The atmospheric effort is very short for a feature film and is apparently part of a series of interrelated movies from Steve McQueen. This was entertaining and interesting, but a bit more plot could readily have sent it to the first tier above. 

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have now released 4  "trip" films and there is a fair amount of redundancy. But they are also funny men and the food and scenery are spectacular to see. In a year with no personal travel since February, it was a timely choice. In this film, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom plays around with ideas about comedy and tragedy, especially as reflected in the retracing of Odysseus's epic journey from Troy to Ithaca. There are overt references to the Sirens, for example, and other figures, locations, and plotpoints. 

I'm not sure why "Invisible Man" was marketed as horror. It's really more of a sci-fi thriller, with a focus on the gender and power dynamics in a personal relationship. Without context, many of the special effects seem like standard tropes from horror, but if you realize there's an invisible person opening doors or making noises (or attacking people), then that's not my view of horror. 

Da 5 Bloods earned a lot of great reviews, but it didn't resonate with me nearly as much as most Spike Lee films do. I know it referenced a number of other Vietnam films, but that didn't help all that much. Platoon and Apocalypse Now are worthy of Lee's nods, but there's too much Rambo here. 

Most of the remainder of the films are worth viewing, though they are mostly lightweight films with comedic intent. 


Crip Camp
Dick Johnson is Dead

These were both excellent and worth your time. Either could compete for an Academy Award.

**I saw these films at the 2019 Traverse City film festival, but they actually had a 2020 release date.

Visit this blog's homepage.

For 280 character IR and foreign policy talk, follow me on twitter.

Or, for basketball, baseball, movies or other stuff, follow this personal twitter account.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Books of 2020

This is my annual post listing books I read in the most recent year. I have done this annually since 2005 -- here's a link to the 2019 list if you want to work backwards. I accidentally published this 2020 list on December 30, but I'm editing the post on the 31st to add some narrative detail. 

The list is not comprehensive. I read an unlisted book for an academic review, but that is not yet published so I'm not (yet) listing it here. I also read a couple of other academic books for a promotion case, which I'll never list. 

 I posted short reviews of most of these books at Goodreads


Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

Randall Schweller, Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple: Global Discord in the New Millennium

John Lithgow, Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown

Karen Greenberg (ed.), Re

Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby

Joyce Kaufman, A Concise History of US Foreign Policy

Ronnie Lipschutz, The Constitution of Imperium

Adam Kucharski, The Perfect Bet

Nick Hornby, More Baths, Less Talking

Leonard Koppett, The New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball

The Levistky and Ziblatt book was probably the most important book I read all year. Indeed, I assigned some excerpts in a couple of classes, encouraged my spouse to read it, and recommended it to others. Anyone worried about the drift of America away from democracy would find valuable insight. 

The Lindbergh and Miller book was the best baseball book I've read in some years as the analytical authors got to apply their ideas about baseball to a low-level independent league team in California. 

Lithgow's book of poetry is a quick and entertaining read.

Schweller's book had a very interesting last chapter that made it valuable. About ten days ago I wrote a thread about it on twitter. 

My review of the Greenberg volume was published online in January 2021 at H-DIPLO. 

Kaufman I assigned as a recommended text in my spring US foreign policy class. It is reasonably short and served its purpose. 

Most of the rest of the books were OK, but all had some key flaws. I had high hopes for Kucharski, but it really didn't stick with me. Koppett's book is often listed on "best of" baseball booklists, but I found it much less interesting than I might have twenty years ago -- given what we've learned about the game even in the last decade. 

Literature and Genre Fiction

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Shawna Seed, Identity

Philip Kerr, The Pale Criminal

Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn

Michael Dibdin, Vendetta

Ross MacDonald, The Instant Enemy

Lawrence Block, The Girl with the Long Green Heart

Charles Portis, True Grit

John Macdonald, Cinnamon Skin

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Len Deighton, Spy Story

Richard Stark, The Green Eagle Score

Robert Parker Valediction

Nick Hornby, State of the Union

Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers

Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters

Sue Grafton, J is for Judgment

Ruth Rendell, Sins of the Father

Charles Willeford, The Way We Die Now

Walter Mosley, Gone Fishin' 

Joe Kremer, Brainstorm

Lawrence Block, Eight Million Ways to Die

R.D. Rosen Fadeaway

John Lange, Grave Descend

I read Station Eleven very early during the quarantine -- it's about life in a post-pandemic world that has suffered "the big one." Frightening and interesting.

Shawna Seed's book is well worth your time. I knew her when we were both undergrads at Kansas -- she had been friends in high schoo with one of my roommates and ended up dating my other roomie. We've occasionally stayed in touch over the years.

You'll notice a lot of genre fiction on this list, mostly crime novels. The best of the group are nearer to the top, meaning I really liked Kerr's work set in 1930s Germany as well as Atkinson's book set during Fringe in Edinburgh and Dibdin's book set in Italy. Maybe I was missing the fact that I was unable to travel to Europe in 2020 after having done so in both 2018 (Ireland and Belgium) and 2019 (Scotland and Germany). 

With Levitsky and Ziblatt, Lithgow, Gessen, Schweller, and Kerr, as well as Mandel, I spent a fair amount of my leisure reading time thinking about real-world politics in the US and beyond. 

On that note, I'd add that Block's first book listed above is about a group of con artists that are able to fool some level-headed people, including some who should know better. 

Visit this blog's homepage.

For 280 character IR and foreign policy talk, follow me on twitter.

Or for basketball, baseball, movies or other stuff, follow this personal twitter account.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Pete Browning

As I've previously blogged, I've walked many of Louisville's nearby cemeteries this year -- it's a way to get some exercise while avoiding other people during a pandemic. 

Months ago, I walked to one of the city's most famous burial grounds, Cave Hill, and found the grave of Major League Baseball player Pete Browning, who played in Louisville for the Colonels during the 1880s and died in 1905. 

Browning was a star player, leading his league in hitting three times and compiling an overall record that arguably should have landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He twice led his league in on base average and once in slugging, and twice led in OPS+, which is a ballpark adjusted measure of offensive contributions based upon on base average plus slugging percentage. The guy could hit.

His nickname was "The Louisville Slugger." 

Browning is buried within walking distance of my home -- and not far from Colonel Sanders and Muhammed Ali, two other local legends who are buried in the same cemetery. I've previously visited both of their gravesites as well. Paul Hornung is a 2020 addition, but I have not looked for his gravesite yet.  

Visit this blog's homepage.

For 280 character IR and foreign policy talk, follow me on twitter.

Or for basketball, baseball, movies or other stuff, follow this personal twitter account.