|The 30 Best Films of 2020 by Jen Johans
For me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that while I love reading lists, I hate making them. Coming up with a quick and dirty Top 5 in the company of friends can be a fun conversational tool to stir debate among film geeks but the prospect of actually sitting down to make a definitive ranking of titles is about as appealing as deep cleaning my refrigerator.
No two lists are alike, just like no two “three-star” movies are alike. I'd much rather champion or critique films in longer pieces throughout the year to inspire greater thought than rely on the quick stars I slap on a film on my Letterboxd account for record-keeping.
It all boils down to taste and criteria, both of which differ wildly from one person to the next. Should you choose your favorite films or the ones you think of when you hear the word best? When asked to explain the difference between the two, the example I always give is Martin Scorsese, whose “Raging Bull” I consider to be his greatest masterpiece yet “Goodfellas” is the picture of his that I watch the most. But when it comes to best, is the technical side of filmmaking more important than the theme of a movie if its cinematography and editing aren't quite where they should be to match the film's script and performances? When should you let the shortcomings of a film slide and when should you more harshly judge another one?
As I began to look at the rather unscientific list I made in 2020 of my favorite new films, I thought about what I looked for in end-of-the-year lists back when I was just a casual fan signing onto “The New York Times” or Roger Ebert's site each December. I realized that while I knew that the more times I came across titles like “Yi Yi” or “In the Mood for Love” on the web, they moved higher up on my list of films to seek out, the thing I loved even more than anything was discovering something new that represented an individual critic's personality in a stance that broke away from the pack.
Some films are, of course, objectively great, and that is the first criteria I used when compiling my list. Starting with the query to list the films that I consider the best of the year, I went with that “Raging Bull” vs. “Goodfellas” dynamic in listing unequivocally excellent films first but once those were out of the way, I started to play. I moved them to various locations in the rankings, by considering other questions as well.
Namely, which films spoke to me the most on a personal level as a 39-year-old disabled woman with my particular worldview and set of experiences? Which ones perhaps meant more to me in 2020 than they would've just one year earlier? If I'd never seen any of the films from 2020, which ones would I want a friend to tell me to see first?
I meant to make a Top 20 of '20 list but my first draft went well past 50 films so I arrived at 30 as a means of compromise. The last movie that I saw in a theater was nearly a year ago and while I miss that communal experience, even without the theater, some truly amazing films were released last year. There are a handful of titles on this list that I watched more than once, including the top film, which I loved so much that I watched it twice in one week. Similarly, there are others you will see here that I found so hard-hitting that I know it will be a long time before I'm able to revisit them. I'm limited to the works that I have access to and/or have seen so far so this list might be right for today but it will inevitably shift with time and greater access to more movies. And as my whims change, something I currently have in my Top 5 or 10 might drop to my Top 20, and vice versa, and others might fall off this list completely.
While working on this project, I quickly realized that I shouldn't write about each film on this list individually for two reasons: the first being that I'm so passionate about these movies that it would be several thousand words long, and the second is that I want you to have that same sense of discovery that I had when I finally sat down to watch, say, 2002's “City of God” for the first time.
My advice to you is don't read too much about these films ahead of time before you push play. My friend, the veteran critic, and screenwriter Drew McWeeny argued on my podcast
Watch With Jen that reading film criticism should be saved until after you've watched a movie and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I love and respect film writing and do my best not to spoil any plot points in my pieces but I know that as a consumer in my own right, I do the same thing as Drew. I save the reviews I want to read until after I've seen the movie and have sat with it for a while.
It's incredibly valuable to bring other points of view into my relationship with a movie, whether I agree or disagree with their critique. Honestly, back in the "before times" when press screenings were safe to attend, I opted not to discuss new films very much with fellow critics and chose to instead think about it privately for at least twenty-four hours before I wrote my piece to avoid hyperbole or a rush to judgment. I didn't start out like this of course, because it took some time for me to learn that it's okay not to know what to think about a film right away.
It's said that the legendary critic Gene Siskel would leave the theater rather than see the trailers for upcoming features back when he was writing for “The Chicago Tribune.” While I've never gone that far, I do find myself only watching thirty seconds or so of a YouTube trailer to get the feel of a movie I might agree to review without the disappointment of inevitable spoilers. I love going into a movie knowing little to nothing about it.
