To see the results of last year’s Grouches and to check out the fuller version of the regulations, go here.
The Grouches are back this year to award last year’s films, although I’ve timed this up to basically match this year’s Oscars. (Trust me, I’m glad to have the extra time!) Here are the short versions of my self-imposed rules and some clarifications.
- I do the Grouches because the Oscars exist, but I’m not going to use the Oscars’ demented eligibility rules for the 93rd Academy Awards because I’m not sitting here six months ago hoping that No Time to Die will make itself eligible. Judas and the Black Messiah (and, ah, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) will have to wait until the 3rd Grouches. This is very personal, but my own system says that the year a movie gets a wide release in its nation of origin is the year that it “comes out.” That means movies like Sound of Metal, which got released in the United States in 2020 after premiering at TIFF in 2019, are eligible here.
- Also filed under “I do this because of the Oscars” is the caveat about films which are not from Anglophone Commonwealth nations and the United States. Parasite was included alongside a bunch of American and British movies in the 1st Grouches because it was part of the zeitgeist. This is my way of saying that you shouldn’t expect La Llorona or Vitalina Varela to show up, but something like Another Round or Collective is fair game because it’s been all over the Oscars. This is, admittedly, our squishiest qualification at the Grouches, but that’s what we get for being a rejoinder.
- I’m not getting into the TV or movie thing, this year of all years. The movies in the Small Axe series are, as far as the Grouches are concerned, movies. And, look, fine, we’ll get into the movie or TV thing a little bit, because I’m making Bad Education eligible because if it had shown up on HBO Max in September it would have been up for Oscars, not Emmys. This is all fake anyway! Wake up, sheeple!
- The Grouches award a full-size galvanized metal trash can to the winners in the following categories, which are limited to five nominees and one winner unless otherwise noted: Best Picture, Best Director, Outstanding Actor (twenty nominees, four winners), Best Casting, Outstanding Screenplay (ten nominees, two winners), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Mise-en-scène (a combination of Production Design, Costume Design, and Hair and Makeup). The Grouches are proud to incorporate a new award for Best Music, which awards films for exceptional use of an original score, original songs, or preexisting music.
- The Grouches are a veritable fount of honesty and good intentions, do not play favorites, and will award its nominees in the order displayed below without designing the ceremony around a single individual.
Best Music: Lovers Rock
Emma and Minari both include some truly gorgeous music which contributes in real ways to what’s on screen. (As a rejoinder to the Oscars, I also like both of those movies’ songs-over-the-credits far more than any of the Oscar nominated credits songs.) I like the pulsing, antsy score of The Vast of Night and the way it gives credence to a low-budget film which is leaning heavily on a moving camera and a screenplay that’s like “Rock Island” for ninety minutes. And I mean this very, very sincerely: it is not every year that a song like “Jaja Ding Dong” comes into our lives. Eurovision Song Contest was one of the year’s truly pleasant surprises, even if I wouldn’t call it one of the year’s truly good movies, and that’s because of the music. They absolutely nailed the music. Writing a novelty song is so enormously difficult, and while I don’t know that “Jaja Ding Dong” will ever be as historically important as “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” it has that incredible genius of a simple concept, unbearably catchy lyrics, and unabashed doofiness that makes it irresistible. Irresistibility is not really a compliment here; I watched that movie on June 26th, and not sure a day went by where I didn’t hear “Jaja Ding Dong” in my head until some point in September. In more traditional terms, the film would be absolutely cringeworthy if the music didn’t ring true, but of course the music does just that. That song-a-long sequence is a rising, joyful coruscation, and even the Eurovision numbers themselves, from short entries like “Running with the Wolves” to longer ones like “Double Trouble” and “Lion of Love” are both delightful and effective.
