After a flurry of year-end releases, with 2021 just around the corner, it’s time for me to assess this past movie year and make the list of what I deemed best. As bad as this pandemic year was, there was plenty to admire in the world of film, even if most of it never appeared on the big screen. Whittling down the list was difficult for me, but I was able to determine ten top films and an additional ten worthy runners-up.
Here is the list of my picks for the 10 best of 2020:
I was only vaguely aware of Florian Zeller’s play which won Frank Langella a Tony Award in 2016. And I had heard the film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins was well-received at Sundance this past February, rendering him a favorite for Best Actor prizes. But sitting down to watch it, I was not prepared for how cinematic it was, configured wholly for the screen, edited and shot like a slow-motion puzzle, asking its audience to not only try to figure out what’s really going on in the story but a film that boldly places us smack-dab in the mind of the lead character Anthony. Played by Hopkins (never better), he is a distinguished engineer who is losing his mind to dementia. This is accomplished by the clever repetition of lines meaning new things from scene to scene, various changes in unfamiliar settings, and editing in the storytelling that blurs the line between memory and reality. It’s also a universal story at heart, relatable to all ages. After all, who doesn’t have an aging parent or grandparent or wonder where they fit in the world? THE FATHER even speaks specifically to 2020, serving as the strongest of metaphors for a year when the world stopped looking familiar.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Another outstanding play became a top film this year with this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play about R & B musicians recording an album in 1920s Chicago. Adapted faithfully by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and directed vividly by theater veteran George C. Wolfe, this film is a searing exploration of race, status, and fame. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) may be the biggest name in the Blues, but she’s grown weary of the business and her exploitative white producers. The ambitious but naive trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) still wants such fame even though he fails to see how fatigued and spiteful it’s left Ma. Thus, tempers clash at the studio, superbly acted by the ensemble featuring Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts. By the story’s end, the film indicts show biz as an equally racist form of indentured servitude.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
This is a #MeToo revenge tale from writer/director Emerald Fennell that consistently zigs when you think it’s going to zag. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, the title character, dedicated to teaching tough lessons to scumbag pickups who take her home from the bar. But this isn’t I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE redux, it’s a subtler, more unpredictable thriller, one that finds time for a genuine romantic B story, the redemption of secondary characters, and vivid roles for Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Chris Lowell, and Connie Britton. Mulligan makes Cassie admirable, but also scary. It also has a third act that must be seen to be believed. You’ll talk about this one a lot. In fact, it may be the water cooler movie of the year.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
This small indie gem from filmmaker Eliza Hittman came out the week before lockdown this year and has stayed with me as one of the most cherished ones of the year. It’s a moving character study about Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) and Skyler (Talia Ryder), two 17-year-old girls, who travel from their small town in Pennsylvania to NYC to obtain an abortion for the former. Hittman tells the story with uncommon grace and sensitivity, a film so realistic at times, it feels like a documentary. It’s getting a lot of awards recognition too, which never rarely sometimes happens with such a tiny but beautiful film.
MANGROVE (SMALL AXE)
I’m not sure if Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology about black experiences in London over the decades isn’t more of a TV miniseries, but suffice it to say, it’s a brilliant work. I loved all five films and might’ve put it at the top of my list, but I think we’re meant to judge the films separately. Fair enough, my favorites are MANGROVE, a provocative courtroom drama, and LOVERS ROCK, a visual and audible feast about a reggae block party with the edge going to the former. In MANGROVE, a West London restaurant catering to a black clientele is harassed by the police resulting in protests in the streets. Nine are arrested for confronting the coppers and take charge of their own defense in court. It’s an incredible true story, a fitting companion to 2020’s THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Points for cheekiness to McQueen too for casting Letitia Wright from BLACK PANTHER fame as a Black Panther activist.
THE COLUMNIST (DER KUTHOER)
Most dark comedies often end up trying to redeem their antiheroes in the finale (BREAKING BAD on the small screen, THE FAVOURITE on the big screen). From Netherlands filmmaker Ivo van Aart, this effort keeps its heroine wholly unheroic right to the end. Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is a columnist who’s had it with the men trolling her on Twitter. So, she looks them up and hunts them down, turning into an unrepentant serial killer along the way. The film’s point? Social media is killing civility, and if you can’t beat ‘em, hell, join ‘em. This was not only my favorite foreign film of the year but the most impressive one I saw at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival online.
I judge comedies by how much I laugh and how little I see coming. This film, directed by Max Barbakow, with a twisty, witty script by Andy Siara, had me guffawing from the first moments to the last, surprised at every turn. Andy Samberg plays a wedding guest stuck in a time loop that makes him live the nuptials over and over again (a la GROUNDHOG DAY). However, the film adds two other characters into the loop, making it all the crazier, and they’re played by a manic Cristin Milioti and a brooding J.K. Simmons. I loved this farce so much, I watched it again immediately after it ended.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
One would expect filmmaker Charlie Kaufman to deliver a mind-fuck of a film and in his adaptation of Ian Reid’s 2016 novel, he does just that. For the first 30 minutes, it’s an uneasy ride for a young woman to visit her boyfriend’s family for the first time. She’s thinking of ending their trying relationship, and the tension is palpable between Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons as the couple in the car. Once at his family’s farm, things don’t get any easier. His parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) are even stranger than he is. And why does the dog keep disappearing? What’s going on here? Things are not as they seem, of course, and when you realize just what that janitor in the B story has to do with the A story, you’ll be amazed. It’s one tricky tale, perhaps 2020’s most challenging film.
