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ROUNDTABLE RECOMMENDATIONS: A Look Back at Some of Our Favorite Movies of 2020

*Editor’s note: The year that seemed like it would never end has done the impossible… it’s actually over. 2020 has been a year unlike any other in our lifetime, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us are glad to see it go. Through it all, we have gained experiences and memories (both good and bad) that will shape our lives for years to come. Movies, and the lack thereof, might seem a trivial things when compared to the crushing challenges many faced in 2020; death, sickness, unemployment, school closures, social interactions etc. have all paid a heavy toll on societies around the world. Encouragement, hope, friendship and love are forms of strength that can be derived from stories, and as pillar of modern day storytelling, we want to share with you which movies we fell in love with in 2020 and wholeheartedly recommend to you. Enjoy!

André Hutchens: As bad as 2020 has been for the movie theater industry (and I only hope a speedy recovery for the industry), streaming services have never been more in demand. Lockdown mandates and social distancing policies have all but crippled movie theaters globally, but one industry’s tragedy is another industry’s triumph. And no streaming service has reaped the rewards more so than Netflix. With over 200 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the King of streaming, and continued its dominance in 2020… which is where I will pull my movie recommendation. Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of real working class Americans and their struggle for survival in towns long forgotten by the broader public. You’ll see lives and relationships shredded by drug addiction, the struggle of single parents trying to play the part meant for two, and how life can feel hopeless when you’re drowning in life’s struggles. But the reason why I am recommending this film isn’t for the depiction of real life struggles, but for how the characters are able to overcome them. With the help of family, the power of forgiveness, and the guiding hand of faith, Hillbilly Elegy will show every viewer the possibilities of a better life when you begin to take responsibility for it. Easily my favorite movie of the year, I unequivocally recommend watching Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix.

CJ Marshall: Pixar has maintained such a high standard over the years. Their projects are mostly varying degrees of “Good” rather than good or bad. Soul is no different. The film already had wit, charm, and an authentic Black culture flavor coursing through its veins (Spider-verse anyone?) Who could know what significance its message would carry going into a year like the one just past? Soul carries that added weight because of how sturdy Pixar built its foundation. It should rightfully take its place as one of the jewels in the Pixar crown. My single regret is that I couldn’t see this film on the big screen in 3D.

Parker Johnson: 2020 was a tough year for all of us, and The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect, charming movie to come out during this trying time. Dev Patel shines as David Copperfield, and this colorful cast brought this delightful pseudo-biopic of Charles Dickens to life in such a heartfelt way. Like Little Women (2019) and Emma. (2020) before it, The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect blend of wit, charm, and warmth that should delight anyone… as long as you don’t confuse it for David Copperfield the magician, like my mom did.

Rachel Ogden: The near impossible task for sequels is to find a way to provide the protagonist with new obstacles and growth without losing the character’s identity that made them cheer-worthy in the first place; in essence, changing the character without changing the character. Though it will draw dissent, I say Wonder Woman 1984 does this perfectly. Gal Gadot continues to amaze as a dynamic woman and superhero that even villains want to be like. The movie’s 150-something minutes follow three different character arcs that are integrated into a simple yet powerful plot that I found both well-written and engaging. What does it mean to be great? Both the message and material of the film serve as a satisfying answer, even if it’s not a popular one. Don’t let the haters get you down.

Rachel Wagner: Tomm Moore is perhaps the most consistent and underrated director working today. He already had triumphs in The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea and now he dazzles audiences once again with Wolfwalkers. Not only is the 2D animation beautiful but the story of 2 girls coming to understand their connection and who they are rings true. I love the way Moore weaves in his Irish lore into his stories without feeling the need to over-explain what is happening. We are charmed by both girls and that’s enough to get us invested in whatever fantastical challenges and adventures come their way. I also loved the music by Bruno Coulais and Kila. It all combines to make a special film that we are not likely to forget. Watch Wolfwalkers on Apple TV+ as soon as you can!

Sam Cooley: What’s crazy about The Invisible Man (2020) is that it came out before COVID blew up, but it still came and went nearly… invisible to audiences. But it is so deserving of all the attention and praise it can get. Between a chillingly unique premise of abuse and deception, subtle works in suspense and terror, and another expert, almost exhaustive performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is confidently endorsed as one of the best films of the year. Though its namesake is a classic, the most it has on the 2020 version is originality, but even then, 2020’s new and fresh version still approaches surprisingly close in that regard.