But as much as Eurovision Song Contest hits a sweet spot…come on. It’s Lovers Rock. Lovers Rock is doing things with music in a feature length movie which I’ve never seen before. I was tempted to include Da 5 Bloods here, but for the sin of including “Time Has Come Today” on the soundtrack of a movie about the Vietnam War, it was banished. Lovers Rock chooses music which is more focused, and thus more evocative of an actual time and place. There’s some element of jukebox musical in it, down to the way it reuses “Silly Game” in multiple scenes the way your average musical would use reprises, but this is not about some pop star singing someone else’s words. When the entire room does “Silly Game” a cappella, guided by some vibe which has risen from the floorboards or the partiers’ beltloops, that’s church. It’s this brilliantly communal moment, a hymn raised to whatever god of house parties smiles down and cracks a beer. And then to keep that up not just in four or five minutes but throughout the majority of the film? Lovers Rock would be the winner of this category not just this year but most years for doing something with form which I had never seen before nor previously envisioned.
Best Mise-en-Scène: Emma.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
A much harder choice for me this year than last, when I had that Parasite house to go on. This year there’s not a Parasite house, or for that matter a Little Women costume department. There are other movies that I could just as easily see in this category; Underwater is here, but could very easily be replaced by Eurovision Song Contest or One Night in Miami or The Assistant or, and I’m being entirely serious here, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. For the longest time, Underwater was sitting in the fifth spot until it was replaced by The Father, a movie where the neat production design is enough to squeeze it in but the rest is almost a little pat. In any event, for a field that’s frankly weaker than last year’s group, it’s tempting to go with showier work, and Dick Johnson Is Dead, with its highly stylized visions of the afterlife and some relatively elaborate dream sequences, is pretty tantalizing. Like the Oscars, though, I have thrown up my hands and chosen a period piece instead. I don’t feel bad about choosing Emma for this award, for two reasons. First, the results are stunning. This movie is a heaven of hats both deep and wide, of pale dresses and dark coats. There are meticulously chosen gloves you’ll see characters wearing which contrast pointedly and gorgeously. Here’s a word I don’t use a whole bunch on a year-to-year basis but which also describes about 75% of the shots in the movie: ringlets. It’s not merely that there’s a lot going on, because of course there is, but there is obvious craft and care here that I enjoyed. More importantly, it’s a movie that relies so heavily on its places and faces, and so much of what makes this movie wonderful is in how everyone looks and where everyone looks that way. One does not get those ringlets without intense effort in Emma’s time, and one does not simply walk into so many radiant dresses without ostentatious wealth. Heck, this movie even leads with getting dressed, watching Johnny Flynn as George Knightley go through that long, highly collaborative process of getting into his fancy duds. The craft of artifice and projection are very much at the heart of Emma, and without the hair, makeup, costumes, sets, and locations it’s working with, I don’t think that comes through with anything like the same strength.
Best Editing: Scott Cummings, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The temptation to choose Lovers Rock here was really strong, and maybe that was the right choice and the Grouches are making a historical gaffe. But I’ve been a little more taken with quieter editing in movies this year: thus the presence of The Assistant, Minari, and most of all, Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This is my way of saying that I absolutely would not argue with someone who wanted to call Lovers Rock the film with the best editing from 2020, and I mean that literally. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is absolutely reliant on its editing, though, and if there were gaps in that discipline this film would feel naked. It’s not the screenplay that makes me feel that dread and loathing every time a man appeared, nor was it the actors, nor cinematography. As excellent as all of those elements were, it was the structure of the film, the knitting together of these ugly but not obviously bad men in the beginning of the film which makes every man suspect from there on out. The terror in Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes from the editing, and so does the enormous sympathy we have for Autumn. When the film is cut to be in real time, it feels like we’re in that real time with Autumn, hanging on every response she gives at the abortion clinic. This is a lean movie, and that leanness is absolutely a function of Cummings’ work.
I’m going to make an aside here that probably has nothing to do with editing, but this has been bugging me for a few weeks now and given the nominees here I don’t think this is an entirely inappropriate place to put it. There are three movies from this year which I think can cop to a charge of misandry: Promising Young Woman, The Assistant, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. All three were at Sundance 2020 (though The Assistant debuted at Telluride the year before). The one that got the most buzz, at least from my personal vantage point, was Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The one that ended up getting the awards season love was Promising Young Woman, and more than a year on I think it’s pretty clear that’s the one which has stuck to audiences, thinkpieces, Twitter, and so forth. I have to say that in a year where there are three movies which really have their eye on a patriarchal system and on what it means to be a woman who is vulnerable within that system, it’s sort of incredible that the one people landed on was, by far, the least effective. Is it also the one with the brightest color palette, the one with the loudest performances, the one with the biggest stars, and the one with dialogue that’s fired off 280 characters at a time? It’s a crowd-pleaser, something you can pump your fist to. You can’t pump your first to Never Rarely Sometimes Always or The Assistant, and even if the movies were inclined that way, it would be about as appropriate as pumping your fist after the Lord’s Prayer.
