Best Picks of 2020
Film critic Neil Rosen invites viewers to explore the movie industry with him each month, as he dives in to the latest releases from Hollywood and independent producers. Interviews with actors and other industry insiders, as well as commentary from fellow critics, provide varying perspectives on the ever-changing world of film.
Neil: This week, I'm Talking Pictures with Neil Rosen.
We'll look at the new musical, The Prom with
Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep.
The drama Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom featuring Viola Davis and
the late Chadwick Boseman.
And Soul, the latest animated feature from Pixar.
Plus our picks of the best movies of the year.
We've got all that and many more movie picks coming up.
♪ [Opening Music]
I'm Neil Rosen. Welcome to Talking Pictures.
It's our monthly critic roundtable show where we
debate what's worth watching and what's not when it comes
to new releases, hidden gems, and Hollywood classics.
We know that most of the movie theaters are still closed
and you're probably craving some entertainment so along
with my panel who were all streaming from home, we have
plenty of movies and TV series for you to watch at home.
Joining me are Bill McCuddy from Gold Derby.
Hey there, Bill.
Bill: Hi Neil. Yes. Yes, you're right. Uh huh.
Neil: Perri Nemiroff from Collider.
Perri: Hi. Happy to be back.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Neil: Happy holidays to you.
And Mike Sargent from WBAI. Hey there, Mike.
Mike: I'm beaming in.
Neil: Well, let's start out with a look at several new films
that are available either on demand or on streaming services.
Beginning with a new big budget musical called The Prom.
Let's take a look at a clip.
♪ [singing] Was my heart pounding?
I won't say no.
Life without you was no bueno.
Then something -- you happened.
And turned my life around entirely.
And that's ‘cause -- you happened.
And look what happened to me.
So go to Prom with me Shelby!
Si! Si senor!
Emma: And no more hiding how we feel anymore.
Alyssa: I won't hide if you're by my side.
Emma: Now that the Prom is back on track.
And once we walk into that gym hand in hand.
Both: It's pretty obvious there's no going back.
Alyssa: And that's a promise!
Neil: Bill, tell us about The Prom.
Bill: Well as you can see, it's subtle.
That's Ryan Murphy's signature. He's, he's behind this thing.
It's glitzy. It's glamorous.
And it's gaiety is what brings Broadway to Indiana.
So the young girl can go to a prom with her girlfriend.
As you see, there's no lack of big names in this thing.
Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, who we've always known likes to sin.
Keegan Michael Key, who's a really good as the principal
and a cast of all-stars. Listen, here's the bottom line.
This is a Netflix project.
It wasn't inexpensive, as you pointed out.
It looks great.
The first 10 minutes are kind of obnoxious when they're
on Broadway and they were in a failing Broadway show.
But as soon as they go to Indiana, this thing
really kicks into gear. It's a musical.
You won't hum any of the songs when it's all done.
It's based on a short live Broadway run of the same title.
And I think it's really a homerun here, especially
at the holidays.
I really enjoyed The Prom and I'd like to go with it again.
Neil: Eh, God.
Well, I couldn't disagree more, but I'll get to
my opinion in a minute.
Let me hear from Mike.
What's your opinion on this thing?
Mike: Well, I never saw the Broadway show and I didn't know
anything about the premise.
As you know, I never watched trailers or anything.
I just want this storyteller to take me there. I enjoyed it.
I thought it was exuberant.
I thought it was fun.
I thought if you love Broadway this is definitely for you.
It's full of corn, but it's about corn. So I liked it.
And I thought that it's definitely something
that'll pick up your spirits for the holiday.
Perri: I think Bill kind of nailed it when you were
assessing the beginning of the movie, because it took
me a little while to get into that cheesy, heightened
nature of it but once I did, I was really fully consumed
by the color and energy and I love those musical numbers.
I think my favorite might've been Love They Neighbor,
the one that Andrew Rannells does, he's incredible.
