They snuck it in on a Friday night. Not just any news item at the end of a spring news cycle. It was March 6, and the phone didn't stop ringing. I tapped away on the keyboard at the WSVN-TV station in North Bay Village, trying to put up a brief article as quickly as my fingers allowed me. The headline? Short and not so sweet. Pretty sobering, actually: “Health officials confirm 2 coronavirus cases in Broward.”
Back then, nearly ten months ago, we mostly called it “coronavirus.” COVID-19 sounded abstract and science-fiction-y, but as the number of cases rose, the all-caps term (according to the Associated Press' stylebook, as other news outlets like CNN only capitalize the “C”) took over as the top term used for the fast-spreading virus, at my “day” job and pretty much everywhere else. Ten months, but it feels like a lifetime ago, when the nightmare scenario seen in books like Stephen King's “The Stand,” Steven Soderbergh's “Contagion” and Wolfgang Petersen's “Outbreak” stopped being paranoia-fueled fiction and swiftly turned into our paranoia-fueled reality.
Our world has changed, thanks to a bug spread through droplets. For a movie buff like me, who thrives on the moviegoing experience and whose procrastinating ways favor writing my thoughts on film in the comforting confines of a coffee house, it meant the disintegration of pretty important habits I hold near and dear. Hours before writing that alarming news article, I had filed my review of “Beanpole,” Kantemir Balagov's vividly rendered portrait of life in Leningrad in the aftermath of World War II. It would take over three months for me to write another full critique.
COVID held my muse hostage. It ate away at my drive and caused me to retreat to a safe space, since it didn't take long for the places that fuel my mojo to become off limits. I began working from home shortly after, a steep learning curve in a space I regarded as a sacrosanct zone of leisure and decompression. The walls were closing in, slowly but surely, and my creative voice was reduced to a gasp caught at my throat.
So I reacted to the virus by escaping into the past.
I turned on the TV, located Turner Classic Movies, filled my DVR with films I'd long wanted to see, and limited views of movies I'd already seen to a precious few. Then I dove in. Down, down I went into a wormhole filled with snappy banter, handsome vistas in the Academy aspect ratio, predominantly in pristine black and white, and of course, the mid-Atlantic accent.
Jean Harlow and a young Barbara Stanwyck taught me how to seduce unavailable men with pre-Code abandon. John Gilbert was a vulnerable Casanova with the ladies, when he wasn't playing an entitled rich boy who learned a lesson in combat and first love in war-torn France. Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp was a crack shot but had trouble mustering up the courage to ask a kind woman for a dance. And Fred Astaire made his twinkle-toes routines feel effortless, with and without Ginger Rogers.
My old friends of the silver screen took me to my happy place, away from the fear and uncertainty waiting for me whenever I opened my laptop to begin my work shift. So I shuttled back and forth, between reporting on the virus and continuing to fill my film appreciation lagoons. It has been a protracted endurance test, oscillating between encroaching dread and retro pleasures. A closeted Ramon Novarro captured a sultry Greta Garbo's heart, followed by reports of people who contracted COVID losing their senses of smell and taste. An orphaned Leslie Caron joined a carnival and sparred with a gruff puppeteer who secretly pined away for her, but then it was time to check in on Broward families sharing harrowing stories and unable to be with their elderly loved ones as they drew their last breath.
Report the news, log another unseen classic. Leave the house briefly for groceries, perhaps some KFC drive-thru or carryout pizza, N95 mask and latex gloves in place. Stay home otherwise. Witness the positivity rate soar, ease back down, then shoot back up. Maintain an ongoing battle to keep despair at bay. Day in, day out.
Months passed. Beginning with the obnoxious comedy à clef “The King of Staten Island” and the sneakily touching indie drama “Driveways,” I eventually regained my footing on the review front, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a struggle to snatch my voice back from an overgrown thicket of inertia and self-doubt. I built up the courage to keep the occasional, socially distant lunch date after restaurants reopened in South Florida. Dining-out selfies graced my Facebook page and recently opened Instagram account, eyes smiling above cloth face masks.
August brought the reopening of some theaters and the controversial release of “Tenet.” For the first and only time since the beginning of the pandemic, I braved going to an indoor auditorium, this time the AutoNation IMAX in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Despite my dislike of Christopher Nolan's dense, occasionally impenetrable whiff of a spy thriller, there are no regrets to speak of.
November came after what felt like a year and a half of desert-island doldrums. I got the green light to go on a birthday weekend getaway to Key West, planned to coincide with attending the 9th Annual Key West Film Festival. The City of Colors welcomed me with open arms. I spent my 48th birthday strolling up and down Duval Street (permanent rainbow crosswalk!) and watching documentaries in outdoor settings. The next day I took part in the festival's annual critics panel, this time as the only panel member in person. My anxiety over public speaking abated enough to introduce “I Carry You with Me,” Heidi Ewing's uplifting docudrama, on the grounds of the Ernest Hemingway House, with the film's real-life Mexican couple in attendance. It was a bucket list moment during a weekend that went so much better than expected. More so than in a long time, I felt the universe smiling down on me.
