The Oscars are expanding the 2020 movie year by two months in order for more films to get released and compete for statuettes. That’s a smart move, but on Dec. 31, I’m happy to make my year-end list and say good riddance to this year of the pandemic and all it wrought – including the push-back of many films to 2021 and the beginning of the end of cinemas. But we’re not tossing out the movies with the year itself, because enough good ones took the financial risk of coming straight to our home theaters. These were my 10 favorites:
ALeague of Their Own” (1992), based in spirit if not specifics on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, is easy to pick apart once you give it some thought. But director Penny Marshall keeps the broad humor and luscious period detail coming at enough of a clip that the flaws don’t hurt it. Ultimately, it’s a bittersweet slice of a time that truly existed and bizarrely – for reasons the film doesn’t address, adding to the poignancy – has never returned: the mainstreaming of women’s baseball.
Ben Affleck is less interested in playing Batman nowadays and more interested in roles like fallen small-town hoops hero Jack Cunningham in “The Way Back,” where he’s the only big-name actor. In this well-crafted if familiar film, Affleck – along with piano and string work from Rob Simonsen – sells wordless scenes such as Jack drinking a beer in the shower and saying “f***.” We can tell he’s reflecting on how his life has come to this sad point.
The first episode of the eight-part “The Bronx is Burning” (2007, ESPN) opens with a dugout clash between Yankees manager Billy Martin (John Turturro) and superstar Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) and closes with a locker-room shouting match between Martin and owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt). But as we learn over the course of this deep dive into the 1977 Yankees, what played out as a ridiculous circus to casual observers was really the clash of three strong-willed men in pursuit of the common goal of a world championship.
Aside from its wonderful locations and car designs that capture the 1960s, director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” (2019) is a sober re-creation of a niche slice of history. He trusts that 24-hour racing at Le Mans and Daytona will be exciting enough to capture and hold the layperson’s attention. He pushes it with the 2-hour, 32-minute run time, but ultimately he’s right. While non-racing-fan moviegoers aren’t likely to tune in to TV coverage of the next 24-race, this sport plays tremendously well in movie form.
With Season 2 (April), which recently wrapped its free-to-all run on YouTube Premium, “Cobra Kai” has secured its spot as the best continuation of a 1980s premise (a surprisingly robust genre lately). The safe, cheesy and sometimes flat-out bad (but yes, we loved it anyway) filmmaking of the “Karate Kid” trilogy has given way to a confident, funny, epic and ultimately heart-wrenching TV series.
The 2010s are the decade when the word “canceled” became softened and pretty much any old fondly remembered thing could be brought back (for better or worse). “Cobra Kai” – Season 1 of which aired in May 2018 on YouTube Premium – may or may not have been the most surprising revival, continuing from the “Karate Kid” trilogy (1984-89). But it is surprising that it’s this good.
Making a great fictional tennis movie is a tall order. The sport is naturally cinematic and filled with personal drama, and there’s no way made-up people and events can compete with what’s really happening on the pro tours. (By contrast, in a team sport like baseball or football, the idea of zeroing in on an individual has enough novelty value that even fictional people can be compelling.) Considering everything stacked against it, though, “Wimbledon” (2004) does not embarrass itself and is rather likable, if not memorable.
For the first 90 minutes or so, “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989) is shaping up to be the worst of the trilogy chronicling the coming of age and burgeoning karate skills of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The last half-hour redefines the film – somehow written and directed by the returning team of Robert Mark Kamen and John G. Avildsen – as a hilarious unintentional comedy. At least I think it’s unintentional; I suppose it’s possible the film was shot in sequence and the filmmakers decided to lean into the absurdities at this point. It’s still the worst of the trilogy, but at least it gives me my recommended weekly allowance of laughs in one sitting.
The Karate Kid Part II” (1986) is definitely a less sloppy film than the original, without its forbearer’s editing errors, but it’s also a slightly less interesting one. The sequel is often entertaining, but it’s disappointing to see that “The Karate Kid” is apparently going to be a follow-the-formula film series where Daniel (Ralph Macchio) encounters a group of bullies and ultimately defeats them with a special trick move. On the other hand, I can’t quibble about Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) being the focal point of “Part II,” as he is the saga’s best character.