In a year of so many great documentaries, this one touched me the most. It explores the Paralympics, essaying its history and fundraising challenges, but mostly focusing on the fascinating competitors. Of course, their gamesmanship is intrepid, but hearing them tell their own story makes this so memorable of a doc. One athlete is more compelling than the next, and the film treats them all like stars. Directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedugui even shoot them like they’re in fashion spreads, highlighting their glam and glory, no matter what the disability.
Disney/Pixar’s latest is not only a smart and moving character study about a middle-aged black man in the middle of an existential crisis, but it’s actually the first movie from this animation studio that is wholly for adults. Pete Docter’s film is visually gorgeous, filled with vivid characters, and there’s even an adorable cat. Still, the topics of reincarnation, purgatory, and destiny belie its rollicking comedy. It really is a very serious film wrapped up in a cartoon wrapper, and more power to the studio for doing such. And it’s one that played even better after my second viewing this past holiday weekend.
As for my runners-up, let me start by saying that I cannot remember a year when I have seen so many excellent documentaries. Critics groups and the Academy have an embarrassment of riches to choose from including my top doc PHOENIX RISING, and THE SOCIAL DILEMMA, DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD, ATHLETE A, ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY, TIME, THE DISSIDENT, BOYS STATE, FATHER SOLDIER SON, and BELUSHI…to name just ten.
Here are numbers 11-20 on my list of best films this year:
11.) THE TRUTH
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film about an aging actress making a sci-fi film, of all things, stars the incomparable Catherine Deneuve. She’s at her vainglorious best playing a diva who is as intimidating off-screen as on.
12.) SOUND OF METAL
Darius Marder directed Riz Ahmed in this subtle portrait of hearing loss, but it’s not your typical handicap redemption tale. Instead, it’s a quiet character study about a man who learns that life is where you are, not where you wish it to be.
13.) LOVERS ROCK
The second in the SMALL AXE anthology, this visually resplendent film finds all kinds of moments to celebrate at its block party: music, sex, libations, and friendship. It is sometimes funny, sometimes dreamy, even slightly scary. You feel like you’re there; it’s that intoxicating.
14.) ATHLETE A
Documentary filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk follow a team of investigative journalists uncovering the decades-long sexual assault of USA gymnasts by team doctor Larry Nassar. Horrifying. Almost as much? How the Olympics bigwigs turned a blind eye to it all.
Seemingly the front-runner for the Oscars this year, Chloe Zhao’s film stars Frances McDormand as a woman who leaves her town, after losing her husband, job, and home, to travel across the West. It’s a tough portrait of the disenfranchised and homeless living a nomad existence in America, but it’s also a story filled with tenacity, pluck, and even hope.
16.) DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
The years’ strangest documentary is perhaps its most daring. Kirsten Johnson films her father’s demise from Alzheimer’s while simultaneously casting him in satirical scenes that find crazily extravagant ways to ‘kill him off.’ It’s both touching and absurd, proving that laughing at death is the best way to go.
Stories don’t get more American than this one about an immigrant family trying to start a new life in Arkansas. The fact that it’s a South Korean family makes it all the more fascinating and unforgettable. Lee Isaac Yung mines his own story growing up on their makeshift farm for pathos, humor, and telling truths about family no matter what their origin.
18.) COME PLAY
The year’s best horror movie comes from Jacob Chase and concerns an autistic elementary school student who is harassed by an online entity named “Larry” looking for a friend in the real world. It’s a scary good riff on our dependence upon electronic devices and a clever updating of all things that go bump in the dark.
19.) DA 5 BLOODS
Filmmaker Spike Lee tells a tense and moving story about four aging Vietnam War veterans who return to the country looking for the remains of their fallen squad leader as well as secretly buried treasure. Delroy Lindo gives a career-best performance as a MAGA-man at war with today’s progressives as much as the ghosts of his past.
20.) BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular troublemaker Borat returned, spectacularly, this time with a hilarious daughter played by Maria Bakalova in tow. Their shenanigans fooled all sorts of unsuspecting targets in MAGA-land, including an excessively skeevy Rudy Giuliani. Hilarious, of course, but director Jason Woliner adds heart to it all too. He mines the father/daughter relationship for almost as many sweet moments as raucous ones.
One last thought…
This was a year where film and TV blended even more into one medium than ever before, especially with everything shown in 2020 on the small screen. Arguably, the best of television is now just long-form films, given the exceptional results found in shows like THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, NORMAL PEOPLE, MRS. AMERICA, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, THE MANDALORIAN, and even the fizzy trash of THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT and THE UNDOING. In fact, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT may stand as my favorite of any entertainment I viewed this year. Indeed, more and more, it’s all about great stories well told, with little differences that matter in their platforms. And this year, with a raging pandemic keeping us all holed up at home, we were all the better for it.