My TCM marathon has been mostly put on pause since then, as I caught up on 2020 titles. As it turns out, a disastrous year for the industry has yielded a solid and diverse output of cinema. The big tentpoles were not there to suck the oxygen out of the room. For the most part, they were not missed. So what did I like? Plenty. My grouping of “list-worthy” titles I saw during 2020, posted on my Letterboxd account, has reached nearly 40 as of this writing. It's been a damn good year for movies, despite the setbacks we've faced and the challenges that lie ahead. Allow me to take a moment and give a brief shout-out to my ten favorite films. Depending on where you stand, I may have done a little cheating in order to extend the kudos. I think the year we've had calls for such concessions.
10. “Los Fuertes” (“The Strong Ones”): The tender, achingly bittersweet tale of summer love between a budding architect and the fisherman he meets while visiting his sister in Chile's Valdivia province lived up to its title, picking up a slew of jury awards at queer film festivals before besting other high-profile contenders to nab the Florida Film Critics Circle's Best Foreign Language Film honors. Making his feature directing debut, Omar Zúñiga revels in stars Samuel González and Antonio Altamirano's off-the-charts chemistry, the kind money can't buy. Even without the plaudits, the movie is a winner in my heart. You won't have to wait long for your chance to see it. The film is set to be released in the U.S. and Canada Jan. 19.
9. “Some Kind of Heaven”: In another solid feature debut, documentarian Lance Oppenheim trains his empathetic eye on The Villages, Central Florida's massive retirement community. He discovers stories of struggle and strife beneath the pleasant, often colorful façades. The compact, engrossing results suggest the film Kareem Tabsch and Dennis Scholl's “The Last Resort” could have been had it truly channeled the playful sensibility of photographer Andy Sweet. The late cameraman's influence is all over this heartfelt, beautifully lensed portrait of residents of a certain age who find their piece of paradise is just out of their reach. The film, which had its local premiere during the Miami Film Festival back in March, is set to be released commercially on Jan. 8 in Florida, then opens elsewhere, in theaters, virtual cinemas and Video On Demand Jan. 15.
8. “Bacurau”: A kick-ass Western? You bet your tuchus. An allegory of colonialism? It is definitely that, too. The writing-directing team of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles deliver the bloody goods, and then some, in this potent oater, set in the near future, that centers on the residents of a remote Brazilian village who discover they've been literally wiped off the map. That's before they find out they have become actual targets of a group of trigger-happy foreigners, led by a deliciously cunning Udo Kier, determined to exterminate them for sport. Do these resourceful folks take this menace lying down? Hell, no! No one is immune in this cathartic, immensely satisfying genre hybrid, a must-watch if you have the stomach for it.
7. “The Painted Bird”: Want to go even more hardcore? Of course you do. You might want to check out this polarizing international co-production, filmed in black and white, about a newly orphaned Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) who witnesses and is subjected to dehumanizing atrocities in an unidentified part of Eastern Europe during World War II. With a stacked supporting cast of good Samaritans and all-too-real monsters that include Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper and the ubiquitous Udo Kier, director Vacláv Marhoul brings Jerzy Kosiski's controversial 1965 novel to the screen with stark, wrenching clarity. It screened back in January as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, where it nabbed the Critics Prize. I dare you to take the plunge.
6. “Wolfwalkers”: A bedtime story with nothing but love to give, this animated marvel from “Secret of Kells” director Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart is a feast for the senses, a 17th century history lesson and an ode to sisterhood all rolled into one woolly, ravishing, atmospheric, big-hearted, defiantly cartoonish package. We follow the supernaturally tinged adventures of Robyn, a young English transplant to Kilkenny, Ireland circa 1650, as she befriends a wild child with strong ties to the wolves in the woods surrounding the area that Robyn's dad, a skillful hunter, has been tasked to eradicate. The story beats might be familiar, but they're rendered with visually ornate, deeply felt commitment to the folklore that inspired it. Destination viewing for all demographics, best experienced knowing as little as possible going in. Now streaming on Apple TV Plus.
5. “The Acrobat”: A high-rise in snowy Montreal, a middle-aged loner looking to purchase a unit, and the titular Russian-born squatter who ignites a sadomasochistic affair where little is left to the imagination and the sexual content is, um, not simulated. Writer-director's Rodrigue Jean takes his sweet ol' time laying the groundwork for this riveting same-sex variation on “Last Tango in Paris,” as the men warily circle each other before their no-holds-barred coupling grows more and more intense. The filmmaker trusts viewers to keep up and stay invested. There is no hand-holding here, for the characters or the viewer, only a methodically crafted duel between two strong-willed lovers who connect in explosive and untamed ways, with consequences that amount to a feature-length “go screw yourself” to traditional romance. A brutal, rewarding slow burn.
