One of the weird things I have noticed since starting to review films is how some of them will stick around long after viewing, and some start moving out of my head the minute I’m finished. For example, one of the first films I watched as a reviewer was Get Out and I may have watched it once since reviewing it but I remember almost every single frame of that thing. Meanwhile, I saw Chaos Walking around a month ago and the only thing I remember from that film is Tom Holland’s in it… that’s it, that’s all I’ve got. Some films just refuse to be remembered… though, it’s a very rare film that makes me start forgetting I watched it while I’m still watching it, but The Midnight Sky did that.
In 2012, author Katherine Applegate released The One And Only Ivan. The novel was based on the real story of a circus gorilla named Ivan who was kept in the middle of a shopping mall until a large petition and the threat of a massive boycott got him transferred to a zoo where he would have something resembling actual freedom. The book was a smash hit, winning several awards and appearing on several “must read’ lists so an adaptation was inevitable and Disney just happened to be the ones to do it… and their version got nominated for an Oscar, hence why we’re talking about it.
Of all the Oscar films this year, there are a few that are actually making history for who is nominated, from the first film with an Asian woman director to be nominated for best director (Nomadland) to the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated for best picture (Judas and the Black Messiah, which I hope I get to see before the ceremony). Another history maker, and I can’t believe it’s taken 93 years to get to this, is the first Asian American man to be nominated for Best Actor. Steven Yeun earns his place in film history just for that alone, but he also earns it by delivering a beautiful performance in the film Minari.
Minari takes place in 1980’s Arkansas where a small family of Korean immigrants have decided to move to a farm where the father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) hopes to make a living selling Korean vegetables to local stores. This dream of Jacob’s is causing a rift between him and his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) so they are either constantly fighting, worrying about their son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition or at their job at a nearby hatchery where they sort chicks by sex (staring at chicken genitalia all day would put me in a bad mood too).
In one last attempt to hold the family together, they invite Monica’s mother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come and babysit David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) to try and give David and Monica a little more time to handle work and their new farm, but living the American dream is never easy and for the Yi family it might be too much for them to handle.
Minari is a simple little film with a charming family that you immediately root for within seconds of meeting them. There’s just something about the Yi family that makes you want everything to work out right for them and every obstacle that comes their way. There’s a certain ease with the proceedings, every new day in these characters’ lives is a treasure to watch and feels so realistic that it really didn’t shock me to learn it was just pulled from the director/writer’s real life because it feels so honest and pure.
It’s a rare film that can make even the irritating characters work, but Minari is so loaded with charm that even the hyper-religious friend Paul (Will Patton) has a certain something that ends up making you like him. Every character is so loveable, which honestly makes it even harder when things just don’t work out at certain points because you want nothing more than for this family to be OK.
The real heart of Minari, the part that I would’ve gleefully watched another 2 hours of, is the stuff between young David and Soon-Ja. This strange relationship between a boy and his grandmother where the grandmother is so different to what one might think of as a normal nana that the kid flat out rejects her. Not only do they get some of the most genuinely adorable scene (especially at the end, there’s a final shot of the two of them that actually brought a tear to my eye) but also the funniest scenes in the film.
There might not be many genuinely hilarious moments in Minari, it’s very much a drama, but it knows exactly when to play the comedy and has it so finely tuned that when the jokes hit, they hit hard. Most of the comedy comes from Soon-Ja in a performance that is the definition of movie stealing. I will admit I had never heard of Youn Yuh-Jung before now, South Korean films are sadly a blind spot (in part just due to availability down under) but her performance is so committed and hilarious that I’m actually angry I never knew about her before.
Minari is a touching, poignant and charming film that almost has more power now than anyone could’ve imagined thanks to real world events going on right now (Do I even need to say “#StopAsianHate” or can I just assume that I’ve cultivated a readership of people who aren’t assholes who need to be told that?). It’s amazing, a film that would be powerful and fun no matter what language it was in but throw in the fact that this is some glorious mainstream representation and a way to introduce a new audience to some fantastic actors they might not have known… Minari is objectively great in every possible way, one of my favourite films of the year.
So it’s finally getting towards the most average time of a film critics year, the month before Oscars come out when we have to play catch up on movies that we missed so that we can take part in the cinematic discourse of which films are the best films of this weird, weird year.
Some films require a lot of thought, you need to sit down with it to figure out what it meant by using a certain camera angle or how a certain line is a reference to a piece of ancient text that sets up something in the end. Some films are hard to write about because they’re so complicated that everything could easily be considered a spoiler. Then there are films like the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy which are just so easy going and sweet that you barely have to think about them, you can just enjoy them and not worry about them being anything more complicated than sweet little teen romance films that just barely approach the line of saccharine without fully crossing it.
Have you ever noticed how there are some movies that think they’re saying something smart, but’re in fact the dumbest pieces of shit you’ve ever seen? You know the kind of movie where you can almost hear the film theory teachers bouncing with excitement because they’ll get to show it to a class of bored 20 year olds who don’t get what’s so special about the film (because there’s nothing special about it) but want to pass so they make something up? The cinematic equivalent of a guy who wears glasses because he thinks it makes him look smart? Well, whatever list of films you just thought of, you can throw Bliss onto the list because this film really wants you to think that it’s brilliant but that would imply that it’s even worthy of thought.
During the last year, a lot of films and TV series have had to adapt to this strange new world of the pandemic. Some shows just stopped filming all together, others imposed strict rules to maintain safety. Watch a recent episode of Law & Order SVU and you’ll see large plastic barriers everywhere to protect the cast that had to be written into the text of the show. It’s also led to a lot of films being created from scratch to adapt to this new world of Covid.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A man is living on his own with no real desire to be around other people, especially kids. One day out of the blue a kid ends up on his doorstep and he’s obliged to take care of the youth because something has happened to their parents. His disdain for raising children ends up slowly changing now that he finally met one and just as he turns a corner and becomes a fully functioning member of society, the parent comes back and there’s an emotional scene where everyone realises that this mysterious man is a better parent than the parent, roll credits. Yeah, that’s the basic plot of Palmer and at least a dozen other films that you can probably name (why not name them in the comments, engagement is king!) and it takes an interesting twist to make the story interesting. Palmer has such a twist and it’s pretty impressive.
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have to be complex to be effective, it can be as simple as “Let’s throw a bunch of people in a room and see what happens” and it’ll create something fascinating. We’ve seen this in film all the time, one of the first examples I remember is a little film called Murder by Death which asked what’d happen if a bunch of fictional detectives were thrown together and tasked with solving a murder. It’s a fun way to work, to try and figure out what would happen with big personalities being put into a pressure cooker and having to interact. Of course, this can also be used to create a serious work that’s designed to grab the audience and shake them up a little bit… enter One Night In Miami.
You know, normally when I write one of these things, I like to think my feelings match the quality of a film. I like good films, I don’t like bad films and I can usually explain what they did wrong that I didn’t like. Even films that I’m in the middle about, the 2.5-star films that have no effect on me are ones I can express why it’s in the middle. Ammonite is different though, a first for me on this blog because it’s a film that I can look at and admit that it’s well made and well acted with an interesting story and a lot of elements that I have actively begged for in movies… but I just didn’t like it one bit.