Cinema Dispatch: Top 5 films of 2020 That Need Improvement

It’s certainly been one heck of a year, hasn’t it?  Well it’s finally about to end so you can stop hearing me prattle on about it (we’ll see how 2021 goes), and before we end any year we must take one look back to reflect and see what we can learn.  This year more than most, there’s SO many important lessons to take away, but in my little sphere of film criticism it’s feeling less and less important to rage against the disappointments that were had; especially considering the circumstances that everyone was trying to work around at every turn.  Like last year this will hopefully be more of a CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM list than a merciless spanking of movies I didn’t like, and I decided to post this one first because I’d rather end this year on a good note with the BEST OF list instead and using this space to scream one more time at everything that went wrong in 2020.  Let’s get started!!

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Honorable Mention: ALMOST ALL THE COVID ERA RELEASES

Yeah, let’s just head butt the elephant in the room right off the bat!  With COVID shutting down theaters it was one big game of chicken as studios with more to lose tried to hedge their bets on later releases while those with less confidence were more apt to let them go on streaming services.  Because of that, a lot of the mediocre movies we would have gotten parceled out throughout the year were frontloaded in the summer and a lot of the movies we were most looking forward still haven’t come out yet.  We still haven’t seen the new James Bond movie or Black Widow, but Scoob and Trolls World Tour?  Sure, why not give them twenty bucks to rent it?  Even the bigger movies that eventually limped their way to the home market like Mulan were hardly worth all the fuss, and even the one movie I saw this year with the nerve to sneak out to theaters (I saw it at a drive thru) was New Mutants; a movie destined to fail whenever it came out so why not make it an even bigger joke by releasing it when it’d be dangerous to do so?  We have the vaccine now, but it’s looking like it will be almost another year before things get back to normal, and with Warner Bros getting into fights with production studios over releasing movies on HBO Max it’s not clear if everyone will be on board with calling 2020 films a wash and just letting them come out so the next slate of movies can have their time shine.  There were a few highlights here and there but 2020 was pretty much a nightmare across the board, and while 2021 seems like it will be no less… interesting, hopefully it will be the start of something better for everyone.

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5. Doolittle

Full Review

Being the face of the Marvel franchise has turned out to be something of a Monkey’s Paw for Robert Downey Jr.  Yes, he’s one of the most visible and highly paid stars in the world, but his ENTIRE career has been subsumed by Tony Stark and he’s barely had time to work on anything else since then.  Before The Avengers his last big movie was the Sherlock Holmes Sequel and his only starring role between that and Endgame was in The Judge; a movie not many people remember and one that he was also an executive producer on.  So now that he’s finally said goodbye to the character, he’s free to do whatever he wants… and his first movie out of the gate is another executive produced venture which is a younger skewing Pirate of the Caribbean knockoff.  All the pieces are THERE for something to work, but I guess the lesson that not everyone has managed to take away from Marvel is that you can have all the resources in the world but it takes STRUCTURE to make it all come together.  They’ve been juggling over twenty films in something of a coherent continuity, and yet this one standalone film feels like we’re missing huge chunks of the backstory while also going on a rather aimless and inconsequential journey.  They needed to walk before they could run and gave us a proper Dr. Doolittle movie prior to this one as I doubt the character resonates with enough people out there for them to fill in the gaps of the backstory; mostly because anyone my generation or younger are really only going to know the Eddie Murphey version.  Instead, they banked on Downey Jr’s star power to move this thing forward and to get everyone on board, and in the end the whole thing is one big mess. A mildly charming mess at points and I doubt it’s the kind of bomb that would hurt Downey Jr’s momentum coming off the Marvel franchise, but it’s definitely not the best look after starring in the biggest franchise of all time.

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4. Artemis Fowl

Full Review

Disney is probably feeling a TINY bit better about missing the whole Harry Potter thing (including letting Universal get the theme park rights), but it still must be bugging them big time as it’s the only reason I can imagine they greenlit this project.  From what I hear, Artemis Fowl is a pretty good book series so to write it off as a Harry Potter knockoff would be a bit disingenuous, but I have ZERO qualms writing off this movie which much like Doolittle is a total non-starter for what’s supposed to be a franchise.  The story itself, at least in the broad strokes, does have something to it (at least more so than Doolittle), but the execution is what sinks this movie.  Bad special effects, bad editing, and possibly one of the WORST death scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie all add up to a production that it feels like no one actually cared about and were just there to collect Disney Checks.  The lesson to learn is not to make movies out of spite because had Disney just let the whole Harry Potter thing go and made something else for Disney+ they would be sitting pretty right now as the world realizes what a terrible person JK Rowling is and are turning on the franchise without Disney’s help.  Oh who am I kidding?  Even if they really DID sink over a hundred million dollars into this film, that’s not even a drop in the bucket compared to what Disney is making hand over fist.  I guess the REAL lesson is that you can do anything you want when you own ALL THE MEDIA; including making absolutely terrible movies with zero consequences.