Now that we're all home during the pandemic and so much great cinema is available with the push of a button, I encourage you to try something new. Check out films from genres you normally don't embrace and be sure to explore titles from other countries as well. View movie-watching as a new adventure. After all, it's a way to safely travel in the comfort of your own home in 2021. I know that having the ability to go to Greece and swim in the sea with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is a big part of the reason that I ranked their newest “Trip” film so highly on this list. Yet even though the rest of the movies I included aren't comedic travelogues, they do offer you the chance to escape reality for a while by going back in time or walking in the shoes of someone you'd never expect to meet in your everyday life.
Like seeing a “you are here” sticker on a map, a majority of the best movies of the year opted for a neorealistic approach to storytelling. They aim to drop you directly into the world of their protagonist and lose you for a while. From blue-collar workers going wherever they need to go for work as modern-day nomads to heavy metal drummers or farmers doing the same, most of these films use blisteringly compelling first-person or small ensemble narratives. Concentrating on individuals living their lives on the fringes, we encounter the uncelebrated souls of people just getting by, the un-Coogan and Brydons, if you will.
When writing about what these movies have in common, some critics preferred to zero in on the Me Too aspect apparent in many of 2020's best features and it is definitely there. The popularity of this vital theme, along with the fact that over a dozen of the films in my unedited list of '20 favorites were made by women cannot be understated when evaluating the year's best works. However, I think the real story here is that in a largely (and thankfully) superhero-free year, filmmakers have argued that the real superheroes are the ones who are not “the best” genetic specimens but rather, the ones who get up and do the best they can, regardless of race, gender, or ability.
Navigating wrongs as they're able while also knowing that they still need to put food on the table, in many of these movies, there's a recurring question of who has and what it means to have power. Many of our main characters are backed into a corner and forced to reconcile what it is that they need in this life with what they want. The desire to simplify, to make a connection, and to find meaning even in a world where things aren't fair is felt throughout all of these works, regardless of who the film's subjects are. We see this when we tag along with guests to a 1980s West London dance party, when we watch a Czech artist find a new friend and muse in the Norwegian thief who stole two of her paintings, and in a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker in Italy trying to come to terms with his own demons and desires.
A combination of “best” and “favorite” movies, including the ones I immediately recommended to others and the ones that kept me up nights, when given the impossible task of making a list, I took a cue from these films and found my own meaning as well. In the end, don't ask me to explain it. Just enjoy the movies because then it’s time for you to decide.
Jen's 30 Best Films of '20
1) “David Byrne’s American Utopia”
2) “Sound of Metal”
5) “Small Axe: Lovers Rock”
8) “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
10) “A Sun”
12) “Another Round”
16) “Black Bear”
17) “One Night in Miami”
18) “Saint Frances”
19) “First Cow”
21) “News of the World”
22) “The Burnt Orange Heresy”
23) “Da 5 Bloods”
26) "The Vast of Night"
30) “Corpus Christi”
"Holiday Affair" (1949)
Fresh off starring in two 1948 westerns, the romantic "Rachel and the Stranger,"
and the noirish "Blood on the Moon,"
perhaps the last thing that Robert Mitchum wanted to do was make a Christmas romcom. But pushed into starring in "Holiday Affair" opposite Janet Leigh, after RKO head honcho Howard Hughes ordered him to make the picture following his arrest and jail sentence for marijuana possession one year earlier, Mitchum turned in a sly, shaggy dog performance so sexy that had Hughes thought it all the way through, he might've changed his mind about casting him altogether.
Fortunately for Mitchum fans, hindsight is 20/20. And although the film was a box office disaster when it was released – which might have had more to do with the confusingly noir-inspired ad campaign than anything else – "Holiday Affair" has since turned into a classic Christmas staple, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, which regularly airs director Don Hartman's film multiple times every winter.
In the movie, Mitchum stars as Steve Mason, a veritable Kerouac-like beatnik ahead of his time. Selling toys in an upscale New York City department store to make enough money to pursue his passion for making and restoring boats on the coast, Steve loses his job after he fails to report Janet Leigh's comparison shopper Connie Ennis, a war widow and single mother of the sweetly mischievous young Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Falling for Connie, after Steve makes the grand gesture of buying her son the expensive toy train set he'd had his eye on, he complicates Connie's already slightly strained relationship with her loyal and kind no-sparks beau, Carl (played by Wendell Corey).
