New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: COLUMN: The 10 Best Movies of 2020

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Nothing seems to define 2020 like a long sigh and a deep breath. This past year likely makes the record books with all kinds of trivia nuggets and asterisks. Folks didn’t get to see all the movies they hoped for, but I’ve been telling people all year that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The last movie I saw in a theater was Onward on March 2nd, adding up to 304 days (and counting since) without a visit to the big screen. Sure, I miss it as a guy that used to go out 2-3 times a week, but movies can wait and so will I. After all, we’re surviving a pandemic and movies count as #firstworldproblems. 

Be that as it may, I found plenty of films to watch, recommend, and appreciate from 2020. Streaming offerings became new entertainment streams and kept me plenty busy. Beyond Every Movie Had a Lesson, I had exactly 100 reviews and pieces published on 25YL in 2020. I finished a three-year stretch totaling 150 editions of my “What We Learned This Week” column for the Feelin’ Film podcast website and made 35 guest appearances on podcasts, YouTube shows, and other media outlets. 

Here at the home website, Every Movie Has a Lesson published 94 movie reviews, all posted to Rotten Tomatoes and identical to the number published in 2019. Outside of me, this website hosted 122 outside columns and articles written by over 84 guest writers and 21 guest critic reviews. The content tap never stopped here and it wasn’t going to. My annual last act in turning the calendar, even if it’s a little late and the Oscars are now four months away instead of one, is to present my ten best films of the year accompanied by, as always and true to my niche, their best life lesson from my review:


THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2020 AND THEIR LESSONS

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1. Promising Young Woman

I called this the “holy-f*cking shit movie of 2020” and I stand by that. Emerald Fennell’s debut directorial effort blows all the doors off it touches with every synonym range of “shocking.” I was floored and I think you will be too when you see it hopefully later this month.

BEST LESSON: UNPUNISHED WRONGS ARE RUINOUSPromising Young Woman, with wild amplification, exposes the injustices that have been summarily dismissed too often with he-said/she-said apathy. Listen and believe. There is a broken course of accusations, innocence, guilt, and all of the shaming and nightmares in between. Its existence shows that true deterrents, consequences, and better corrective conduct expectations are not in place or ineffective to deter crimes of sexual assault at a societal level. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. We all know it’s wrong, even if we pretend we don’t. Say something, stop something, or become complicit to devastating events that shatter lives on both sides. That complicity doesn’t have gender bias either, as this thriller boldly includes.


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2. The Vast of Night

For me, this was the “Little Engine That Could” movie of the year. Shot on a shoestring and nailing the level of sci-fi mystery tingles it was going for, I’ve been recommending this like valued buried treasure all year long. Find it on Amazon Prime Video and be impressed.

BEST LESSON: WHEN THOUGHTS TURN TO BELIEF— Throughout what transpires in The Vast of Night, ask yourself what it would take the pragmatic to go from thought to belief. Right alongside the risks, the logical Everett and sensible Kay are pushed beyond listening to heavier thinking. The secrets and absurdities they hear and witness which become more powerful and apparent morph both into true belief.


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3. Sound of Metal

If there was an MVP for heart award from this list, it would go to Darius Marder’s patient and poignant drama. Riz Ahmed dazzles with his internalization of a drummer losing the livelihood and sanity that comes from his rapidly devolving sense of hearing. This is another win for Amazon Prime Video, one of four on this “10 Best” list.

BEST LESSON: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STILLNESS AND SILENCE— Speaking of stillness and silence, there is a tremendous weight of heart and profundity found in the difference between those two states in Sound of Metal. Silence is merely a setting of a setting, so to speak. Not all internal and external turmoil makes noise. Stillness is when all the triggers of carried and imposed unrest are managed or absent. It is not an impossible calmness, but where comfort and happiness are truly found. That sensitive trait of stillness is what Joe wishes for Ruben, and stands as the ideal state of mind and body Ruben has to harness for personal peace. The journey to that place here is fraught with passionate fights and haunting hope, a movie experience not soon forgotten. 


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4. One Night in Miami

With the saddening loss of the very popular Chadwick Boseman, many are crowning Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as the best stage-to-film adaptation of 2020 (see the next ten). For my money, it’s this smaller and less flashy one on Amazon from playwright Kemp Powers (Soul) and first-time feature director and Oscar-winning actress Regina King. The confluence of historical figures and emerging talent are both extremely impressive in a conversational and confrontational movie that may be the most honest drama of the year.