And the whole cast here is great, but I was so
surprised how much Ariana DeBose, who plays Alyssa
Greene makes with her role because technically she's a
supporting character, but has one of the most significant
arcs for her character and she still pulls it off even
when limited screen time.
Bill: Well, that's great.
I'm really glad everybody loves this because it
really is a lot of fun.
And I think you'll just really enjoy it.
Neil: I hated this.
I mean, what, what is this Footloose?
There's no dancing in this town.
I mean, there's no, we won't have a lesbian couple
come, come to the prom.
I mean, look, aside from the out-of-date premise, the only
positive things I could say about this, Jo Ellen Pellman as
the lead, she does a nice job.
Other than that, the script is abysmal. Bad writing.
Ryan Murphy, who directed this, he's over the top.
Big brassy musical numbers where he throws everything in but the
kitchen sink are unwatchable.
The dialogue is terrible.
I didn't care about any of the characters at all.
James Corden, he's doing Cats, now he's doing this.
He's got, he's got to pick better movies.
I think Meryl Streep, that part would have been better by Patti
LuPone, but I don't even think she could have saved the thing.
This was painful to sit through.
I absolutely detested this movie. So let's move on.
Perri, tell us about Nomadland.
Perri: Well, hopefully we switched gears for you
with this one Neil, because this is now one of my
favorite movies of the year.
The movie stars Frances McDormand as Fern.
And she is a woman who chooses to live her life on the road
in a van as a modern day nomad.
And if you are someone who likes a movie that completely
transports you into a different way of living,
then this is the movie for you.
It probably goes without saying that Frances McDormand
is incredible in this movie, but it would not have worked
if it wasn't for director Chloe Zhao, who also wrote
the screenplay, adapted it.
And on top of that, she edited the movie.
And her light touch on the camera just really ups the
atmosphere and gives it a quality where you almost
forget that you're watching a movie and not living Fern's
story and that is quite the accomplishment in my book.
Mike: Well, I agree.
There's a quality to it where you feel you're just
sort of watching it unfold.
You're watching somebody's life, almost like a documentary.
You're a fly on the wall, but you're a lot more engaged
then any fly would be.
And I agree with you, Perri, Frances McDormand is great.
I do give a lot of credit to the director, but it
takes you and you have to decide you're going to just
surrender to it's pacing.
It's sort of non-narrative format and just let it go.
Bill: Well, I can't wait for you to dump all over this thing,
Neil, but I'm going to tell you that not only do I think
Frances McDormand is great in this, I think we're looking
at what is probably the Oscar winning performance of the year.
She is an actor's actor. She's not a movie star.
She doesn't look like one in this thing.
She lives the life of this woman on the road.
It's a very timely film in terms of people out of work.
It gives us a fascinating look at how Amazon works
behind the scenes, just as a little side bonus.
The great David Strathairn is also in this thing.
He doesn't work that often, and he's really wonderful here.
All the performances, many of which are not non-actors
that they just met on the road making this thing to
cast are all first rate.
And it's a little long, and I can see where you might think
it's a little draggy, but it dragged me right into the story.
And I think it's easily one of the 10 best movies of the year.
Neil: Yeah, it's a great movie. I agree with Mike.
It is slow paced, but it's really about the mood and
it's a character study.
And I give credit to the writer director for casting real life
nomads with no acting experience in this particular thing.
But this is really Frances McDormand's,
you know, time to shine.
And then I think she's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
I think she does a terrific job.
And I think the, the movie shines a light on a group
of people that are rarely seen before on screen.
I recommend this, and this is, this is definitely
an Oscar bound film. All right. Moving on.
A movie that I thought would be an Oscar bound film and
maybe it will be, but I have some distinct things to say.
Something called Mank.
>>> Mankiewicz. Herman Mankiewicz.
New York playwriting and drama critic turned humble
screenwriter for Mr. Hearst.
This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for
his money but a memory.
What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it.
