Magnificent movies : The best of 2020

Magnificent movies : The best of 2020
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Updated 05 January 2021

Magnificent movies : The best of 2020

Magnificent movies : The best of 2020
  • William Mullally runs down the best films of 2020, from a brilliant Lebanese debut to another Pixar classic

You Will Die at 20

“You Will Die at 20” is a prison film — a prison entirely of the mind. In it, a boy named Muzamil lives his entire life shackled to the idea that on the day he turns 20 years old, he will immediately drop dead, cursed by a premonition foretold when he was only an infant. He lives in a small village in Central Sudan, and his every action is controlled by those that think they know better how he should live. Muzamil thinks he’s helpless, that nothing can ever change. The frustration, and, ultimately, the cathartic joy, is in watching him slowly realize how wrong he is.

It’s been more than a year and a half since Sudan itself set a new course, and the country is still alight with hope and possibility for what lies ahead. “You Will Die at 20” acts as both an accidental allegory for that event, as well as a product of it, signaling the bright artistic future the country will surely craft with the help of brilliant directors such as Amjad Abu Alala, the UAE-born Sudanese filmmaker behind the film.

The Nest

“The Nest” is about consequences, and how long one can avoid them before everything comes crashing down. It follows Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), an Englishman who tells his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon) that his old boss has begged him to move back to London to take a job. She soon finds out he’s been lying — not just about that, but nearly everything in their lives. Rory is obsessed with projecting success, taking advantage of every person who will believe in him until there’s no one left to lie to.

Even with the amount of complexity that Law imbues into the character, what truly makes the film shine is Coon. She, too, is on a nightmare journey of self-discovery, separating herself from the toxic man to whom she has dedicated herself and pushing beyond the boundaries set by her life with him; she, too, is dealing with the horrors that both his actions and her own have brought to their family. There’s hope here, too, full of love and forgiveness that is not bereft of accountability.    

Soul

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) believes he was put on earth to be a successful jazz pianist. Just as it seems he’s finally achieving his goal, however, matters are complicated slightly by the fact that he dies. Not ready to let go, Joe’s soul escapes the afterlife and finds its way into “The Great Before,” a place where souls are prepared for the lives ahead of them. One of the unborn souls, 22 (Tina Fey), has been there for thousands of years, never seeing a point in living at all. At first, it seems that Joe’s passion will inspire her to choose life. Through their journey, it turns out he has a lot to learn as well.

“Soul” is a film that’s searching for answers. It would still be a good film if it accepted the easy ones that it initially lays out. Instead, it’s a great film because it refuses to stop there, diving deeper and deeper as the story progresses into the biggest questions about who we are, why we are the way we are, and what makes life worth living. It will make you question yourself, too, questions that will linger long after the credits roll.

“Soul” is now in cinemas across the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

 

1982

There are some moments in our lives that burn deep into our memory, preserving exactly where we were just as everything was about to change forever. “1982” is the story of one such moment — the day that war broke out in southern Lebanon. It’s the debut feature of Lebanese filmmaker Oualid Mouaness, and it explores the ripple effects of catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself. A group of schoolchildren near Beirut navigate friendship and young love only to have it all upended when bombs begin to drop in the distance. They don’t know it yet, but they will never return to the lives they had been leading. Mouaness, who was forced to leave Lebanon himself as a child because of the war that started on that day, revisits one of the worst times of his life to give us an intimate snapshot of the trauma he endured, imbuing it with both dread and beauty.

The Climb

Great comedy is often born more from character than concept. “The Climb” gives us two great characters — life-long best friends Kyle and Mike, played by real-life best friends Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino. One day, the pair are out on a bike ride before Kyle’s wedding, and Mike makes a confession — he’s in love with his best friend’s fiancée. Things fall apart from there. The film is broken into seven chapters, charting the twists and turns their lives take as they work their way back towards friendship. As frustrating as they both can be, and as absurd as their actions get, well-judged pathos grounds the film in humanity, making the laughs come easier. Keep an eye on both of them, they’re the best new comedic voices we’ve heard in years.

200 Meters

It’s well past time that Ali Suliman was recognized as one of the best actors of his generation, and one of the best Arab actors in history. Over the past two decades, he has turned in brilliant performance after brilliant performance, playing a wide variety of characters, embodying totally different tones and spirits and carrying off each with flair and heart. His latest, from Jordanian filmmaker Ameen Nayfeh, may not be as radical a departure as 2015’s “Zinzana,” in which he played a manic and psychopathic prison guard, but it may be the best overall showcase of his pure skill, and his ability to carry a film on his back.

