Top 20 films of 2020
Escapism was essential for everyone in 2020, which would explain why I saw over 50 releases from the past year (not to mention catching up on older flicks I had yet to see).
Regardless of whether I saw them in theaters or on streaming services (like most others did), it was nice to have certain hours of my life to keep me away from the outside world. Of course, the better films made me look at the world in a different way. That sounds like a lesson from Film School 101, but it is true.
Due to the pandemic, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences extended the eligibility window for films to qualify for the Oscars: films could be released no later than the end of February, as opposed to the end of December. I bring this up because, while films such as The Little Things, Malcolm & Marie, and Judas & the Black Messiah will be in the awards conversation, they are (as far as I can tell) 2021 releases, so I will not be including those films. Then there are films I was unable to see in time, including Extraction, Kajillionaire, Palm Springs, The Father, and Promising Young Woman.
Even with 20, it was hard to leave off films like Emma., The Invisible Man, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The King of Staten Island, The Way Back, Clouds, News of the World, and even Hamilton (even though I am not sure I would count it as a movie, I was totally a fan before it debuted on Disney Plus.)
The last film I saw Riz Ahmed in was as the villain of Venom, so I was more than surprised when I saw his revolutionary turn in Sound of Metal. As the drummer of a rock band who finds out he is losing his hearing, his performance is going to leave a ringing in your ears. (Amazon Prime)
Admittedly, I have not seen very many of director Sophia Coppola’s films, but that does not mean I don’t see her talent as a filmmaker (it clearly runs in the family). Her latest film, On the Rocks, shows a woman (Rashida Jones) suspicious that her husband is cheating on her, while dealing with her aloof father (a phenomenal Bill Murray performance) (Apple TV).
Even with a pandemic, director Christopher Nolan was dead set on making sure Tenet was shown in theaters. While it did not bring people back to the theaters as we enthusiasts had hoped, it was still a film that proved movies are best shown on the biggest screens you can find. Not to mention it is still original and thrilling, as is nearly all of his films.
While not as well known as another certain animation studio, Cartoon Saloon seems to be doing steadily well (the only other film of theirs I have seen to date was 2017’s engrossing The Breadwinner). Their latest, Wolfwalkers, is indeed rather predictable in the story department, but the stellar animation and storytelling is more than enough to recommend this gem. (Apple TV)
Remember that other animated studio I just hinted at? Very few studios have the batting average of Disney/Pixar, and they score yet again with the hilarious and poignant Soul. Someday, kids may learn why their parents were crying by the end. (Disney Plus).
It came as no surprise to me to find out that Spike Lee’s favorite film is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for it is the clear inspiration behind his Da 5 Bloods. It is thrilling and insightful, giving the world a chance to finally remember the great actor that is Delroy Lindo (not to mention one of Chadwick Boseman’s last performances.) (Netflix)
David Fincher’s late father was the screenwriter for Mank, so it clearly was a personal project for the director. It is hard to say if the film will attract people that are not fans of old Hollywood, or don’t have a clue about the making of Citizen Kane (I am both). Regardless, it is hard to dislike the film’s cinematography or the great performances. (Netflix)
In a perfect world, I would not have to explain to people that movies in another language can be enjoyed by anyone willing to simply read. That way, I could tell people that Minari is based on the experiences of director Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing in a Korean family in the 1980s American South. While Steven Yeun (who, once upon a time, was The Walking Dead’s Glenn) is brilliant and Yuh-jung Youn is the epitome scene stealing grandma, the movie belongs to young Alan S. Kim, who simply shines.
Directorial debuts, I assume, cannot be easy, but Oscar winning actress Regina King does that and more with One Night in Miami. The story centers on four icons of Black History (Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke) who, for one night, contemplated their standing and future for their race. All the actors are at the top of their games. (Amazon Prime)
A much smaller movie dealing with a big issue, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a film not for everyone. Teenager Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, who is rather remarkable) goes with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) so Autumn can have an abortion. The pacing may seem slow and the subject matter indeed controversial, but I was too overwhelmed by the emotional impact from the characters to care.
A follow up to the late Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee’s second film of 2020, David Byrne’s American Utopia, is one of those films I wish I knew how to put to words. If you liked the Demme film, you will love this one. The music is spectacular. (HBO Max)
If you know me, you know I have done my fair share of camp counseling in the last decade, which is why I was hit in the feels with the documentary Crip Camp. The film is humorous and full of heart as many disabled men and women fight for their rights through what they learned at a former summer camp.
Originally, I had a feeling that Stargirl would be the most underrated film of 2020, and I was right. A Disney Plus original film, AGT alumni Grace Vanderwaal glows as the titular character in a film that has authentic dialogue with shades of the late John Hughes.
Like Disney/Pixar, it is hard to find a bad apple in the bunch of films written by Aaron Sorkin. His latest (which he also directed) is The Trial of the Chicago 7, the true story of how a peaceful protest took a wrong turn in late sixties Chicago. A timely picture with timeless performances from a star studded cast. (Netflix)
T’Challa of the MCU will be what Chadwick Boseman is remembered for, but he saved his best performance for last. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he plays a young and prideful trumpet player with a dark past, butting heads with the bands’ lead singer Ma Rainey (an equally award worthy Viola Davis). Boseman’s death of cancer surprised everyone, but no one should be surprised when he gets nominated for Best Actor (at this moment, he is the front runner). (Netflix)
Steve Mcqueen gave us five films in 2020 in his Small Axe series. Yes, five. While Amazon Prime still has it listed as a mini-series, each film stands on its own. The first of which (the only one over two hours) is Mangrove. Like the Chicago 7, it is a true story about prejudice during a trial. I can think of very few directors who can bring out the true evil of racism better than Steve Mcqueen.
With only two films prior to Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao is truly making a name for herself. Her latest is sure to be in the Oscar conversation (along with actress Frances Mcdormand) for its story of parts of America we sometimes forget, either by accident or (sadly) by choice. It may seem depressing, but that does not make the film any less gorgeous. (Hulu)
Like the titular animal, First Cow can be seen as slow moving, but that is not the case. It is pacing itself and letting us know we need to be patient (like the aforementioned Nomadland.) The film is indeed not for everyone, but it is still a rare treat of a film about two men who form an unlikely secretive biscuit making business. (Hulu)
The second film of the Small Axe series was also the best. At just over an hour, the simple plot of Lovers Rock is of a neighborhood party for the local young adults. The characters are not given backstory (for the most part), but we still care for them as well as the cultural background. No other film in 2020 had a better soundtrack (though David Brynes’ American Utopia is an honorable second place finisher). Seriously, give it a listen.
By the end of the year, the last thing most people would want to discuss is politics. That is all the more reason why I am more and more surprised when I think back to the documentary Boys State. The film follows a large group of hundreds of 17 year old boys who, for one week, learn about politics by living it out. There is drama, comedy, heartbreak, and hope. You think you know how a certain character will turn out, and you are wrong. It takes a lot to make me care about politics, but even more to actually make me excited about it.
In the end, what did cinema teach me in 2020? No matter the screen size, some films still pierce into the heart of any filmgoer. Here is to hoping 2021 gives us some of those films as well.