With screwball-worthy elements including a hilarious sequence that plays out in court and one of the steamiest holiday screen kisses in this or any year (in a moment that word is Janet Leigh didn't even know was coming), "Holiday Affair" is a winning, admittedly odd, yet adorable romantic comedy. Featuring a Lux Radio Theater production of the tale, which was based upon John D. Weaver's story "Christmas Gift" and adapted by screenwriter Isobel Lennart (who would write for Mitchum once again in both "The Sundowners" and "Two for the Seesaw"), this crisp transfer of the wintry black-and-white film has been newly released on Warner Archive Blu-ray.
"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)
Though by now the plot device has been used so many times in romantic storytelling that it's spawned an entire subgenre of the trope titled "enemies to lovers" fiction, one of the most endearing early examples of this in screen romantic comedy can be found in director Ernst Lubitsch's bittersweet 1940 holiday classic "The Shop Around the Corner."
Based on the 1937 play "Parfumerie," by Hungarian writer Miklós László, which was adapted by longtime Lubitsch screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (in addition to an uncredited assist by Ben Hecht), the movie led to a number of high profile stage and screen remakes, including Broadway's "She Loves Me," as well as the films "In the Good Old Summertime," and "You've Got Mail" (which was also inspired by the classic enemies to lovers Jane Austen novel, "Pride and Prejudice").
Notable for its decision to leave politics out of the equation but pay tribute to its origins by setting the action in Hungary at a time when America was on the long on-ramp towards the second world war, "The Shop Around the Corner" takes place just before Christmastime in the small Budapest based Matuschek and Company leather goods shop.
Getting to know a trio of its handful of workers intimately, the film primarily revolves around the store's kind boss in the midst of a personal crisis, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), as well as his loyal right-hand man Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), and the store's newest employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Pitted against one another in real life with their dueling sales practices and taste, the viewer soon discovers that Alfred and Klara are at the same time also falling in love on paper as anonymous correspondents, writing each other romantic love letters which are delivered to numbered post office boxes.
With its trademark sophisticated Lubitsch wit, which boldly alternates from subtly sexy lines such as "I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there” and a startlingly sad subplot concerning Matuschek which takes the film into much darker territory, "The Shop Around the Corner" is that rarest of all holiday movies. Still incredibly modern in the way that it acknowledges both the romantic highs and lonely lows of the season, it's a refreshingly mature, grown-up work that makes today's overly beige, cookie-cutter, assembly line ready made-for-cable movies feel outdated and far too quaintly naive by comparison.
Though "The Shop Around the Corner" is a lovely romance all around, it's still undoubtedly Morgan's Matuschek that most tugs at the heartstrings both from an acting standpoint and when you watch the film in the devastation of 2020. Still, "Shop" generates most of its fire from the winning chemistry of Stewart and Sullavan as we find ourselves siding first with one lead followed by the other from one scene to the next. Enviably written and performed, despite how much I enjoyed both of its famous American remakes, this even-handed approach didn't translate nearly as well in "In the Good Old Summertime" or "You've Got Mail" since we're predominantly only drawn in by the female protagonists' plights throughout.
Beautifully shot by Lubitsch's frequent DP William H. Daniels, who's also well-known for being Greta Garbo's personal cinematographer, the film's lushly snowy black-and-white photography is given a glossy new shine in Warner Archive's new Blu-ray release of the film, which includes two radio broadcasts of "Shop" along with the bonus feature "A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound."
Filled with shiny, almost luridly bright colors and a razor-sharp eye for startling subtext, when master filmmaker Douglas Sirk described one of his philosophies behind such grand '50s melodramas as "All That Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life," and "Written on the Wind," he said, "you have to think with the heart."
It's this piece of advice as well as the stylistic choices made in those opulent films that we think of most when we watch the impressionistically Sirkian works produced by writer-directors Wong Kar-wai and Todd Haynes. Two of contemporary cinema's greatest filmmakers, in addition to Sirk's incredibly influential '50s output, both Wong's "In the Mood for Love" and Haynes' "Carol" feel like they were a major source of inspiration for writer-director Eugene Ashe's new, exquisitely lush period romance "Sylvie's Love," which bows this week on Amazon Prime.
Set in the late 1950s through the early '60s, "Sylvie's Love" is a passionate celebration of jazz, art, fashion, and above all, swoon-worthy, damn the torpedoes romance. As such, it's a film that thinks with (and is dedicated to) the heart. A stunner for its aesthetic choices alone, "Sylvie's Love" feels like it was made with the same Haynes-like obsessive care that the auteur used to create "Far From Heaven" and "Carol." The result is a work that not only seems like it belongs in the period in which it is set but looks like a long-lost studio venture made in a bygone era as well.