In “200 Meters,” Suliman plays a father trapped on the other side of a border fence from his wife and children, unable to get to his sick son in the hospital. From start to finish, Suliman is electrifying, bringing you into his character’s struggle and never letting you go.

Host

 

Most films that came out this year assert their relevance to the post-COVID world entirely by coincidence. “Host” is one of the few that can claim to be a direct product of it. Filmed entirely during lockdowns in the UK, “Host” is a horror film set within a Zoom call between a group of friends, who have gathered online to conduct a socially-distanced séance with a psychic medium. While its timely gimmick is its most immediate selling point, “Host” transcends its limitations, delivering focused storytelling, strong performances and genuine suspense, making it a standout in what was surprisingly a banner year for the genre. More than any other, this will be the film that represents 2020 in the history books — a well-deserved, if perhaps unwanted, honor.

 

Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood is one of the screen’s great icons, having directed 42 films over five decades, winning five Oscars. What a wonderful surprise it is, then, that aged 89 he directed what is perhaps the best film of his career. Telling the true story of the security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics who discovered a bomb and saved the lives of dozens, only to find himself the chief suspect in the investigation into that same bombing, “Richard Jewell” succeeds on multiple levels — it’s a touching character drama, an engrossing suspense thriller, and a vicious and uproarious satire of American culture. Eastwood has been interrogating the concept of the American hero for his entire career, often failing to scratch the surface. With “Richard Jewell,” he finally cut deep, making his most profound and lasting statement.


Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s ‘Voices of the Lost’ is a dark, profound novel

The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied
The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied
Updated 17 April 2021

Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s ‘Voices of the Lost’ is a dark, profound novel

The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied

CHICAGO: Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, “Voices of the Lost,” written by acclaimed Lebanese author Hoda Barakat and newly translated into English by Marilyn Booth, is a dark, profound novel that follows the lives of six men and women who confess their untold truths to their loved ones through letters. None of the letters reaches their intended recipients, however, and their devastating admissions are left to strangers who are then inspired to disclose their own secrets. And through their confessions, a series of letters emerges on life, love and devastating loss.

In an unknown part of the world, where war, poverty and destruction have caused life to veer in unpredictable directions, strangers struggle with the events of the past, both those they were responsible for and those they were victims of, which forced them into lives they neither wanted nor could have ever dreamed of. Split into three parts — for the lost, for the searching, and those left behind — the novel begins with an undocumented immigrant who is writing to an ex-girlfriend. He writes to her of the most profound and disturbing moment in his childhood, one that changed the trajectory of his life forever. From that moment on, life has never quite been the same, and it has led him to a dark place where he cannot mentally, spiritually or physically settle.

Barakat’s novel is a delicate experiment in confession and a testament to the catalyzing power of writing to reveal the truth. Her characters commit their lives to paper without the fear of retribution, confessing their crimes of infidelity, torture and more. None of the writers can return to his or home, to a state of comfort or to the past. Some have lost their countries, while others have simply run out of time.

Barakat’s characters must force themselves to move forward from their past sufferings. Where loved ones and society may not accept their revelations of shortcomings or shame, their confessions are a reconciliation with themselves. And in writing of their pain, they connect with one another. They are not alone, no matter how lonely the act of writing a letter can be. And in a moment of consciousness, awake in their confessions, Barakat’s characters reach a spiritual peak within themselves, one that pushes them to continue surviving.

 


US actress Yara Shahidi to produce new TV series

Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images
Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images
Updated 17 April 2021

US actress Yara Shahidi to produce new TV series

Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images

DUBAI: US actress Yara Shahidi is developing a new television series via her production company, 7th Sun Productions. The part-Middle Eastern star is set to executive produce and develop an on-screen adaptation of Cole Brown’s critically-acclaimed debut book “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World,” alongside her mother and business partner Keri Shahidi and Brown for ABC Signature.

“Honored to bring @coletdbrown’s incredible & nuanced telling of our stories as brown folx onto screens w/ my PARTNER IN CRIME @chocolatemommyluv! (sic)” wrote the 21-year-old on Instagram, alongside a screenshot of a Deadline article announcing the news of the series.

“The work of displaying and celebrating the ENTIRE spectrum of our humanity continues to feel more prescient (sic),” she added.