That's the real magic of the movies.
>>> Help. Someone save me!
>>> All in one film. >>> That's director proof.
>>> That's why I always want Mank around?
Bill: Well, if you're as big a fan as I am of Citizen Kane
and believe it's one of the best movies ever made even
after all these years, you'll be fascinated by the guy
Herman Mankiewicz, who actually wrote the screenplay for it.
David Fincher, the great director was fascinated enough
to take on this project.
He's been wanting to make it for a long time.
And I have to say at the outset it's the most un-Fincher
movie you could ever imagine, because Mankiewicz is a drunk
but lovable screenwriter who is hired by Orson Welles, has
a car accident, goes out into the desert, and starts writing
what's called the American and then becomes Citizen Kane.
This all sounds great.
For cinephiles it's like, man, this is inside baseball, but
you're practically sitting inside a baseball watching it.
I was sent the link.
I stopped about five or six times during the movie.
I wasn't that engaged in it, even though I
think Gary Oldman gives a great, great performance.
So let me just say, let's address the
elephant in the room. It's Mank and Mank stank.
I expected, I expected a lot more than I got.
I was disappointed and this plays more like a two
hour plus DVD extra for the movie Citizen Kane.
Go watch that instead.
Perri: Yeah, this was more of an, I admire it more than
I like it kind of movie.
I was very curious to get this side of the story told
this way from Fincher of all people, but it was kind of
something that I was just interested in following along.
But again, like you said, Bill, that doesn't necessarily
mean I was engaging with the material and the characters.
The only one who came close and probably achieved it in some
respects to actually making me feel something was Amanda
Seyfried as Marion Davies. She had just
every single time she was on screen, I got sucked into
her performance, whether it was the thing she was saying
and the value of it, or just sitting, sitting there and
watching her read the room.
You could always see the wheels in her head turning.
And she was just a very perceptive character.
And I was always more concerned about what she was
thinking than anyone else.
Mike: I have to agree and disagree with you, Bill.
It is a Fincher film and the attention to detail
is so like extreme.
The fades, it shot in black and white and the fades
and the dissolves they're, they're not quite smooth, just
like it was because it was chemical, back in the old days.
The lettering. They way scenes are paced.
When a scene is ending and the lights go down or it fades,
you almost feel like the lights went down in the room.
So he does a lot of things to create atmosphere and
I did feel I was there. But I do have to agree.
I think you should watch Citizen Kane and then maybe watch this
in five parts like Bill did.
Bill: He's aping, he's aping Welles.
Mike: He is.
Bill: His own style? I don't buy that.
Neil: Listen, I thought, I was really looking
forward to this movie.
Not only have I seen Citizen Kane, I've seen Citizen
Kane dozens of times. It's a brilliant movie.
Behind the scenes of the writing of Citizen Kane on paper sounded
like it would be a good idea.
Like Bill, it took me several installments
to get through this. It was so boring.
The characters, nobody talks like this.
Whoever wrote the, you know, the, the screenplay. Yes.
They're writers and they write well, but they're talking like
they're writing and I thought that was very unrealistic.
But, you know, I was very bored with this particular movie.
It was a slough to sit through.
If you want to really see something about the making
of Citizen Kane, a movie, there was an HBO film from
1999 called RKO 281 with Liav Schreiber, playing Orson Welles.
And Malcovich plays Mank, plays Herman Mankiewicz, and Melanie
Griffith plays Marion Davies.
And if you could find it, it's very hard to find,
but it's probably streaming somewhere, that's a great
behind the scenes look at how they made Citizen Kane.
This movie is just like, it is torturous to sit through
and it's really disappointing because you had so much great
stuff to work with them.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a movie adaptation of August
Wilson's acclaimed stage play that takes place in a Chicago
recording studio in the 1920s. Let's take a look.
Neil: Mike, tell us about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Mike: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, as you said,
is written by August Wilson.
It's part of his Pittsburgh Cycle, which is one of a
series of plays he wrote that take place here in
America, and really trace the roots of African
American experience here.
Denzel Washington has made a deal to make all ten of August
Wilson's plays and this is the second one to be done.
Viola Davis is amazing as Ma Rainey.
She is essentially the mother of the blues.
♪ [singing] When I got there --
Mike: The whole film takes place in a recording studio
in the 1920s in Chicago, where she and a band, featuring
ambitious trumpeter named Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman
in an amazing performance.
It unfortunately is going to be remembered as his last
performance, but it's also fortunate because it's a hell of
a performance and I think he's a lock for best supporting actor.
Perri: I almost can't find the words to describe how good
Chadwick Bozeman and Viola Davis are in this movie with
Boseman in particular, Levee is kind of a powder keg of a
character that kept me on my toes from start to finish.
And Boseman justifies every single beat of
that character's journey.
And when it came to Ma it almost had the same effect on me in
my living room, as she does on the characters in the room with
her, where I caught myself, you know, feeling like I was
afraid to breathe or make a move to disappoint Ma Rainey.
And when I was done watching the movie between the two of
them and how just tense it all was, I took a breath and
realized how exhausted I was.
And I mean, exhausted in a very good way as a
compliment for the movie.
Bill: Well, let's not forget this was a stage play as
we've said so it has a stagey claustrophobia to it.
I didn't realize going in ‘cause I didn't see it on stage
that it was all in this one particular room, as opposed to
let's say Fences, which Denzel also starred and produced in.
That opened up and was a little more cinematic than this is.
Hey, we don't have Broadway right now so this is fine.
It's definitely worth watching.
And as you guys have pointed out, I think Chadwick Boseman
is a slam dunk posthumously if they properly put him up as best
supporting actor, even though he has more screen time than just
about anyone else in the movie.
Neil: Even though it takes place in 1927, there's so
many lessons that can be taken away from this from today.
I saw this when it was on stage.
I think this is a phenomenal movie adaptation.
Viola Davis, brilliant.
But Chadwick Boseman, the late Chadwick Boseman, incredible.
I mean, there's several monologues that he delivers
one in particular about a gang rape that he witnessed
when he was a child that just completely blew me away.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, highly recommended.
One of the best films of the year.
Switching gears in a completely different direction.
New from Pixar is the movie Soul.
Perri, tell us about that.
Perri: This one is the latest from my favorite
animation studio. I was so pumped for this one.
It is about a man named Joe who dreams of being a jazz musician.
And then he finally gets his big break but immediately after
he kind of dies in a sense.
He basically turns into a soul and his soul goes to a
place called The Great Before.
And what Joe has to do in soul form is figure
out how to give back to his body on earth without
going to The Great Beyond.
Back when the movie Inside Out came out, I
was wondering non-stop how could Pixer possibly
anthropomorphize human emotions? And they pulled it off.
I went, they're the same train of thought on this one.
How are they possibly going to tell a story about a human soul?
They do it extremely well.
And one of my favorite things about what they're doing at
Pixar right now in general is just how ambitious they
are as far as tackling some really major questions and
doing so in a way that one, is entertaining for both kids
and adults, but two, also leaves both kids and adults
something meaningful to hang onto after the movie's over.
Bill: This isn't the best Pixar movie ever.
It's a solid B plus.
But one of the things I can say that's interesting is.
the, the leads, Jamie Fox and Tina Fey are
So you are transformed into this world, which will-
Neil: Well they're animated.
Of course they're unrecognizable.
I mean, you don't, their voices match their characters on the
screen, rather than I hear Tina Fey here all the time, or I
hear Jamie Fox all the time.
I thought that was one of the things that did well.
I wasn't in love with the other world that they're
sort of trapped in until they can come back.
But there's a lot to like about this film.
It's great for the whole family and I
wholeheartedly recommend it.
I thought like everybody else said it's not
the best Pixar movie.