The type of film which, to use a very 2020 meme-worthy phrase, could be aptly described as "a mood," this sweepingly romantic work centers on two young aspiring creatives who meet and fall in love but take years to get the timing right.
Working in her father's record shop while dreaming of a future producing television, even at a time when such a pursuit seems impossible for a young Black woman, Tessa Thompson's elegant, ambitious Sylvie finds herself falling for her new coworker Robert (played by Nnamdi Asomugha). A gifted up-and-coming jazz tenor saxophonist who only took the job so he could get close to his crush, the chemistry shared by fiery leads Asomugha and Thompson is fiercely compelling.
Complicating matters, although she's engaged to a man from a wealthy, highly respected family who is currently overseas in the military, Sylvie can't help but respond to the pull she feels to this man who sees her for who she is and admires her dreams for the future, as opposed to merely respecting her family's status or what she represents to him as an acquisition.
Though influenced by '50s era melodramas, "Sylvie's Love" frequently calls up the sights and sounds of Wong Kar-wai's most famous films. We see this first in a shot of Sylvie looking at Robert with longing from the backseat of a cab (which is a motif used throughout Wong's oeuvre) and once again in Ashe's usage of the song, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," which Wong weaponized to intoxicating effect in "In the Mood for Love." While the Nat King Cole version was played in Wong's film, here in "Sylvie's Love," the number is performed by a singer played by Eva Longoria.
A passion project for Ashe, who set out to honor his family's memories and photographs from the period, while the film's narrative arc underwhelms and its resolution is not only rushed but anticlimactic, it's easy to forgive "Sylvie's Love" its missteps because it's such an overwhelmingly gorgeous picture all around.
Shot by Mira Nair's legendary "Monsoon Wedding" cinematographer Declan Quinn, "Sylvie's" buttery visuals put a high gloss sheen on Phoenix Mellow's vintage costumes (which include regal Chanel couture for brand ambassador Tessa Thompson), as well as production designer Mayne Berke's '50s studio backlot built sets of New York City.
Additionally boasting an enviably impressive score by Fabrice Lecomte, who both used strings similar to the way they work so well in Haynes' Sirkian pictures "Far From Heaven" and "Carol," and also composed all of the bebop numbers for Robert's fictional quartet, the film's handsome production specs will win over jazz fans and classic movie lovers alike.
Giving Black audiences a dizzying, long overdue '50s and '60s era romantic melodrama of their own (despite introducing but then quickly shying away from historical issues regarding race), "Sylvie's Love" is a sumptuously entertaining ode to Black love made by a skilled filmmaker who, just like Douglas Sirk, thinks with his heart.
Swanky, immaculate, and impractical, "I'm Your Woman" opens in the luxe '70s Pennsylvania home afforded to Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) by her husband's life of crime. Also given to Jean within the first five minutes of the movie is a new baby that her man Eddie (Bill Heck) delivers like a jumpsuit, string of pearls, or new stereo that might have fallen off the back of a truck in his vicinity over the years.
The only difference between this and the typical swag that the veteran thief brings home is that this property is not only hot but it's also a living and breathing thing and as such, it looks immediately out of place in this cold, catalog ready environment.
Sensing his wife's hesitation, Eddie promises Jean that it's all worked out. "He's our baby," he explains but then changes his wording later on. He's "your baby," Eddie says, correcting himself in a line of dialogue that's as much an important distinction as it is an eerie piece of foreshadowing for the film.
You see, mere moments after he says this, Eddie disappears from Jean's life. And no, that's not a spoiler, it's merely the set-up for this engaging piece of storytelling from "Miss Stevens" and "Fast Color" director Julia Hart, who wrote the film along with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz.
A clever reinvention of '70s cinematic crime fiction, in "I'm Your Woman," Jean gains a baby and loses a husband, the first when one arrives home unexpectedly and the second when the other does not. Thus, one man or – to be more precise – one "he" replaces the other in Jean's life and our leading lady goes from being the woman and the whole world for one to the woman and the whole world for another when Eddie fails to return home following a job gone disastrously wrong.
What went wrong on the job remains a mystery for the better part of the movie but it's only interesting from a tangential perspective because it happens offscreen. Serving not as the movie's climax the way that most heists are utilized in crime movies centered on male protagonists, "Woman" is instead concerned with how one man's actions and decisions affect the woman at its core and the baby she's left to protect.
