The 2020 First Quarter Catch-up

For obvious reasons, 2020’s been a long year and we’re only through four and a half months. Below are some of the best movies of this year that have largely gone unnoticed or underappreciated.

LITTLE JOE

A BBC indie about plant breeders who engineer a flower so powerful the little plant can influence the human mind, Little Joe is a slow-burn, quasi-horror film that’s very British and very unnerving. Colorful production and costume design, as well as crisp digital lensing, make for a pretty watch, and an unconventional score by Teiji Ito is rather disquieting. Much like the titular flower, Little Joe is a little sterile, with a narrative that seems to be driving toward an unspeakable end that never comes to pass. Still, that stillness is riveting and unique in a world of loud scare tactics. Emily Beecham and Amy Adams could be twins.

Grade: B

THE GENTLEMEN

Guy Ritchie had sold his soul a wee bit when tackling the mediocre re-imagining of King Arthur or the terrible reboot of Aladdin. The Gentlemen is a welcome to return to form, a return to scintillating dialogue, quirky Cockney comedy, and splashes of violence. This is the Guy Ritchie where men and women preen for screen time, where energy and affable monologues come together to produce criminal drama that almost rivals the best of Tarantino. Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant, and Colin Farrell take turns stealing scenes from one another, and it’s two hours in underworld well spent.

Grade: B+

BIRDS OF PREY

A rambunctious, confectionery blast of R-rated fun, occasionally ruined by too much narration, but mostly a well-oiled roller coaster of sparkling goodness. It’s not said enough that Margot Robbie might be the greatest female movie star going at the moment, and her follow-up as Harley Quinn confirms it. Her zeal and unbelievable range are on full display, able to shift from pretty/funny/crazy to pathos in short order. But a good heroine needs a proper villain, not a sorry excuse for plot mechanics (ahem Wonder Woman ahem), and Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina are the best comic-book movie antagonists since the Winter Soldier, back when good ol’ Bucky was a hired gun. They bring a dangerous sensuality to the roles of Black Mask and his BFF Victor Zsasz. The rest of the cast deliver performances ranging from forgettable (Jurnee Smollettt) to amiable (Rosie Perez) to please-give-us-more (Mary Winstead). It’s too bad it disappointed at the box office, because more of these gals would be plenty welcome in the future.

Grade: B+

ONWARD

The last major theatrical release for some time isn’t exactly peak Pixar, but it’s not far from it either. Plenty of funny sight gags and the company’s requisite charm and warmth go a long way towards making Onward more than yet another fantasy adventure satire. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland make a good team as elf brothers at odds on a trip to bring back dear old Dad from the dead for one day of quality father-son time. An emotional twist is typical Pixar but no less powerful, and it’s second only to Zootopia when it comes to animated world-building over the last five years. I wish for more adventures in the studio’s modern fantasy metropolis.

Grade: B+

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