I did appreciate the fact that this was the first one
with an African American lead.
And I do appreciate the fact that they brought in Kemp
Powers to help, let's just say, make it a little more
authentically Black and his contributions were so great.
They made him a co-director.
Now he's the first African American to
co-direct a Pixar film. So I liked it.
I thought that all the emphasis on the music and
how powerful it is was great.
But the message that you should enjoy your life
and not judge it, I liked that probably best of all.
Neil: Let's start with the animation by Pixar.
They keep upping their game.
The scenes of New York city on the subway, the stores, the
crowded streets pre-pandemic. It's just amazing to watch.
I mean, I cannot believe the attention to detail.
And when Jamie Fox's character plays the piano and his fingers
glide over that keyboard.
The attention to detail in terms of the way the
piano was being played is, is really breathtaking.
Listen, this is really heady stuff.
The guy who, you know, co-directed and wrote, and
co-wrote this Pete Docker, as you said, Perri Inside Out,
he wrote and directed Inside Out.
And he also did the movie Up. You know what?
I'm always talking about is it good for adults and kids?
I think a lot of this is going to go over kids'
heads, but they're gonna, you know, really fall in
love with the Tina Fey, yes. Do nod.
You will fall in love with the Tina Fey character called 22.
It's a brilliant movie.
I can't believe they green-lighted something
as metaphysical as this.
But you got to give Pixar and Disney credit for
doing something like that. Highly recommended it.
Another classic from the Pixar studios.
All right, let's talk about something called Paint.
Mike: It is a new movie from writer,
director, Michael Walker.
It's about three friends from art school who essentially
struggle to start their careers and their life in New York City
in the New York City art world. And it's a little soapy.
They're all kinds of relationships.
One artist in particular is trying to, let's just say
delve into his dark side and maybe resolve his demons.
And other artist is pretty much squatting somewhere, but
he's very good with women.
So he gets opportunities and squanders them.
And then another character, well, she's naive, but likable.
We've all met her.
Now, I went to art school, so I definitely get it.
I knew all these characters.
But unfortunately I didn't like any of them enough to
really appreciate the movie as much as I wanted to.
As someone who went to art high school and art college
and have many friends who were painters and artists, I liked
the attention to detail as to how the art world is portrayed.
Perri: Yeah, this one took some getting used to, for me.
I know they make a joke of it in the movie, but I was really
put off by the fact that it really is a lot of whining
from a place of privilege.
And that contributed to making all of these main
players quite unlikable.
But I did slip into this zone where at least I
was into certain scenes.
Like I wanted to see what the conclusion was.
I didn't care what the conclusion was and I wasn't
rooting for any of the characters, but I was interested
in just seeing it through just to know what the ending was.
So I guess that's a little plus as far as engagement value goes.
But I don't know if I could fully recommend this one.
Neil: Interesting. Bill?
Bill: None of these artists are any good.
No one has said that.
I've just put this together and it's going to open in a gallery
downtown, and this is better than anything in that movie.
Don't see this. It's not good.
Neil: I don't agree with you. I liked this.
It's a dark comedy.
It shines a light on a world that we rarely see and how
hard it is for these young people who are, you know,
who've just graduated from art school and they're out a couple
of years and how hard, how competitive that business is.
And it's not really about the art, it's really about the name.
There's, and there's a lot of romantic entanglements
that are kind of bizarre that happened in this.
I liked the characters. And is this a great movie?
No, it's not a great movie, but you know, stuck at home
in a pandemic, you know, as an indie, I think this is -- No,
I don't think I'm wrong.
I think this is, this is, this is a good movie.
It's not a great movie, but it's a good movie
and stop making me laugh.
I think the newcomer, young actors do a good job and
I would recommend Paint.
Nyles: What the hell is going on with you?
Sarah: What? It got a little outta hand.
Nyles: Ya think? The pain is real?
Why can't you understand that?
Sarah: It doesn't matter. Nothing matters, right?