"Something happened tonight," one of Eddie's partners tells her and, handing her a bag with two hundred grand in it and instructions to take the kid and go with a man named Cal (Arinzé Kene), we discern that that is all we need to know. Rather than stay with the crooks and either go to the mattresses or Sicily with the men eluding capture as we did in "The Godfather," Hart and Horowitz instead opt to follow Diane Keaton's Kay instead, or rather, their Kay in the form of Jean.
A light flutter of wind you initially ignore until it builds into a tornado that no one – not even the weatherman sees coming – Jean goes from a meek, decorative glass figurine living in her husband's dollhouse to a frazzled yet determined woman trying to find and hold onto any semblance of control she has in her new, now suddenly uncertain life. Who Jean is, as not Eddie's woman but her own (and now baby Harry's as well) is the crux of Hart's picture. And in a messy, initially submissive turn that's light-years away from her performance on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," gifted producer-star Brosnahan is there, fully committed to exploring Jean's compelling evolution every step of the way, even when she occasionally but realistically goes backwards instead of forwards.
Thrillingly original and long overdue, particularly for women (like yours truly) who, long obsessed with '70s crime movies, didn't realize just how much they wanted and needed a film focused on the characters that far too often get left behind in traditional white-male-centric fare, one of the wisest decisions that Hart made was not to simply turn Michael into Missy Corleone. Avoiding the pitfalls of over-correction that we sometimes see in revisionist genre efforts where, rather than accurately reflect the true setting and history of the period of the movie, filmmakers will just make the hero a woman instead of a man, Hart opts to embrace rather than escape femininity here.
Jean isn't a crackerjack thief or a hitman, she is a crime syndicate wife who's never been on her own before and has no idea how to begin to move on, even temporarily, without a man. In addition to Harry, who is bringing out a new protective side in her, she gets a second man for a time in another figure that would ordinarily be a supporting character as well in the form of scene-stealer Kene's enigmatic Cal.
A Black former associate of Eddie's who he'd entrusted to look after Jean and the baby until either he, Cal, or Jean can figure something out, as a new stranger turned friend, he's at once a calming influence on both Jean and Harry and an armed guard you don't want to cross to everyone else. Yet Cal doesn't only serve to save Jean, even if this is his initial function at the beginning. As the film progresses, Jean finds that he might need to be saved right back. To do that, she'll need to join forces with another woman – Cal's woman, Terry (a masterful Marsha Stephanie Blake) – and one who, if Jean is being honest, is exactly the kind of woman she's always wanted to be herself.
Sharp, unfussy, character-driven filmmaking that has much more in common with the methodical, building block-based storytelling we so often saw in the 1970s as opposed to most modern movies where people frequently speak in expositional monologues, this is a film that tells us only what we need to know at any given moment. Respecting not only our intelligence but also the talents of the actors bringing their characters to life, Hart knows that we will come to better understand the people who populate her film in time. Therefore, she has no interest in giving us a cinematic version of Cliff's Notes to tell us what to think and refreshingly asks us to sit back, get lost in her world, and figure it all out for ourselves instead.
Suspenseful and unpredictable in the way that it leads us down one path only to veer wildly down another moments later, "Woman" leads to a few truly exciting action set-pieces over the course of its running time. A unique hybrid of '70s and modern filmmaking with a lead character who feels like a descendant of Gena Rowlands in "Gloria," "I'm Your Woman" is first and foremost a celebration of genre storytelling.
One of those mid-range adult thrillers that – as the old adage goes – they just don't make that much anymore since normally, it would be broken down into six half-stuffed episodes of lukewarm prestige television instead of a feature film, "I'm Your Woman" plays best to those who understand its cinematic lineage.
Wearing its influences like "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "The Getaway," and other films from the era proudly in each frame, "I'm Your Woman" feels like a '70s movie released in 2020... if, you know, they actually made crime movies in the '70s that focused on what happens to the wives and girlfriends of a crook instead of just relegating them to the sidelines. The end result is a rousing film that plays like gangbusters. With first-rate production specs, including a dynamic soundtrack and crisp yet lived in cinematography from "Ingrid Goes West" DP Bryce Fortner, following this year's "Sound of Metal," "Small Axe" releases, "Vast of Night," and "Blow the Man Down," "I'm Your Woman" is proof that some of cinema's strongest new films are found on Amazon Prime.