Shay Satmary: Palm Springs was definitely the movie of 2020 that I told everyone I know to watch immediately after I watched it. It’s one of those movies where the less you know about the plot, the better it is to watch. What you do need to know is that it does a cracking job of summing up the feelings and aesthetics of most people’s 2020. It also stars a hot, understated Andy Samberg, à la Celeste & Jesse Forever,  and Cristin Milioti from Black Mirror. Along with invoking specific 2020 feelings and wonderful acting, Palm Springs will make you laugh out loud, and if you’re a sucker like me, you’ll end up crying too. 

The Formal Review: Research has shown that there is an appeal of rewatching movies because of the familiarity of characters, settings and plots–and Tenet exemplifies this. Nolan uses numerous scientific theories, and the ROTAS palindromic square, in a very ambitious and ingenious way. He is able take those ideas and stage them via action sequences that run backward and forward through time simultaneously. Yes, it will require multiple viewings, but that is in no way a bad thing. Each time will allow for new details to be discovered and will increase the appreciation for this movie. It is in the top tier of Nolan films. Complex? …sure, but phenomenal as well.

Thank you for your support of Backseat Directors this last year. It ended up not being the most ideal year to launch our new movie website, but we’ve made it out alive! May this new year be better than the last. Happy 2021, everyone!

REVIEW: The Assistant

Bleecker Street
Rated: R
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Kitty Green

I love The Office. It’s dead-pan, documentary style is pure gold. It skillfully embraces the idea of a mind-numbing and even soul-sucking work environment, but does so in a way that finds the humor and even the joy in our 9-to-5s. When I hear the cheerful, cheesy intro, I can’t help but hum along as I watch the main cast go about their workday. In The Assistant (2020), filler scenes of mundane office life are about 87% of the 87-minute runtime. You just watch the main character, Jane, talk on the phone, stand in front of the microwave, smoke, sip coffee, and look overworked. She is basically Pam Beesly in the first season, right down to the pink turtleneck. If The Office had been a drama about Pam’s misery and Michael Scott was a male, predatory Miranda Priestly, then The Assistant would be the pilot episode. And it would never make it to television.

The Assistant premiered at the Telluride film festival in August 2019, then was distributed by Bleecker Street and released to a few U.S. theaters on January 31, 2020. It was just released to streaming on Hulu over the weekend. In that time, it’s developed an incredible disparity of opinion on Rotten Tomatoes; as of this article’s posted date, it holds a 92% approval rating from the critics and a 25% approval rating from the audience—that’s got to be a record or something. For my part, I side with the audience (yet another reason why I identify as a “Backseat Director” rather than “critic”). I’m sure there are subtleties that go unappreciated by my uneducated mind, and there will certainly be those that will advocate heavily for this film—but I couldn’t get past how boring this movie was. I think it speaks volumes that the most interesting part is a visit to human resources. The trailer and the cinematography would have you believe you are watching some sort of thriller, but the moments of build-up and unease lead to nothing. To say the movie is a slow burn is an understatement; I felt like I was waiting for a pot of water to boil, only to discover an hour-and-a-half later that the stove wasn’t even turned on.

Julia Garner in a scene of The Assistant | Bleecker Street.

The movie follows Jane, a relatively new hire at an unnamed production company, who’s working as a junior assistant. The movie takes place on a typical Monday, following her from the early hours of the morning and late into the night. She works hard but finds little joy in what she is able to accomplish. She’s been there five weeks, and she’s clearly miserable; in fact, she spends the whole movie with a facial expression that tells you this girl needs a new gig. In her day, there are various situations and happenings that make her uncomfortable and upset, and then the day ends, and the credits roll. Nothing is achieved, nothing is done, and nothing is different. It’s likely that the same kind of day Jane had on Monday will happen on Tuesday, and every day to follow. While workplace dramas that I adore like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) have rich characters and clear story arcs and a healthy sense of humor, The Assistant abandons any semblance of Hollywood escapism for a dull and grim reality. But this reality appears arcane in its portrayal of women in the workplace, and left me personally nonplussed.