Published in 2020, “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” is a first-hand account of what it’s like to navigate life in America as a mixed-race adolescent. The book was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.

According to the author, the book is heavily inspired by an essay he wrote in college.

“What a dream come true this is!” exclaimed Cole on Instagram. “It still astounds me to think that what began as a college essay a few years ago has made it all the way to ABC. No duo I’d rather work with to bring Greyboy to life than @yarashahidi & @chocolatemommyluv. Let’s get to work! (sic),” the author posted on social media.

Back in September, Shahidi took to social media to praise Cole’s debut book, writing that “his honest reflections on the way in which racial identity takes shape and shape-shifts through his own experiences feels intimate, and yet taps in to the common experience of moving through space as a black and brown person.” She added that “It’s been a must-read in our household!”

“Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” isn’t the only project that the “Grown-ish” star is currently working on. 

The US-Iranian actress and activist is also producing a new single-camera comedy series, titled “Smoakland,” for Freeform via her production company 7th Sun.

The rising star and her mother announced the launch of their new production company in July and signed an exclusive overall deal with ABC Studios which will see them develop television projects for streaming, cable and broadcast platforms.


In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
Updated 17 April 2021

In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
  • Middle Eastern fans look back on 10 years of a show that changed pop culture forever

RIYADH: Whether you loved it or hated it, followed it casually or watched every episode twice, chances are you’ve at least heard of the HBO smash hit series “Game of Thrones.” The eight-season fantasy epic, which began 10 years ago today, has secured its place in pop culture history as one of the most famous TV shows of all time.

The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the show began on April 17, 2011, to an audience of eager fans. Over the course of its run, the show has garnered 160 Emmy nominations, taking home 59 of them, making it one of the most successful shows in history.

Najla Hussam, an avid fantasy fan who cited Martin as one of her favorite authors, told Arab News that the show provided a way for her to bond with her father, who started reading A Song of Ice and Fire when the first volume was published in 1996.

“My dad tried for years to get me to read the novels, but I honestly just wasn’t that interested. When the TV series first came out, he asked me to watch the first season with him to see if he could get me to change my mind about it. I was hooked instantly, and once the season was over, I borrowed all the books from him so we could discuss our theories about how the future of the show might look,” she said.

The show has also gained notoriety for other reasons. Due to its exclusivity of being shown on the HBO network, the show is also famous for being the most pirated TV series of all time. Consistently throughout its run, Game of Thrones topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access internationally to HBO’s viewing and streaming services.

In the MENA region, the show was broadcast on the Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), with previous seasons being made available via the network’s on-demand service, OSN Play. Leading up to the start of season 7, OSN launched a 24-hour binge-watching channel, with all of the previous seasons being made available.

However, in the Arab world, the show saw a lot of pirating activity for another, unusual reason; the OSN network broadcast the show in its full, uncensored version, which caused a lot of fans to hunt online for a version that removed or glossed over some of the more controversial themes.

Danya Assad, a 30-year old viewer from Riyadh, said that she only started watching the series around the start of the fourth season in 2013. She was only able to get into the fandom around the time censored episodes started to become available online.

“I heard about a Game of Thrones group online made up of fans who volunteered to censor some of the more unsavory content, and that was how I was able to start watching,” she said. “I loved the premise of the show, I’m a huge fan of fantasy television and I was definitely interested in watching, but the amount of sexual content and other disturbing themes really put me off.”

Assad said that while some fans might argue that she didn’t get the “authentic” experience of watching the show, she feels much more comfortable knowing that she was able to bypass the more controversial themes and still manage to enjoy the show.

“I loved Game of Thrones because of the political intrigue, for the richness and depth of the lore and the history, because of the unexpected plot twists like the Red Wedding, for things such as the fashion and the set dressing. By removing the gratuitous sexual content and some of the more violent scenes, I don’t think I missed out on much,” she said.

A man stands atop the ancient fortress of Ait-ben-Haddou, where scenes depicting the fictional city of Yunkai from ‘Game of Thrones’ were filmed. (Getty Images)

The show has seen its fair share of controversy over the past decade. Despite the accolades heaped on the show, the amount of violence portrayed in the series, including the deaths of many innocents and children, the sexual content, and heavy themes such as incest and rape, have drawn much ire from fans and critics alike.

“I couldn’t make it past the first few episodes, honestly,” Talal Ashour, another Saudi fantasy fan, said. “I can understand the appeal, but to me Game of Thrones just crossed way too many boundaries. It’s a beautifully crafted show, and I’m still amazed by certain aspects of it, like the CGI dragons or the fact that they created a whole new language for the Dothraki, but I couldn’t get passed the darker aspects of the show.”