Those are your words.
Nyles: No. Pain matters.
What we do to other people matters.
Being a source of terror is not fun.
Okay? It's not fulfilling.
I know this from experience.
It doesn't matter that everything resets and
people don't remember. We remember.
We have to deal with the things that we do.
Sarah: Oh my God. Cry me a river, Nyles.
You were never going to deal with him.
I actually did you a favor.
Neil: That was a clip from Palm Springs.
It's Perri Nemeroff's favorite movie of the year
as we go around the panel with our personal favorite
films or TV series of 2020. Perri?
Perri: So it is one of my favorites of the year.
It was also my favorite from the Sundance Film Festival.
It is streaming on Hulu right now, and it stars
Andy Sandberg and Cristin Milioti as two individuals
who get stuck in a time loop.
I bring up Sundance because the world was a very different
place back in January.
I watched the movie and it struck a chord with
me in one way then.
Then when the movie hits Hulu over the summer, we're
all in lockdown and it takes on a whole new meaning.
So the fact that I have this movie that can evolve depending
on what's going on in the world and where I'm at in my life
and still have great value and meaning for me to take with me
after watching it, that is a very special accomplishment.
Neil: That is a fun movie, Perri.
It's like Groundhog Day, but that repeats
itself too so who cares? I like your pick.
Mike, what's your pick?
Mike: Well my pick, has to be a favorite.
I won't say it's the best, but it was one of my favorites.
It's a movie called My Spy.
It's probably one of my favorites because it's one of
the, it is the last film I saw in the theater and it's a film
that I went in with such low expectations that I was really
surprised how much I enjoyed it.
It's about Dave Bautista who plays a CIA operative,
who has to surveil a single mom and her daughter
played by Chloe Coleman.
And he's got an assistant played by Kristen Schaal, who
I think is pretty hilarious.
I just really enjoyed this movie and I did not expect to.
So, that's why it's one of my things of the year.
What's your favorite of the year?
Bill: Well, first I have to say, I think My Spy is
the only thing I haven't seen, so I will watch it.
Now mine is what I tell everyone is the cure for the pandemic.
And it's a Netflix series called Money Heist.
This thing is a Spanish soap opera meets heist movie.
That's a good thing on all sides.
A professor plots the robbery of a Madrid treasury.
He puts a wild band of people together.
And you think this is a smash and grab that's only gonna
last five or ten minutes.
It goes for months and months and it turns out that was the
idea of the whole whole time.
There are like three seasons of this thing.
It has a great cliffhanger ending.
I think they're going to come back and make some more of it.
But in the meantime, enjoy Money Heist.
Neil: Well, my favorite thing this year was a
toss up between The Queens Gambit and Normal People.
And since most people know about the former, I'll
talk about the latter.
Normal People was a brilliant limited series on Hulu.
It's an absorbing involving look at the on again, off
again romance of a young couple from different economic
backgrounds in Ireland.
A great adaptation of Sally Rooney's bestselling novel.
It's a fascinating, multi-layered look in the
complexities of a relationship.
Also drawing me in was the rarity of these two people
who are perfect for each other in every way,
but never fully realize it.
The acting by the two stars, Daisy Edger-Jones
and Paul Mescal is superb.
And they elevate the already terrific material
to a higher level.
I usually don't like sex scenes in movies.
I find them gratuitous and not necessary, but this is that
rare instance where the intimate scenes between this couple is
so integral to the understanding of their relationship.
Truly an absorbing remarkable achievement.
I urge you to watch this.
It's realistic, smart, moving, heartbreaking and at times,
utterly captivating. Normal People on Hulu.
Well, that's all the time we have.
With any luck we've given you some movies and TV shows to
watch to help pass the time.
I want to thank Bill McCuddy, Perri Nemiroff,
and Mike Sargent. Stay well. I'm Neil Rosen.
Join us next time on Talking Pictures.
♪ [Closing Music]
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