The #MeToo movement is making an indelible mark on Hollywood, reflected in recent movies like Bombshell (2019) and the indefinitely delayed Promising Young Woman—but as a film, we deserve better than what The Assistant has to offer. The movie seeks to show the suffocating normalcy of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, but the monotony outweighs the misconduct. Even as a woman with her fair share of #MeToo experiences, I ask, “What’s the big deal?” I even found myself blaming the protagonist for her own misery, and that’s terrifying. My reaction alone proves the systemic nature of a problem that even victims have grown used to shrugging off. Unfortunately, I think the film will prove esoteric, which is ironic considering the movement is called “Me Too” and is supposed to represent half the planet’s population. I related more to Birds of Prey (2020) than this supposedly accurate depiction of workplace sexual harassment. My worry (and prediction) is that its subtlety will leave a great many asleep rather than woke.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Palm Springs

HULU
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Max Barbakow

Let’s go back to my college days, when my roommate and I needed a TV show to watch at night to relax after arduous hours of homework and essay writing.  I remember seeing clips of How I Met Your Mother on occasion and I thought we should give it a try. We ended up loving watching Ted Mosby navigate through his love-life while dealing with shenanigans from his friends. For eight seasons we wondered who the titular mother would end up being. What would she look like, act like, be like? Would it end up being one of Ted’s many romantic conquests, or would it be an original character?

(*Minor spoiler ahead) In the end the Mother (Tracy McConnell) was played by Cristin Milioti, and she was perfect. Her character’s personality beautifully matched with Ted’s. Their relationship was the perfect culmination of the nine-season show. (Then of course, the writers completely destroyed all character development during the last two episodes like Game of Thrones after it); however, Cristin brought a feeling of authentic romance and wholeness to How I Met Your Mother that made up for the backwards last two episodes.

Fast forward to last year. My roommate and I had been watching several documentaries on really heavy subjects, and I was looking for something lighthearted to watch. I was talking to one of my good friends about our favorite TV shows, and I mentioned how much I liked Psych, and so she recommended Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I started watching and fell in love with it—especially the character of Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg). I only knew Andy Samberg from his comedy group, The Lonely Island, and was surprised to see how kind, respectful, and hilarious he was both in and out of the show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine joined How I Met Your Mother as one of my favorite TV shows. So naturally when I saw that Samberg and Milioti were teaming up to star in a Groundhog Day-esque rom-com, I was super excited.

Meaning and Purpose

I was happy to see that the chemistry and charm that Milioti and Samberg brought to their respective shows were on full display in Palm Springs. Their characters (Sarah and Nyles) sell a truly believable and lovable romance. Just by seeing the trailer, I assumed that the goal of the movie would be for their two characters to end up together and that would be sufficient to end the time loop. As much as I loved watching their romance blossom on screen, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their romance was not the end of the journey they embarked on during the movie.

It seems almost serendipitous that this movie is in wide release during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us feel we are also in a repetitive loop as we wait for life to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. I related Nyles’s struggle to find out the meaning of our daily struggle. My fears of the film focusing all of its attention on the romance was short-lived as we get to see Nyles overcome his apathy, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy; Sarah overcoming her sense of low self-esteem and guilt; and J.K. Simmons’ character, Roy, learning how to forgive and appreciate the day he has.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in a scene of Palm Springs | HULU.

I really appreciate this take, as too often films try to dedicate the entire movie to one lesson, whether it be “love conquers all”, forgiveness, acceptance, or lessons like that. Palm Springs allows the characters to be as complex as humans are in reality. Life and love are messy, and deserves to be shown messy. Our characters feel more human, more like us, and thus more relatable.

Palm Springs almost reminds me of one of my favorite romantic films, About Time, a movie where the main character has the gift of traveling into the past to relive his days. Like Palm Springs, it is a beautiful love story that is more than just romance—it’s about life. Love shouldn’t end when you get together with a person. Love is about finding peace within yourself, your relationship with your partner, and with the world around you. Palm Springs accomplishes this beautifully.

Final Thoughts

Palm Springs is a hilarious and beautiful film that shows us how messy, complicated, imperfect, but also wonderful life can be. All the characters have great chemistry, the comedic beats are hilarious with just the right amount of raunchiness, and it just ends up being such a pleasurable movie to watch. If you have Hulu I recommend it as one of the best movies of 2020.

Palm Springs is streaming exclusively on HULU.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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