But perhaps the biggest let-down for fans of the series was the ending, which many fans believe was a massive disappointment and a departure from the grandeur of the previous seasons.

“Game of Thrones ended for me after Season 7,” Hussam said. “The more they started to deviate from the books, the less I started to enjoy it. I think the writers did fine when they had more content from the original books to work with, but once they started doing their own thing, it all just went downhill.”

Martin, notorious among fans for being slow to produce new novels, published the latest book in A Song of Ice and Fire in 2011, the same year the show began. Martin told the press at the time that the novel had taken six years to write, and that a sixth novel out of a planned seven, “The Winds of Winter,” was still in the works.

“I think the writers thought they could go off what they had and that the sixth book would be out by the time the series caught up,” Assad said. “It’s such a shame that they couldn’t or wouldn’t delay the series until the book came out. A lot of fans were unhappy with the way the series ended. I feel like we deserved better.”

Assad is not alone in that. A change.org petition appealing to HBO with a request to remake the final season with “competent writers” began circulating online the day the final episode debuted, with almost 2 million people signing and the numbers still increasing two years later.

However, despite the controversies and the overall disappointment with the way the series ended, the show has retained a strong fanbase in the Middle East.

“I had a Game of Thrones-themed birthday party in 2019,” Hussam said. “I dressed up as Daenerys, all of my friends came in costume, and my cake was a replica of the box that held Dany’s dragon eggs in it, including three edible cake eggs. It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“I don’t think one bad season can ruin the whole series,” said Assad. “Even if the ending was disappointing, the other seasons are still incredible to behold. Maybe in time I’ll be able to go back and watch the show and enjoy it even more. And if the ending still disappoints me after the second time, I can always hold out hope for ‘The Winds of Winter.’”


Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
Updated 16 April 2021

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
  • Louaye Moulayess on why ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is his most personal project yet

DUBAI: Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess was born and raised in a divided nation. With Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon,” his latest major project, he had the chance to tell the story of a fictional land not unlike his own, and to lay out a path forward for how it may be united again.

“When I saw the screening of the film, I realized what the movie is about: It's about trust and what we can do if people come together. Coming from the Middle East, I really like that,” Moulayess tells Arab News. “You see all these different lands inspired from countless places, and basically you see them individually. But if they are so beautiful individually, what can they do if they come together?

Louaye Moulayess is a Lebanese animator. (Supplied)

“That message resonates a lot with me coming from Lebanon, as all this especially applies to Lebanon,” he continues. “I was really proud to be part of something that just tells that story. I like that message. I know It sounds simple, but if we can just show this to kids and families, for me, that would make me happy.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, is set in the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, which is not based on the Middle East, but Southeast Asia. In this fantasy version of that region, humans and dragons once lived in harmony, before mistrust and political division tore the kingdom apart, causing the dragons to disappear and chaos to ensue. The film follows a princess named Raya who sets off on an adventure to unite the kingdom and bridge the gaps between the various warring factions.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is Moulayess’s latest major project. (Supplied)

Moulayess wants people in the Middle East watching the movie to apply the film’s message of togetherness and collaboration not only to politics, however, but to all aspects of life.

“It applies especially to Lebanon, but I don’t want just that. Yes, you can apply this politically, but you can also apply this to your (apartment) complex, you know what I mean? It can be global, but you can also apply it to your circle of friends. This is the appeal for me. It doesn't have to be political. It doesn't have to be big,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess himself started small — growing up primarily in the Lebanese village of Elissar. From a young age, sitting on the couch with his brothers and sisters, Moulayess fell in love with Disney movies, and saw their ability to convey a powerful message. He knew, even back then, that was what he wanted to do with his life.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada. (Supplied)

“I felt something good. I'm like, ‘I want to be part of this.’ That was the first step. The problem was, I didn't see anybody do art (among) my family and friends. So I started doing computer science. And since there was starting to be computer animation, I said, ‘Maybe I can do something with the computer.’ I did computer science for a year. Didn't work. I didn't like it. It wasn't for me, basically,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess started researching, trying to figure out how he could get from his small village on the Western edge of the Mediterranean to the halls of Disney or Pixar on the other side of the world.

One day, he stumbled upon someone who could possibly help him, an animator at Pixar in San Francisco. Overcoming his nervousness, he decided to send him a message out of the blue.