Best Casting: Gary Davy, Mangrove
One Night in Miami…
The casting award is as much an award for chemistry as it is any other single element, which is why I opted for three of these entries over movies that I think probably have a better median performance. Da 5 Bloods, Minari, and One Night in Miami work based primarily on the way that those primary actors in the cast fit together. (Minari got the last slot because as much as the members of that family work individually or in pairs, it’s rare to see them as a whole in this movie. Splitting hairs!) One Night in Miami is here and not particularly represented in the acting awards down below, and I don’t think of that as a contradiction at all. There are a couple performances I think ring a little hollow in One Night in Miami; Eli Goree and Kingsley Ben-Adir are good, but you can see the screenplay when they talk a little more often than you should; speaking of, I think the screenplay tends to marginalize what is otherwise a very strong performance from Leslie Odom, Jr. Individually, there are soft places, but as a unit those four guys are extraordinarily strong. Da 5 Bloods works far better with four or five bloods (and Jonathan Majors, I guess) on screen together at once than it does when it starts splitting them up, and beyond them I’m not sure the connection is all that strong. It’s why this award is probably the easiest to give out among all the Grouches. Mangrove has a really special cast all the way down, with the depth that Minari doesn’t have and without the gaps Da 5 Bloods does have. From Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby to the other members of the Mangrove Nine to the other activists to the lawyers to the cops to the extras, this is a film which never puts a foot wrong with who’s in it. For a spell, Mangrove seems like it’s going to be about Frank Crichlow, but then Altheia Jones-LeCointe starts to take a larger role, and just when you think it’s going to turn into her movie Darcus Howe becomes the focal point, and while you’re enraptured with him, Barbara Beese has these enormous scenes that put the focus on her, until finally we’re back to Frank again. That the film is this comfortable bouncing around between the Mangrove Nine—that it really believes in the power of an ensemble—makes it a basically undeniable winner for me.
Best Cinematography: Michael Latham, The Assistant
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I gave this to a Malick movie last year, which may mean the Grouches need challenge themselves slightly. (In our defense, go watch A Hidden Life and then tell me that’s not absolutely first-rate work.) This year we’re working with more immersive cinematography without necessarily keying in on prettier stuff, and just like last year, where directorial vision counts for an awful lot, I think the tried and true team of Kitty Green and DP Michael Latham have the year’s best cinematography. (Minari still has what I think is the year’s best single shot, so I guess Lachlan Milne can stick out his tongue and make faces at Michael Latham if he really wants to.) It was nearly a Mise-en-scènenominee for me, but I think the lighting and colors of the assistant, the overwhelmingly cool colors, the dimness of the lighting which makes every room feel cold and threatening and, of course, a little mysterious. Something I’ve tried to give more credence to is the skill it takes to do interior lighting and how that doesn’t come with the kind of ceiling the outdoor lighting comes with; The Assistant is an indoors movie through and through. This is not a crack against Minari or First Cow, but it is worth noting that my top three in this category (Lovers Rock, then Never Rarely Sometimes Always) are all about making you feel every inch of a space, frequently a cramped or compressed one. The bus in NRSA, that hot, sweaty room in Lovers Rock, and that hell office in The Assistant.
