Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Thanks to COVID-19, movie theaters have been shut down. The closures happened in mid-March and most likely will persist until August. This means that the coronavirus has essentially killed the summer box office season, a season that last year earned over $4 billion. All that money is now lost to Hollywood. The majority of that money comes from blockbusters or films that have huge budgets and present a lot of spectacle. Those kinds of movies usually aren’t what are the most appealing to me. They do have their entertainment value and support the economy of the film business, but they usually aren’t my favorites. My favorites are typically the smaller films that often get overlooked in the summer box office. Given the current environment, smaller films are the only ones available. Instead of going out though, people can stay in and enjoy the advent of what’s known as “virtual cinema,” in other words movies brought to us via streaming services.
10. BREAKING FAST – I meant to see this film at qFLIX Philadelphia, the film festival in the City of Brotherly Love that caters to LGBTQ content. That festival was scheduled in March and was a-go right up until a few days prior. The festival tried to reschedule, but the coronavirus pandemic made it unlikely, so the festival went virtual and made this one available to stream. It stands as one of the few queer romantic comedies, centering around an openly gay Muslim man. I participated in a Q&A with the filmmaker and actors after its virtual screening. It was noted how rare a narrative it was, particularly in how it didn’t fall into many of the tropes of mainstream romantic comedies or even more mainstream gay films. It also featured the performances of Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy, two very charming actors who make this a warm confection for these COVID-19 times.
9. SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – In terms of box office, this is the second-highest grossing film of 2020. It’s based on the video game from the 1990’s that became rather iconic and one of the best-selling video game franchises ever. As a child of the 90’s, it was a video game that I played and loved, so nostalgia in this case is strong and loving nostalgia is very strong. This film is mostly a comedy that is silly and nonsensical, but there is a level of fun here that is refreshing. Most of that fun is fueled by the performance of comedian Jim Carrey, who reached his heights in the 90’s. Carrey was known for a type of performance in that decade. He hasn’t engaged in that type of performance in a long while, but this film allows Carrey to bring that type of performance back.
8. THE PHOTOGRAPH – This is one of few mainstream or Hollywood films that focus on a romance between two African-Americans or two black people. Lakeith Stanfield, who was featured in the Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) and the FX series Atlanta, stars as a reporter named Michael. Issa Rae, who stars in HBO’s Insecure, plays an art curator in New York named Mae. The two become connected through a picture of another black couple. As we learn the details about the couple in the picture, we also learn about Michael and Mae’s relationship. It’s simple, but beautifully told through watching the love between two beautiful couples.
7. THE WILLOUGHBYS – This is the best animated film so far. There hasn’t been that many animated films released. There’s really only been a couple, but of those select few, this one is paces ahead. The film is reminiscent of Tim Burton at his best and even has references that feel like the best of Robert Zemeckis or even Pixar. The voice-over work from Ricky Gervais as running commentary is absolutely hilarious.
6. JOSÉ – Queer cinema from around the world has been very similar. This one isn’t much different. Much of these kinds of movies are in the shadow of Brokeback Mountain (2005) and riffs on the themes and ideas in that film. Yet, this one is a good slice into life for a gay man in Central America. It premiered at the 75th Venice Film Festival in September 2018. It was the first film from Guatemala and Central America ever presented at that festival. It won the Queer Lion, which is the award given to the best movie with LGBT themes or culture. Yet, it also works as a look at a teenager in an impoverished country trying to survive.
5. BLUE STORY – With the recent release of Hamilton on Disney+, the mainstream is all abuzz about a musical that features a cast of predominantly people of color, as well as using mostly rap music to tell its story. A British hip hop artist named Andrew Onwubolu aka “Rapman” did a similar thing. It might not be the great history lesson that Lin-Manuel Miranda created, but Rapman exposes modern-day gang violence in the UK in a way that feels akin to John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, but still feels excitingly fresh and all done with rap music as a tool of storytelling.
4. LES MISÉRABLES – There have been several films recently that have tackled the Black Lives Matter movement. Most of those films have been set in the United States. This one comes from France and shows how the black experience in other countries can be analogous. Director Ladj Ly based the film on a real-life experience of his own, adapting the feature from a short. His work here beat out a lot of strong contenders to get submitted to the 92nd Academy Awards, as well as earn the nomination for Best International Feature.
3. DA 5 BLOODS – Spike Lee won his first competitive Academy Award at last year Oscars. He followed up that momentous occasion with a piece of work that I feel is even better. He too tackles the Black Lives Matter movement through a war picture and action-adventure that returns four Vietnam veterans back to the area where they lost a fifth friend. It has allusions to other great war pictures like Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as allusions to other great action-adventure flicks like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Spike Lee weaves history and present together so wonderfully.
2. PREMATURE – This film was also adapted from a short of the same name. It’s one of those small, independent films that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and for the most part has been overlooked. It won a Spirit Award earlier this year, which helped to put it on my radar. It also features some of the most raw depictions of Black sexuality, since Jason’s Lyric (1994). It’s about a young black girl in Harlem who becomes enamored with an older boy who has just moved there from the South. It’s a powerful coming-of-age, done with such authenticity and well-told emotions.
1. GOLDIE – This is another highly overlooked independent film, probably even more overlooked than Premature. It could be seen as a vehicle for Slick Woods, the model-actress who is at the center of this film. It’s about a young girl also living in New York City, but specifically the Bronx. It’s about her struggle to become a dancer or more involved with the hip hop entertainment world, yet she does so while essentially being homeless. I break it all down in my review, but this film hit me like a gut-punch to the soul. It’s emotionally devastating and swept me up in a way that no other film so far has.