Immediately pulling us into Jean's orbit, we watch as she goes from being defined by one man to asking herself just what kind of woman she wants to be both for herself and her child now that she's been left out in the cold. Finding strength she didn't know she had, in a film about people left behind, we meet a woman who at long last, knows her worth.
While intellectually, I know that I saw several films in the theater before this one, for whatever reason, the movie-going memory that's seared into my brain as the first live-action feature that I ever saw is from 1987.
Following a busy morning running errands, as three generations of Italian-American women – a fact that would only become significant with time and understanding – I accompanied my mother and grandmother to a matinee screening of “Moonstruck” when I was six-years-old. Although it didn't mean that much to me as a first grader and my love for the film would grow exponentially over the years, I have a vivid memory of not only the uproarious laughter that filled the theater but also the overwhelming interest and focus that seemed to reach a fever pitch whenever the instantly magnetic Nicolas Cage hit the screen.
Years later, I jokingly began to blame the film, which has since become one of my favorites, for my obsession with character actors like Cage, and of course, my unrivaled love of epic monologues, like the ones which were penned in the film by the Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Patrick Shanley. Shanley, who had already written the terrifically underrated film “Five Corners” would follow up the smash hit “Moonstruck” with decades of unpredictable work for both the stage and screen, including two directorial efforts with the cult comedy “Joe Versus the Volcano” in 1990 and 2008's controversial conversation starter “Doubt,” which he adapted from his play.
Shanley's third time at bat as a filmmaker arrives this week with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which, like “Doubt,” first got its start on the New York stage. Described by Shanley as the most pleasurable experience that he'd ever had as a writer, “Outside Mullingar,” was inspired by his own family's Irish roots following a life-changing trip to his ancestral home in Ireland as an adult.
A love story about two lonely, eccentric thirty-somethings living next door to one another in the Irish countryside, “Thyme” introduces us to the headstrong Rosemary Muldoon (a divine Emily Blunt) who has spent more than twenty years pining for her sweet yet shy neighbor Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan). Hoping that when his father Tony (Christopher Walken) leaves the family farm to him that he'll finally get the courage to propose so that they can start their life together, after Tony announces his intent to sell the farm to his wealthy American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm), decades worth of family drama and pent up romantic frustration come to a head.
On the surface, of course, “Wild Mountain Thyme” finds Shanley back in his “Moonstruck” sweet spot spinning multigenerational, slightly mythic yarns about love, family, and the way that both can throw a wrench into your best-made plans. Unfortunately, however, that's where the similarities between the two romances end, at least in terms of their overall quality. As awkwardly cumbersome as “Moonstruck” was smooth and free-flowing, although “Thyme” is filled with his trademark memorable speeches and pithy lines, there is something utterly laborious and exhausting about the way that it is all presented.
Opening with a fast-paced flashback meant to establish Rosemary's love for Anthony that doesn't get the gravitas or the screentime it needs to truly invest us in her plight, “Thyme” further steamrolls viewers by launching us into the middle of a debate with huge stakes for the characters before we clearly understand just who exactly everyone is and what's really going on. A film that seems to begin in the middle and then back up and change course altogether when suddenly Jon Hamm arrives like a cool breeze from what feels like an entirely different movie, although “The Prince of Tides” and “Closer” cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt's lush photography of west Ireland's County Mayo is warm and inviting, there isn't a lot about “Thyme” that's worth recommending.
Featuring another epic “Moonstruck” level moment of musical theater derived intertextuality as not the glorious opera “La Boheme” this time but the classical ballet “Swan Lake” becomes the touchstone for our feisty heroine, Emily Blunt is clearly up to the task of bringing one of Shanley's great, complicated, middle-aged women looking for love to life. And indeed, Blunt is “Thyme”'s great shining light to the point that scenes not featuring the actress tend to drag. Shockingly, we feel this most when the usually reliable Christopher Walken and Jamie Dornan try to generate our interest in a contentious but loving father-son dynamic that plays as though the film's most important scenes necessary to understanding their relationship have been left on the cutting room floor.
It's a major disappointment given the level of the talent involved and how much I was rooting for the film, especially since we have a noted deficit in modern filmmaking when it comes to sophisticated romcoms for adults. And while it works as a passably average travelogue of Ireland, complete with a few musical moments featuring Emily Blunt, as a film in its own right (and even without my cherished memory of “Moonstruck”) when compared to the rest of Shanley's oeuvre, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is wild to a fault but nowhere near as bright.
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