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3. Fantasy Island

Full Review

There were no shortage of horror films this year as even on the home market they’re reliably bankable, and therefore there were quite a few terrible ones that came out this year along with some very good ones.  It was a toss-up between this, The Grudge reboot, and what The Turning of The Screw was supposed to be, but I gave top honors to this botched reimagining of Fantasy Island; mostly because they could have SO EASILY done something really great here!  Look, I’m far from an expert on the show but it seems like the least interesting aspect of it was the lore itself; the mechanics of HOW these fantasy come to life simply being the tools with which the writers can tell very human stories.  If they had stuck to that premise and made this more of an anthology thing instead of a bad Wish Upon knock off (one of the few horror films in the last few years that Blumhouse DIDN’T have anything to do with) you could have had something good here.  Heck, just do a straight up reboot of the show and put it on Shudder!  Instead, it’s this strange mish-mash of horror genres that feels like what Cabin the Woods was making fun of almost a decade ago, and it’s just far too dull to engender any real scares.  The lesson here is to play to the strengths of the material instead of trying to force it into something it isn’t.  Fantasy Island was a useful framework to tell stories with, and even if some of its imagery is iconic enough to resonate with people, it’s not something you can easily extract out of context and repackage as something else; a lesson in hubris that Ricardo Montalbán would be proud of.

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2. The Last Days of American Crime

Full Review

You want to know how to fix this movie?  So would I, because everything about this story is rotten to its core.  I mean sure, there ARE ways to tell this story and to use this premise to tell an effective and thoughtful story (this would be a GREAT story to tell with the Trailer Park Boys if they REALLY wanted to jump that shark), but it’s not ABOUT the premise; it’s about the attitude.  The movie is remarkably consistent and does a decent job of being exactly what it wants to be, but what it wants to be is cruel, snarky, and simplistic.  How do you fix that?  Well a less obnoxious color grading would help as the sickly yellow glow makes it that much harder to sit through and axing the sex scenes would make things far less uncomfortable, but aside from that I don’t know what you’d do that wouldn’t fundamentally change the story from it’s very core to the point that it’s no longer recognizable.  There are no shortage of terrible comics out there that are written for Angry Young Men, but I thought we were past this phase as far as film adaptations go which I GUESS you could say peaked at Wanted (an utterly detestable book by the way) and kinda died off after The Losers.  Sure, you could argue Kingsman is in that vein, but those movies are WAY better than this nonsense; even the sequel which isn’t GREAT but still has more going for it than whatever this is!  If Netflix has the resources to fund movies based on comic books, my advice is for them to be FAR more discerning about which ones they pick going forward; and if ANYONE says “Oxymoron” in front of them, we’re going to have some serious words!

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1. Brahms: The Boy II

Full Review

If I had to pick one movie that genuinely ticked me off this year it was this one.  Sure most of the other films were terrible and there were parts that did make me angry, but even in trying to be constructive with my criticisms here to make this not just another rage list I just can’t help but truly loathe this movie.  Now it’s not offensive or the least bit “dangerous” in its messaging which puts it above last year’s bottom of the barrel entry Rambo Last Blood, but like that franchise it has a bad case of Sell Out syndrome where the first film does something genuinely interesting but the sequels decided to remove all nuance and substance for a cheap cash in.  The twist at the end of the first Boy movie was a great subversion of the Killer Doll genre, and the movie leading up to that point managed to have subtlety with its scares and depth in its characters.  It’s something that GAINS meaning on a second rewatch after you know what’s going to happen rather than losing all its impact, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off for ANY movie; much less a low budget Killer Doll movie that no one was expecting anything from!  Why they decided to throw ALL of that away for the sequel is beyond me, and frankly why I can’t be all that constructive here in my criticisms.  Sure, most people making a bad movie KNOW they are doing so at least to some degree, but there’s no way anyone who had anything to do with the first movie could think that this was comparable to it and yet they barreled ahead anyway.  At my most generous, I think parts of this script could have worked in a different movie.  A kid with a Killer Doll is a setup that worked just fine in the first Child’s Play movie (and the Twilight Zone episode that pretty much inspired the genre) and there is a BIT of dark humor in the kid starting to dress up like his freaky doll which the parents aren’t sure what to make of, but in retroactively turning a brilliantly realized Red Herring into the centerpiece of the movie is at best a boring run of the mill horror film for those who didn’t see the first film and at worst an experience in utter exasperation for those who genuinely enjoyed the first one.

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So there it is!  I had my one last scream of rage at the year and now nothing but positively as we’ll be looking at the BEST movies of 2020 very soon!  And of course, let me know exactly how wrong I am for liking bad movies and hating good ones in the comments below!!

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