Moulayess worked on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2.” (Supplied)

“I was around 16 or 17. I emailed him and said, ‘Listen, I'm from Lebanon, this is the situation: I want to do animation. Can you help me?’ He was very kind, he replied right away. He told me, ‘Since you don't have a portfolio, try to go to this animation school in San Francisco. It’s expensive, so you’re going to have to have a job on the side.’ He just gave me a lot of good advice. And it's because of him that I made the decision to go to that school specifically,” says Moulayess.

When he’d completed his studies, he managed to land an internship at the place he had been dreaming of: Pixar.

“And guess who my mentor was? It was that animator. I said, ‘Hey, I want to show you something.’ I showed him the email I sent him when I was 16. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I'm here because of you.’ And it was honestly a great moment. It was like everything had aligned to have him as my mentor.”

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. (Supplied)

Moulayess went from working on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios, working on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2” before taking on “Raya and the Last Dragon.” At Disney, Moulayess is not only able to add his own voice to the legacy of the greatest animation studio in history, he’s also able to thrive precisely because of his background and perspective.

“I'm very proud to be here because of the diversity that they try to push every single day,” he says. “They understand that diversity will bring more to the table. I grew up in Lebanon, and I saw movies that maybe somebody else didn't see or shows that somebody else didn't see, I read books, I saw Arabic calligraphy, I saw my culture, and I have stories to tell that my gym teacher used to tell me from the village where he grew up. I mean, who else has that stuff?

Moulayess worked on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios. (Supplied)

“At the studio, the chief creatives understand it's in their best interest to bring diversity because it means more stories, more personality. I think studios around the world are starting to understand this as well,” he continues.

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which he considers his most personal project among the 15 films he has so far worked on, he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. In fact, one of the most memorable bit characters in the film was entirely Moulayess’ creation.

“I'm gonna give you my process,” he says. “Basically, I get asked to do shots. And for fun ones, I like to shoot references of myself in the room. I put a tripod, and I just act out the performance as much as I can. I'm a terrible actor, but I try to hit the beats that I want to hit. There’s one character holding flowers who has a very comedic moment in the film. I feel it's me, I put myself in this character. I shot the references. The directors, Don and Carlos, were laughing for, say, two to three minutes. That made me happy. They said, ‘Do exactly that.’ So I animated him exactly to my reference video. I feel that it's me in the screen.”

Moulayess smiles. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m incredibly lucky.”


REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air
Updated 16 April 2021

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air
  • Netflix’s all-star movie has more holes than a supervillain’s scheme

LONDON: Back in January, when Netflix dropped a star-studded teaser trailer for its 2021 film slate, one of the most enticing snippets was for “Thunder Force” — a superhero buddy comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as a crime-fighting duo determined to clean up the mean streets of Chicago. The brief glimpses promised a self-aware nod to big-budget, special-effects-heavy blockbusters, but with a family-friendly air and a supporting cast with serious comedy chops (Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale and Pom Klementieff).

Sadly, if you saw that trailer, then you’ve seen most of the movie’s best bits already. The central premise of “Thunder Force” offers up the chance of a very different, very funny take on the superhero genre. Rough-around-the-edges forklift operator Lydia (McCarthy) is visiting her overachieving, estranged best friend Emily (Spencer) and accidentally sets off a machine in the latter’s lab, granting herself the power of superstrength that Emily had been developing for five years. After the obligatory training montage (Emily has the power to turn invisible), the pair must reconcile and protect Chicago from the ‘Miscreants’ — villains with superpowers — terrorizing the population.

“Thunder Force” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone serves as writer and director (the fifth time he has helmed a movie starring his wife), but can’t seem to get past low-brow physical comedy into anything more substantial. With the genre so overpopulated by the (mostly) very good Marvel movies, “Thunder Force” needed to be smart, funny and different if it was to stand out. It’s none of those things.

McCarthy and Spencer do have decent chemistry, but the script serves as little more than a string of opportunities for McCarthy to do impressions, overly labored running gags, (literal) toilet humor, or simply crude crotch jokes. Klementieff, at least, has some fun as powerful miscreant Laser, and Cannavale goes full pantomime baddie as The King, but it’s tough to imagine what convinced Netflix regular Bateman to say yes to the role of pincer-armed henchman The Crab. It’s a character that bears more than a few similarities to the movie as a whole: not especially funny, not really dark – just bafflingly weird.