4. “I Carry You with Me”: Filling the screen with hope where “The Acrobat” revels in hopelessness, “Jesus Camp” director Heidi Ewing's enchanting docudrama follows roughly two decades in the lives of Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta, an aspiring chef and schoolteacher who meet and fall in love in Puebla, Mexico, in the mid-nineties. The ups and downs that ensue, blending dramatic scenes with actual footage of Garcia and Zabaleta, send both men on a collision course with an immigration policy that would reduce them to second-class citizens. Ewing, so adept in past projects at putting a human face to marginalized figures, seamlessly slides forward and backwards in time, as she depicts the men's victories and tribulations with a naturalism grounded in the day-to-day, reminiscent of directors like Chloé Zhao and Florida's own Victor Nuñez in the way it immerses viewers in the lives of working class people striving to find their place in the world. She's made a fiercely moving gem. Opening in theaters in early 2021.
3. “Small Axe”: Is it cheating to include a five-film anthology that had festival play but was intended to air on TV and stream online? I don't know, and I don't care. Taken separately, the five chapters in Steve McQueen's epic-sized omnibus are each richly nuanced pieces that belong on any year-end list. Taken together, they're a staggering achievement greater than the sum of their parts. My penchant for rousing classicist fare favors the first film, the gripping courtroom drama “Mangrove,” but every single entry is a keeper to varying degrees. McQueen sways along with the house party revelers in the slim and entrancing “Lovers Rock,” portrays a rookie Black cop's baptism-by-fire training days (John Boyega, never better) in “Red, White and Blue,” and in the collective group hug that is “Education,” shakes his fist at a system that aims to discard a bright Black student who is barely able to read. In its celebration of strength-in-numbers community and its ferocious indictment of institutionalized racism, “Small Axe” shines the light of truth in powerful ways. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.
2. “Soul”: Not so long ago, this critic was ready to throw in the towel on Pixar. It's safe to say lackluster sequels (“Cars” 2 and 3) and iffy cultural appropriation (the widely overpraised “Coco”) were not what this longtime fan had signed for. But with last year's stellar “Toy Story 4” and this sophisticated meditation on life and purpose, it's clear this ship is back on course. How good is the story of Joe Gardner (the voice of Jamie Foxx), a New York City middle school band teacher with dreams of becoming a jazz pianist, you ask? Good enough to forgive “Onward,” the animation studio's rather lame mishmash of fantasy adventure and coming-of-age comedy that, incidentally, was one of 2020's last high-profile studio releases before we went into lockdown. More so than in any of “Up” and “Inside Out” director Pete Docter's previous efforts, the target audience is adults, with a tip of the hat to grown-ups who grew up on Pixar movies and grown-ups who know their afterlife cinema. No, really, it plays like a distinctly Pixar-esque cross between Powell and Pressburger's “A Matter of Life and Death,” Albert Brooks' “Defending Your Life” and Wim Wenders' “Wings of Desire.” The cherry on top? Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' smashing synth-driven score. Now streaming on Disney Plus.
1. “First Cow”: Simplicity is golden in this soulful Western from North Miami native Kelly Reichardt that takes viewers back in time to the birth of American capitalism circa 1820. Its setting? Not the big cities, but the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon territory brings together a soft-spoken cook, nicknamed Cookie (a beautifully understated John Magaro), and a Chinese immigrant on the run (Orion Lee). The authenticity on display is meticulous and awe-inspiring, both in the attention to period detail and the unhurried, richly observed evolution of the two men's friendship and business partnership. In terms of 2020 movie moments I hold dear, nothing is likely to beat Cookie consoling and sweet-talking Evie, the titular bovine player, as he extracts the precious resource he needs for his scheme to work. “First Cow” not only tells the kind of story more American filmmakers ought to pursue. It's the movie that kept hope alive for me during the darkest days of quarantine, when the outcome of the pandemic was distressingly unclear. I don't know if I will ever be able to repay that debt. It's already starting to feel like a classic, and if the hoof fits...
Let's hear it for eleven mighty fine runners-up from an exceptional movie year, in alphabetical order: “Ammonite,” “Dinner in America,” “Dry Wind,” Forman vs. Forman,” “Gunda,” “His House,” “Kajillionaire,” “Let Them All Talk,” “Mank,” “Ride Your Wave” and “You Don't Nomi.”
Last, but certainly far from least, thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to seek out my work throughout the years. January 2021 marks my nine-year anniversary writing for MAZ, and it would not have been possible without your support. I want to make a toast. Here's to a new year filled with good health and fulfillment for all.