We could remark more frequently that Green and Latham come primarily from a documentary filmmaking background. This is not to say that the film feels like a documentary—its best scene is filmed with the conventional angles and cuts of a TV drama—but that you can sense the realism in the shots themselves. (That aside about the TV drama is not an insult. It is so predictable, so matter-of-fact, so expected that it only heightens the power of what turns out to be a pretty quotidian response that also happens to be shocking and horrid.) The camera will position itself so you see things from Jane’s perspective, so that you can see where she in relation to every other part of the office. Frequently we’ll look up at her, or her plus the male assistants crowded around her computer, and the frame will fill up to the point of constriction. The shot which gives us the most space? Once she’s out of the office entirely, eating a muffin across the street.
Outstanding Screenplay: Mike Makowsky, Bad Education / Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons, Mangrove
The 40-Year-Old Version
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
An interesting category for me personally, because at first I had a really hard time filling this category up at all, and then all of a sudden there were thirteen or fourteen movies I thought would qualify. There are also some screenplays with enough high points, especially in the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the movie, to be considered; in the end, The 40-Year-Old Version and Another Round succumb to some easy outs, unwelcome reaches for inspiration, and basically giftwrapped character work. On the other hand, a movie like Sound of Metal, which I think spends its first two-thirds being relatively predictable, ultimately finds itself in the final third. I was tempted! But in the end, Mangrove joined Bad Education, which I suppose is a sort of de facto first-place winner because it’s the only one of the draft entries I never swapped out.
Makowsky’s screenplay does a little too much circularity for me, but something I appreciated about the film was the way that it walked the kind of tightrope that any good mystery ought to walk. Bad Education never deliberately misleads you, but it also handles its reveals very effectively. Frank Tassone is a character ripe to fall from grace, but I love the way the screenplay finds ways to direct our suspicions primarily at Pam Gluckin and her idiot family, and then pulls Frank in when Pam looks to him for protections. The reveal of Frank’s longtime partner is a genuinely stunning moment; the movie has convinced you, reasonably, that Frank is already doing as many things wrong as one man can be doing, and yet here’s a brand new form of dishonesty to so many people in so many ways that somehow seems most heinous of all. That circularity is a mistake—one callback to the first ten minutes of the movie would have been more than sufficient, let alone two—but it’s not rough enough to remove it from the top-two. Mangrove was not my top choice here, and on a different day maybe I go with something else or decide that the characters’ fates in Another Round are less annoying, but what stands out to me in Mangrove is how enormously effective it is as a courtroom drama. The fashion for screenplays is to start as big as possible and then sort of totter to some conclusion, but I love the patience in the way Mangrove starts, the way it really homes in on Frank Crichlow and his basically humble dreams of running a restaurant and making it a place where people like him would feel good. And then, as it transforms from a story about a man and his restaurant to a courtroom drama with no small amount of speechifying and shouting, it makes that transition seamlessly. This is not Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom, but a place that feels real and vibrant, and so much of that is on the trenchant commentary that Darcus Howe has against the police but also against the government trying to put him in jail. That balance between “righteously satisfying” and “deeply considerate” is not an easy one, but that’s where Mangrove lives in those court scenes as well as in the streets or the restaurant.
Outstanding Actor: Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always / Julia Garner, The Assistant / Matthew Macfadyen, The Assistant / Shaun Parkes, Mangrove
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Radha Blank, The 40-Year-Old Version
Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods
John Boyega, Red, White, and Blue
Miranda Hart, Emma.
Yeri Han, Minari
Aldis Hodge, One Night in Miami
Hugh Jackman, Bad Education
Ferdinand Kingsley, Mank
Mads Mikkelsen, Another Round
Malachi Kirby, Mangrove
John Magaro, First Cow
Elisabeth Moss, Shirley
Clarke Peters, Da 5 Bloods
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Lovers Rock
Because this is the category with the most nominees, the idea of who just missed is somehow more tantalizing than in the five-movie rounds: Miranda Hart (honestly a toss-up with Macfadyen), Yeri Han, Hugh Jackman, Malachi Kirby. Han and Kirby probably give my favorite performances of the year, for whatever that’s worth. Kirby gives the kind of lightning performance which flashes like Daniel Kaluuya’s noisier work in Judas and the Black Messiah. And Han holds Minari together more than any other actor in that film, a quality I value highly. Without getting into every single person I’ve nominated, glue performances abound in this category besides her: Peters, Hodge, Hart, Raci, Kingsley.
