As it was for many, 2020 was a disaster for cinemas. Doors were closed for much of the year and even when they opened, the major studios’ reluctance to release their big properties into a compromised theatrical market left them light on product. Depsite this, it has actually been a pretty good year for movies. The space created by the near total absence of mega-blockbusters allowed those small and mid-level films which had found a home on streaming services to enjoy more of the spotlight than they might have initially expected.
While the demands of reworking curriculum on the fly for online delivery meant that I didn’t get to write as many reviews this year as I might have liked, I still got to see plenty of films. Here are my top ten for 2020…
Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Alison Brie
The Lego Movie marks the latest step in the recent diversification of the Lego Group, producers of everyone’s favourite colourful, interlocking construction toys. The last decade-and-a-half has seen them produce a series of best-selling video games and DVDs, but a $60 million motion picture backed by Warner Brothers represents arguably their most ambitious step yet. However, rather than feeling like a film made by a toy company, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the writer/directors behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, have delivered a film that is surprisingly clever, creative and funny.
The Lego world is under the control of the tyrannical Lord Business. Business likes logic and order. He separates the Lego world into different realms, keeping the city of Bricksburgh separate from the Old West, Pirate Cove, Clown Town and the rest. He encourages people to follow the instructions and stifles creativity. But there is a prophecy that tells of the Special, “the most talented, most interesting and most extraordinary person in the universe,” who will reunite the Master Builders and remove Business from power. Somehow, the Special turns out to be Emmett, a simple, lonely construction worker from Bricksburgh. He is identified by the spunky heroine Wyldstyle who takes him to meet the Master Builders so they can prepare for their assault on Lord Business. Oh, and of course Emmett becomes quite smitten with Wyldstyle. But she has a boyfriend… and he’s Batman.
The Lego Movie is all about imagination, both in its form and its content. Visually, the film presents us with a world in which everything is made from Lego. And when I say everything is made from Lego, I mean everything. Buildings, vehicles, landscapes, water, fire, all Lego. But rather than this limiting the scope of the film, it makes it entirely limitless. The internal logic which guides the film is that of a child’s imagination. Rather than being kept separate and adhering to real world story logic, the different realms of the Lego world intermingle resulting in an amazingly diverse story where our characters include Batman, cowboys, the cast of Star Wars, Abraham Lincoln, pirates, Gandalf, Michelangelo (both the Renaissance artist and the ninja turtle), space men and Shaquille O’Neal.
A fun, irreverent adventure that feels a bit like Toy Story meets Inception or The Matrix, the film’s narrative reinforces this focus on imagination and individual creativity by taking its lead from the very toys which inspire it. Yes, Lego comes with instructions but the real fun is to be had when the instructions are thrown out and your imagination takes over. So while Lord Business desires order and conformity, our heroes are the Master Builders whose creativity enables them to see the potential of their surroundings, enabling them to dismantle the world around them to build something new.
The Lego Movie is magnificently animated by the team from Australian animation house Animal Logic. The animation, while clear and vibrant, has a slightly clunky quality to it which works perfectly with the limited pliability of Lego figurines. This animation is then complemented by a strong voice cast including Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell. You get the impression that these funny people have been given a little bit of freedom in their characterisation, so while the film is very much G-rated in its content, the humour has the same patterns and rhythms of today’s more successful comedies.
With creativity and originality in mainstream animation appearing to have plateaued over the last couple of years, The Lego Movie feels fresh and exciting. Clever, funny and with enough heart to prevent it from being a cynical product promotion, it is possibly the best animated feature since Toy Story 3.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen The Lego Movie? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Kerry Washington
Sometimes things can snowball. You can start a series of events in motion and before you realise, the situation has got away from you. For mild-mannered Dr. Jeffrey Lang, this starting point is his decision to go ahead with an extension to his house without the required council permits. Before he knows it his life has spiralled into a mess of cat-killing, infidelity, and ultimately murder.
The Details is a hyperbolic tale of the dark side of suburbia, a place in which not everything is as it seems and you never know what is hiding behind the pleasant veneer of middle class family life. In this regard, Tobey Maguire is well cast as Jeffrey. Maguire’s baby-faced appearance and nice guy persona – which served him so well as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – here combine well with Dr. Lang’s congenial, friendly presentation to disguise and contrast the darker aspects of his character.
Where The Details is most interesting is in the way that it challenges mainstream cinema’s usual dichotomy of good and evil in which bad people do bad things because they are bad and good people do good things because they are good. Instead The Details shows us bad people capable of doing very good things and good people capable of doing very bad things, so that when it all comes down to it no one is bad and no one is good, they are all just people.
What is notably missing from the film, however, is any form of ramification for bad deeds committed. That one thing can snowball into another and Jeffrey can find himself in a worse and worse predicament is one thing, but that there never appears to be any negative consequence or backlash for him personally makes the film unsatisfying.
The Details is a tonally odd film, with a campy style that seems to stifle the effectiveness of its thematic message. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes has given the film a light and breezy comic tone which juxtaposes its quite dark story. The result of this juxtaposition is a film that is quite difficult to know how to react to. You can’t bring yourself to laugh because the events are a bit too tragic, but at the same time you can’t completely empathise because the tone is too campy.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean