My top films of 2020

To say that 2020 was a transitional year for film would be a massive understatement. All anyone could seem to talk about when it came to entertainment news was the Coronavirus pandemic. The ensuring confusion caused theaters to shut down and forced studios to either postpone their expensive blockbusters or attempt a digital mode of distribution in the hopes of drawing people to pay for streaming platforms (Mulan on Disney+ and WW1984 on HBO Max being the most notable examples).

The relative disappearance of high-profile event cinema throughout the year caused many movie fans to bemoan a perceived lack of quality content. Thankfully, the reality is that 2020 was a terrific year for cinema, if not for “movies” in the traditional sense. There was so much to celebrate in the cinematic-year-that-was. For one, stellar documentaries gained widespread acclaim on many streaming platforms, running the gamut from indie oddities like “My Octopus Teacher” and “Dick Johnson is Dead” to highly anticipated events like “Crip Camp” and “Boy’s State.” Not to mention that my favorite film of 2020 happens to be a documentary (see more below).

Another highlight of 2020 was the number of female directors stealing the spotlight and dominating the awards conversations. Yes, women got some blockbuster love with Niki Caro helming Disney’s “Mulan” live-action remake, but female-led efforts also dominated the critical conversation. For example, Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” to name just a few.

But perhaps the most important highlight of 2020 was the sheer amount of quality black voices. In a year that featured massive civil unrest as protests against unjust treatment of black men at the hands of police reached a fever pitch, the movies kept pace by giving us soulful, emotional black stories, ones that defied easy categorization and thankfully steered clear of “black Oscar bait” or “white savior” tropes. Special recognition should go to Steve McQueen for his sensational “Small Axe” anthology, released on Amazon Prime. But compelling stories from people of color were everywhere. I’m thinking of the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman and his blistering performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” almost certain to win him a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Other standouts include the devastating documentary “Time,” Spike Lee’s magnum opus “Da 5 Bloods,” Kemp Powers’ one-two punch co-writing both “Soul” and “One Night in Miami,” Aaron Sorkin’s sensitive treatment of the Black Panthers in “Trial of the Chicago 7,” and the fight against black voter suppression documented so powerfully in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and “Slay the Dragon.”

2020 was a chaotic year for Hollywood. But, out of that chaos, lovers of cinema had almost unprecedented access to a variety of voices and perspectives, making the year a rich cinematic journey for those willing to seek out its many treasures.

And now, my 10 favorite films of 2020, along with my 11-20 picks at the end. I hope you enjoy!

10. The Invisible Man

Thanks to the lack of available theatres to screen them, this was a sad year for traditional genre films. Thankfully, The Invisible Man came out in February, so a few folks still got to see it on a big screen (or on demand, where it hit shortly after theaters shut down). And this one was more than worth checking out for fans of quality horror/thriller movies. Helmed by actor-turned-director Leigh Whannel who made a name for himself with the severely underrated action flick “Upgrade,” this modern update of the classic universal monster story is heart-pounding nail-biter from its terrifying opening scene to its savagely brutal and cathartic ending. It should be no surprise that Elisabeth Moss is amazing in this, but the way she imbues Cecilia with a weighty determination to not only survive, but get revenge on her murderous ex-lover makes her a feminist badass almost on par with the likes of Ripley from “Alien.” This is one of those “water cooler” movies, where everyone who sees it must talk to someone else about just how cool the whole thing was. This is the unfortunately rare thriller that just simply works, and works with style, from beginning to end.

9. First Cow

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has earned herself a small but vocal following among cinephiles who swoon over her richly drawn characters and slavish attention to period detail in films like “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Certain Women.” Though I hesitate to say that “First Cow” will win her tons of new fans, it is certainly the best film she has made to date. The script, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, is so fascinating that it you almost forget you aren’t really watching much “happen” in terms of plot. But no film this year has felt more richly lived-in than this; the grimy re-creation of 19th century Oregon is a stark reminder of the savagery and poverty that drew such a stark contrast with the stunning natural beauty of the land. At her best, Reichardt draws favorable comparisons to Terrence Malick, and that comparison fits here.

But, what really makes “First Cow” such a memorable experience is the relationship at its center. No, not between man and cow, although such a bond is present. I’m talking about the unlikely friendship between traveling chef Cookie (a quietly compelling John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). The film telegraphs early on that these two will form a strong bond, but the actors sell that idea and draw us ever closer to the intimacies of the story, little by little. This is a film that speaks with a quiet and reverent voice, which somehow makes its impact even more powerful. Sometimes, we need to slow down and appreciate the beauty of a simple story, exquisitely told.

8. Dick Johnson is Dead

What a kooky, heady, weird, profound delight this film is. Kirsten Johnson’s strange tribute to her father is both a love letter to a man and a mourning, as that man slowly suffers from the effects of dementia. This somber meditation sets director Johnson’s mind on the inevitability of death, and she has an interesting mode of therapy: theater. That is, dressing her father up and “killing” him in various ways. He falls down a flight of stairs. He is struck by falling debris. He acts out his own funeral and a fantasy sequence where he enters Heaven’s gates. The humor is, obviously, pretty dark, and the behind-the-scenes footage of how the “kills” were set up, complete with stunt doubles and squib packs, doesn’t lessen the shock of seeing Dick die over and over.

But the movie works mostly because it is so funny. Richard Johnson is an absolute character, and I’m thankful that Kirsten decided to share him with the world. His ability to so willingly go along with his daughter’s bizarre experiments reveal a sweet and tender man who is also absolutely down for pretty much anything. You will cackle with laughter, but watch out, because the very next scene may have you reaching for tissues, as it did me. This movie is weird, but, much like “The Act of Killing,” the artifice of the drama allows us to approach some heady topics in a way that doesn’t feel like a manipulative chore. Leave it do a “dead” man to teach us all what it means to live.

7. Sound of Metal

“’Sound of Metal’ is the kind of riveting drama you have to unglue your eyes from the screen after watching. I felt such a special connection to the characters and themes of this film, and I appreciate everyone involved for making such a raw, compassionate dramatization of the experience of being deaf.

Riz Ahmed’s award-worthy performance as Ruben, a drummer in a metal band who quite suddenly and inexplicably loses his hearing, gives us a unique outsider’s perspective into coming to terms with a disability and the prospect of a radically changed life. Ruben, like many of us would, I suppose, does not transition gracefully into his disability. In fact, he is constantly scheming to raise money for a costly procedure that he believes will restore his hearing and allow him to resume a semblance of a normal life with his faithful girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). But Ruben is also a recovering drug addict, and so he ends up in a recovery center run by a man named Joe (a scene-stealing Paul Raci), who has plans for Ruben to integrate into the community and accept his disability as part of his new normal. But Ruben still has other plans for his future.

Along with the phenomenal performances, the film is also particularly noteworthy for its sound design, which is some of the best I have ever heard in a movie. The sound really immerses us into what Ruben is hearing at any given moment, as conversations become muted muddles and we struggle and strain to hear something, anything that sounds like normal. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, and it speaks to the power of cinema to take a very familiar redemptive story arc and imbue it with new life. I wouldn’t call the ending of the film happy, per se, but it does feel true, and I so badly want Ruben to be happy that I will follow him anywhere. It takes a special film to engender that kind of emotion, and “Sound of Metal” is certainly that.

6. Da 5 Bloods

Veteran director Spike Lee’s follow up to his incredible “BlacKkKlansman” is another oddly titled and extraordinarily unsubtle examination of the legacy of violence. Infused with Lee’s singular and urgent voice, “Da 5 Bloods” did not disappoint.

Following a squad of black U.S. Army Veterans as they reunite in Vietnam in the hopes of digging up some buried gold, the film, in both playful and serious ways, powerfully explores the issues of black patriotism and the ways in which PTSD affects the machismo of the soldier who is either unable or unwilling to move on from the sins of the past. These themes are fleshed out with fascinating details, such as the fact that Paul (an amazing Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and gets ribbed by his fellow vets for being a Trump supporter. As the film moves on, the violence becomes surprisingly graphic, as the injustice of unexploded land mines serves as another visual reminder of the horrors of war being passed down through the generations.

It should be noted that much of the film’s power lies on the shoulders of the late Chadwick Boseman. Along with his astonishing performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his performance here as the heroic Stormin’ Norman was one of his last, and best. Although Norman was killed in the war, the legacy of everything he meant to his squad mates permeates almost every scene, and Boseman’s presence hangs heavy over the entire film. In a film full of provocative themes and stellar performances, his stands out as something truly special. He is, undeniably, a legend.

5. Boys State

As an alumnus of the California Boys’ State 2008, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this intimate documentary. I was even more excited when I realized that this exhaustively deep dive into the intricacies of mock politics was being brought to us by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who graced us with one of my top 10 (maybe even top 5) documentaries of all time, “The Overnighters.” And I’m glad my excitement was not overblown, because this one is pretty damn good, too.

No movie this year captured our current political moment quite as potently as “Boy’s State.” Following a Texas delegation of high school juniors, chosen by the American Legion, to gather at the state capitol for a week and create their own mock government from the ground up, the film expertly threads the needle between giving viewers both hope and horror for the future of our nation. We watch as idealism is quickly overrun by blind party loyalty, as teenagers espouse values to a crowd that they themselves admit in private to not believing in. We watch the cutthroat use of social media to demonize “the other side,” taking them out of context and mocking them for their perceived hypocrisies. It’s all rather exhausting.

And yet, the film reminds us that there is hope for the future in those who find things worth fighting for. This hope is exemplified most clearly in Steven Garza, a passionate advocate for gun reform who tries to mollify a rabidly pro-second amendment populace in his race to become the “governor” of Texas over the brilliant and fiery conservative Ben Feinstein. It is a cutthroat competition, but when the dust settles, many of the boys are surprisingly reflective about how it all went down, and how easily they reverted to their baser instincts and abandoned their better angels to win. This is all presented through breathtakingly thorough camerawork and brilliant editing and music. It’s truly the documentary as art form, and also as democratic self-reflection—chances are, though, that you may not like what you find staring back at you.

4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

It’s safe to say that writer-director Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. From generally beloved weird classics like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich” to more impenetrable head-scratchers like “Synecdoche, New York,” the groundbreaking auteur has garnered his share of diehard fans as well as naysayers. His latest effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the book by Iain Reid, is unlikely to change many hearts and minds. And yet, for the Kaufman diehards (and the adventurous cinema fan), it’s an absolutely rapturous experience.

Kaufman’s scripts tend to excel at conveying the interior life of the mind through both trippy visuals and idiosyncratic dialogue, and this is perhaps the most purely entertaining and clear use of those elements. From the long, heady car-ride conversations between a “young woman” (played by a never-better Jessie Buckley—and yes, that’s really the character’s name) and her eccentric boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons), to unforgettable images like an ice cream stand in the middle of nowhere and an animated, maggot-infested pig, the film is designed to sear into your memory, regardless of whether you really understand all that is going on by the end.

Here, I think, is an important distinction between “Ending Things” and, say, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” another highly anticipated 2020 film. “Tenet” is a headscratcher wrapped inside of an enigma, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that, while you need to watch it twice to comprehend everything that happens, you’re not sure there’s much “there” there to chew on. With this film, I got to a point where I was enjoying the journey more than the destination, and I would gladly watch it again to help myself unravel some of those threads. There’s a difference between complex and complicated and I think Kaufman walks that line brilliantly here.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” comes with many caveats. Watch it without having any idea what it’s about. Immerse yourself in the stellar performances and rapturous cinematography (brought to us by the wonderful Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal). Don’t watch the film if you’re dealing with depression, because, as enjoyable as it is, it is also existentially bleak and immensely heavy. You may find yourself needing a nap when it’s all over. But oh, the dreams you will have!

3. Soul/Wolfwalkers

This past year graced us with two animated classics. I loved them both so much, I decided to give them a shared spot.

“Wolfwalkers” is the true masterpiece of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s impressive body of work. The third of director Tomm Moore’s unofficial “Irish folklore” trilogy, it is, put bluntly, the most beautiful animated film ever made. Cartoon Saloon has always excelled at invigorating traditional hand-drawn animation with an M.C. Escher-like energy, but the advances in technology, along with the gorgeous lines and vibrant colors, give the film the feeling of a painting come to life. There’s no way the story would have had the same impact if it was done with CGI animation, and it’s a testament to the power of the medium that a traditional 2D animated feature can still inspire such awe and wonder.

The story is not exactly revolutionary. A sheltered city girl who befriends a half-human, half-wolf, helps her tribe fight back against encroaching industrialization that threatens their home and their ancient connection to the land. At times, it reminded me very much of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.” But “Mononoke” is my all-time favorite animated film, so I guess if you’re going to borrow, it might as well be from the best. Regardless of its inspirations, “Wolfwalkers” should rightly be considered a classic, thanks to its stunningly beautiful animation and richly defined characters.

While we’re on the subject of beautiful animation, let’s talk about “Soul,” Pixar’s latest original stunner. The great Pete Doctor (who helmed such favorites as “Monster’s Inc.,” “Inside Out” and “Up,”) returns for another ambitious, joyful and thoroughly profound film. From first frame to last, “Soul” is bursting with creativity, imagination, and heart. Of course, we’ve come to expect nothing less from the geniuses at Pixar, but they have hit a few snags in recent years. This is no snag.

This is the kind of flick that, were you to watch the trailers, you think you would have figured out, or at least understand the general direction it was going. Thankfully, Doctor and co-writer Kemp Powers manage to blindside us at every turn as the tale of jazz musician Joe Gardner and his increasingly desperate efforts to re-unite his spirit with his body after “dying” take on more elaborate and profound implications. Much as Docter did with “Inside Out,” he is obviously grasping for topics, emotions and themes that are way outside the bounds of traditional kids’ movies. Even for a company known for taking risks, it’s somewhat of a miracle that this ever got the green light. It is a weird movie, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d also make the argument that, like much of Docter’s other work, it’s not really a very good “kids” movie. Many of the ideas the film delves into are not exactly ones you want babysitting your child, prone as they are to reflecting on the afterlife, religion, art, and the meaning of life. But then, Pixar doesn’t often make movies to occupy kids’ imaginations. Instead, they desire to challenge them in ways that a parent should probably be on hand to discuss afterwards. All I can say for the adults in the audience is that “Soul” is everything I want in an animated movie. The fact that it is drop-dead gorgeous and features a superb score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (along with compositions by the great Jon Batiste), make it even more endearing. For those who love art, music, or life in general, “Soul” is a deeply moving adventure that may just help you discover your purpose in life. How many animated movies can you say that about?

2. Small Axe Anthology

The question has bounced back and forth across the internet: Is Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” anthology series, released on Amazon, a movie, or a limited TV series? When we have stories this personal and inspiring, who really cares?

McQueen has gifted lovers of quality filmmaking five beautiful stories of celebration and resilience, focused upon the struggles and the victories of the West Indian Immigrant community in London between the 1960s and the 1980s. All five films, while distinct from one another, are woven together in a broad tapestry that celebrates the importance of community and brotherhood in the fight for liberation and equality.

There are so many moments to celebrate in McQueen’s impeccably crafted and deeply emotional stories. The highlight, to my mind, is “Lovers Rock,” a near-perfect shout of joy that preaches the beauty of West Indian culture as a cast of memorable characters meet up at a house in West London. The swooning camerawork and incredible soundtrack are hypnotic in their celebration of black pride and the way that music is explicitly tied to the fight for people of color to let loose and be themselves.  

McQueen also tackles the struggle for racial justice as he chronicles the trial of the “Mangrove” 9 in the 1970s, where black freedom fighters must come up against an entire justice system designed to oppress them. The film is brilliantly written and anchored by stellar performances from Letitia Wright and Shaun Parkes. The struggle for justice continues with “Red, White and Blue,” which stars a riveting John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a black officer with the London Metropolitan Police who attempted to reform the racist attitudes of the organization from within.

The fight for black equality is given much funnier and lighter treatment in “Education,” which dramatizes the efforts of West Indian parents to get their children to receive academically equitable schooling, rather than resigning them to so-called “schools” for the “educationally subnormal.” It’s hard not to draw parallels to more modern strands of racism in education systems around the world, and some of the revelations of the film are indeed shocking. But it’s all handled with such a wonderfully light and humorous hand, and is anchored by a spirited Kenyah Sandy, one of the best child actors in recent memory.