After going for supporting roles last year, the Grouches have gone in the opposite direction. Shaun Parkes is the leader of an AWARD-WINNING CAST (see above), and Sidney Flanigan and Julia Garner are in just about every scene in their films. On the other hand, the Grouches have never awarded someone with less screen time than Matthew Macfadyen, who is in here for like, ten minutes tops, and we sort of doubt that we’ll see a winner with that little screentime again soon. There’s been a lot of guff about the number of sitcom nice guys Promising Young Woman squeezed into its runtime (yes, I’m doing this again), but I will raise you literally Mr. Darcy as the watchdog at the gate of rape culture. I’ll allow that some of this award is probably going to the screenplay, the character that Macfadyen is playing. The film builds so slowly and deliberately up to this single moment where Jane thinks that she’ll be able to pass what she sees as a clearly dangerous situation on to a sympathetic figure, only to find that he is actively complicit in this kind of perfidy, and that he is willing to total her career in the bargain. It’s not necessarily a difficult role to play, but I do think that Macfadyen does an incredible job of finding this guy on the smart side of business intimidating rather than playing him as some kind of outlandish villain. The key to this one is not in anything he says to Garner, but in the way he ignores her; Wilcock gets a call from someone he knows asking him if he wants hockey tickets, he laughs snidely and asks this other person why he’d think he’d care about the Rangers, chuckles to himself, hangs up, looks back at Jane, and digs in. Without him this movie just doesn’t land the same way. The same thing is, of course, true of Julia Garner. The movie hinges on her eyes widening or beginning to tear, her lips pursing, her smallness in an office where that petite quality is a feature and not merely a preference. It’s a performance filled with ums, hems, nos, buts, and they are naturally said and naturally knock down the image of a young woman who is clearly reaching for a hand and who cannot find anyone who will reach back. There’s a planned out professionalism in this performance, a tyro composure that fits someone five weeks into a job, but also such resignation and sadness as well.
Sidney Flanigan is on screen just as much, if not more, than Garner, and like Garner she is indispensable to, spoilers, one of the five best movies eligible for the Grouches this year. I love that the movie starts us off with Autumn in what is meant to be a very positive setting for her. She’s at the school talent show, wearing sparkly eyeshadow and singing, and when she’s interrupted by some tool in the audience, she proves her mojo and starts up again without a hitch. The temper is there too, as evidenced by a tiff or two at a restaurant after the show. It takes a long time for us to see something that isn’t an unflappability beyond her years or a frustration befitting someone who has been given an interstate course of hurdles to run. When we do see her break down a little, once she’s given the most kindness that we see her receive in this movie, it’s unquestionably moving. As for Shaun Parkes, there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s giving the best performance of the year (although if I were ordering them, he’d come a close second to Garner), and making that case means focusing on the melancholy and near despair that he feels. In the beginning of the movie, Parkes gives us Frank’s confidence and outrage, but it’s when we’ve nearly forgotten about him that I think Parkes is doing his best work, as Frank considers the plea bargain and ultimately decides not to take it when given something to hope for.
Best Director: Kitty Green, The Assistant
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Steve McQueen, Lovers Rock
Steve McQueen, Mangrove
First of all, yes, the Grouches have nominated Steve McQueen twice. (He’s taken the spot from Kelly Reichardt. This is a very Grouches problem to have.) This is a terrific accomplishment. After all, it’s not often that anyone even makes two movies in a year anymore, so there’s not a small chance that this record isn’t broken any time soon. A little cruelly, we have not decided to honor either of those nominations with a victory. The closest margin of the Grouches this year is between Green and McQueen for Mangrove, because Mangrove is a beautifully made film with incredible camera placement and movement alike. He makes that courtroom feel like it’s on the verge of tilting over with energy, unstintingly makes us part of the demonstration about the Mangrove, helps us see the legal aspects of the movie as a movie and not just as a filmed play. Can’t go wrong with McQueen here, but the Grouches are taking a chance and awarding Kitty Green instead. The Assistant is absolutely less adventurous than Mangrove in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish, but I love the pure grammar of Green’s direction. She has such patience in waiting to move in on a character, content to stay back with her shots until, all of a sudden, there will be a cut and someone’s face will be strikingly huge even though it’s not that close a close-up. Like Eliza Hittman, who would not have been such a bad choice herself for this award, Green goes for simplicity and we’re rewarded with a tight, focused movie.
Best Picture: The Assistant
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
A little shocking that the Grouches have snubbed Lovers Rock, with six nominations in six categories and one win. Other near misses, though rather less near than that, include Emma and Bad Education. As is tradition (“tradition,” but hey, we have to act like it or it’ll never get there), we’ll give each of the other nominees a moment before we get back to the winner:
- I nominated First Cow in Mise-en-scène, Cinematography, Screenplay, and Acting. Kelly Reichardt lost a game of musical chairs for the last Director slot. I have not really had anything to say about it despite giving it a bunch of nominations, which is a total accident because this really is one of the best movies of the year and it deserves a great deal of praise. Given that this movie has certainly gotten as much shine from critics as any of the other Best Picture nominees here at the Grouches, I’ll hold to what I really like about it. This is a beautifully shot movie, maybe Reichardt’s best-looking movie since her last period piece, Meek’s Cutoff. I love the look of this cast, the way that there’s historical racial diversity in the Pacific Northwest. Even by the standards of this awards show, it’s a little bit understated, and yet there is this wonderful audacity in using milk as a way into the folly of the American Dream and the fiery retribution taken upon intruders by capital. Lastly: if there were Special Achievement Grouches, it would be enormously tempting to give one to Eve, the cow, who I would die to protect.
- Mangrove was a juggernaut at the Grouches this year, with three wins on six nominations. With the exception of Eurovision Song Contest, I think this is the movie from last year that I am most looking forward to rewatching in the near future. I’ve raved about it a fair bit up above, so consider this to place to pat it on the back.
- Minari, like First Cow, went winless. Unlike First Cow, it went winless despite nominations in eight categories; the only place it wasn’t nominated was in mise-en-scène. Given that we only had eight categories last year, this is a new record and one that will probably stand for a while, basically the Grouches equivalent of The Color Purple at the Oscars. I thought Minari was a really special movie, a lovely balance between sweetness and realism and aspiration that you have to cherish any time you find it, because it’s a terribly difficult threesome to bring together.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always also feels like it got short shrift on the whole, even thought it went 2-6. I think this belongs pretty firmly in my top three of 2020; it’s a film that I had to overcome some hesitance to see because it seems like exactly the kind of movie that your average catchphrase liberal would flock to, and all you have to do is look at the Oscars is know that it’s up to something much purer and more serious than that. It’s a stirring movie about reproductive rights and women’s rights that reminds me of the famous Barbara Kruger design, “Your body is a battleground.” The message is not so different, even though the film is less combative than all that; it’s about a panging anxiety, the contrast between a nice normal girl and someone whose entire sojourn to New York is a pointed, brave political statement.
- With that said, The Assistant is my pick for the best movie of 2020. I’ve given thoughts on it via the actors and Green, and hopefully those give a good sense of why I chose it. The final thing that I want to emphasize about that decision, though, is how an incredibly ambitious movie can be very small instead of ranging far and wide. The Assistant is a movie of such confidence. It comes in under ninety minutes, it’s pointedly about a Harvey Weinstein figure even if no one actually says the guy’s name, and while it obviously looks highly professional, it doesn’t give the impression that it could have cost very much to make. The screenplay is fairly light on dialogue. It really only has one or two scenes which swing a hammer. It is not filled with stars; even its big names are big names via television programs as opposed to franchise movies or something like that. It takes meticulousness to make a movie this precise and scathing. More importantly—even if it’s not something that factored into my analysis—it takes bravery to make a movie that challenges the system this forcefully. In the end, though it’s on Hulu, The Assistant has gone fairly unnoticed. Less than a million and a half at the box office, released in January, no real awards season push or expectations. Maybe that was the system talking back, but The Assistant can at least say that it throws down a challenge, and that’s more than, say, the Best Picture winner at the Grouches’ industry competition can say.