Finally, there is the true story of “Alex Wheatle,” which chronicles the British novelist’s life, from his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home to his embracing of West Indian community in Brixton, to his incarceration during the Brixton Uprising in 1981. The film continues the theme of music as a unifying force in the anthology, as Wheatle gains a passion for music and DJing that imbue him with a sense of purpose and connection to his true ancestry. The film is lively and graces us with another bright young actor in lead Sheyi Cole.

Taken as a whole, “Small Axe” feels like a vital piece of art in a year where black people were faced anew with the struggle for equality. It may not seem like the George Floyd protests have anything to do with West Indian communities in London decades ago. With his trademark craftmanship and slavish attention to detail, McQueen has gifted us with an artistic statement on the ways that the cry for freedom rings throughout the generations, and how true loving community is the major healing force for oppressed minorities to find true liberation and purpose.

1. Time

This past year has been one of tremendous loss and grief for many. As we begin to pick ourselves up and put back the pieces, we begin to wonder how we account for the time we have lost. Garrett Bradley’s masterful documentary “Time” is a profoundly moving examination of one family’s struggle with that same dilemma.

Bradley combines extensive home video with original footage to give his audience an achingly accurate snapshot of what true loss looks like. Through this, we get to know the daily life of Fox Rich, an inspiring woman fighting for prison reform as she struggles to commute the 60-year prison sentence of her husband Rob, serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for bank robbery.

Through Rich’s eyes, we see the exhausting struggle to fight what the world might call a losing battle, as Rich balances her mission of determination with her career and raising her children. In this process, we get an intimate glimpse into the injustices of the prison industrial complex and the devastation it can have on ordinary families, particularly families of color.

What makes the film even more intriguing is the fact that Rich robbed the bank with her husband and served time herself. These are not innocent or wrongfully convicted people. Thus, the film occupies a unique space in confronting these issues head-on: what does it mean to “repay a debt” to society, and how is that debt viewed by those who hold the keys to freedom?

These questions are driven home through stunning black and white cinematography, and astonishing camerawork, as Bradley lingers on faces and images that convey the anguish of waiting. This culminates in a breathtaking climax that delves into the fantasy of what it would look like to buy back time, recognizing, of course, that such a thing is impossible. “Time” reminds us that the passage of time is something we have no control over. What we do with that time, however? That is up to us.  

Honorable mention: Hamilton

I went back and forth on Disney’s filmed version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” Is this a movie? If so, it’s far and away the best I saw this year. But, in so many ways, it’s not a movie. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like it was fair to award something that has essentially been around for years—albeit, now, to a much larger audience—with a spot on my top 10 list. But I think it’s important to include a shout-out to it neverthless, because “Hamilton” is an absolutely incredible experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a pulse. Look on YouTube any given day and you will see hundreds, if not thousands, of “Hamilton” parody videos. It’s a certified cultural phenomenon, and it deserves all of the accolades it has received and more. Shows like this come along rarely, so enjoy the brilliance for yourself. “Hamilton” is available to stream on Disney+.

My 11—20 picks:

  • 11. The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • 12. Crip Camp
  • 13. One Night in Miami
  • 14. The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • 15. The Social Dilemma
  • 16. Palm Springs
  • 17. My Octopus Teacher
  • 18. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • 19. The Vast of Night
  • 20. Mank

Blind spots:

2020 was a strange year; films that I would have likely gotten to see ended up being pushed back due to extended eligibility windows for awards. And so, several of the most celebrated movies of the year are absolutely nowhere to be found for the average moviegoer. With that being said, both “Nomadland” and “Minari” are to be considered 2021 movies for my purposes, since I can’t see them until February at the earliest.

Other films of note I have yet to see as of this writing include “Collective,” “Beanpole,” “Athlete A,” “Saint Frances,” “Bacurau,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “The Assistant,” “Kajillionaire,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Color Out of Space,” “The King of Staten Island,” “News of the World,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Tigertail” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Let me know which of these are worth checking out!

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