BEST LESSON: CHALLENGING YOUR FRIENDS— These men understand each other and their fame. In unity, they mean to be there for each other. There is trust where confrontations are open in a safe arena. However, the colloquial temperature rises when Malcolm continues to call out the kowtowing Sam for not being as deep in the racial struggle as others claiming “you’ll never be loved entertaining the children of bigots.” Sam defends his economic freedom and counters to contest Malcolm’s clinging to stars like Cassius for exploitative benefit. Tempers digress further as the idols hardline to prove something about themselves and for themselves. 


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5. The Midnight Sky

Contemplative and heart-first science fiction is an engaging kryptonite for me that I value and welcome. I may be in the minority, but I was greatly impressed by George Clooney and all involved to make a compelling and humane movie with the right amount of humanity, science, smarts, and feels. See it on Netflix.

BEST LESSON: LONGING FOR HUMAN CONTACT— The best exemplars of science fiction films have grandiose ideas that draw wonder. Their settings dare to venture into endless vastness. Their quests challenge unknown mysteries as numerous as the stars. Through it all, it’s often the smallest variable of the overall cosmic equation, namely people, that becomes the most powerful element of those stories. No distance or obstacle can sever the anchor of human connection when survival is on the line. We grab onto movies like that and hold them dear.


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6. Minari

An upcoming February release prevents a full review, but I can give a large social media hat tip to Minari and its diverse look at an autobiographical American Dream from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung. Steven Yeun leads a tight-knit cast of immigrants looking to carve out a new life of betterment and pride. It’s one of the most touching movies of 2020.

Full review coming soon!


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7. The Photograph

This sexy and respectable romance from back in February was my “leader in the clubhouse” for months this past year. Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae put forth magnetic chemistry in the best romance of the year. Few romances break as much fresh dramatic ground lately as this one.

BEST LESSON: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS— Instead of “I love you,” our beaus and darlings desire to “get to know” the other person and “be with them.” If that sounds like a step down from love, it’s not. Those announced intentions speak to a specificity of actions over words. Plenty of people can profess their love at the top of their lungs like Buddy the Elf. That’s merely loud lip service. The real value is the effort to earn the promises to go with those eventual very important shared words.


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8. The Father

Like Minari, the full take of this one has to wait. However, you may already be hearing about the impressive lead acting performance of Anthony Hopkins as a father with dementia who cannot quite comprehend who’s who, when is when, and what is what about his living space. Directed by Florian Zeller from his own play and co-starring Olivia Colman, The Father has sneaky suspense and gut punch emotions.

Full review coming soon!


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9. The Trial of the Chicago 7

This is likely the “something for everyone” movie out of all of Netflix’s Oscar hopefuls. It’s an enlightening treatise on semi-forgotten history with drama, humor, and political coolness coming off a contentious election year. Aaron Sorkins’ sophomore feature is a complete performance showcase with a sizable cast nailing their little piece of the big engine. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is my ninth and final five-star film of 2020 filling this list.

BEST LESSON: THE PRICE OF REVOLUTION IS LIVES— While public spectacle invaded the legal arena, this was no kangaroo court. The charges and risks were real. These men were facing a decade of jail time eating away the primes of their twenties and thirties. Livelihoods count as lives, but at least the eight on trail would have them. The same could not be said for the thousands of casualties in Vietnam that grew by the day. Wants, desires, votes, and issues aside, lost lives sparked these rallies and protests. The present day could learn from the events of a half-century ago. It shouldn’t take an international war to bring true change when the conflicts are right here locally.


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HONORABLE MENTION: A Missed Connection

Before I list the movies landing just outside of the top ten, l need to shout out the one five-star short film I saw this past year. Local Chicago filmmaker Michael Weinstein made a punchy and involving film of a chance encounter. A Missed Connection really nailed in a unique way a chance encounter of old friends with simmering unrequited feelings. It’s the second short I’ve seen from him and I hope he continues to create. Watch A Missed Connection on Amazon Prime.


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THE NEXT TEN:

11. Soul

12. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

13. Da 5 Bloods

14. Pieces of a Woman

15. Mulan

16. Mank

17. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

18. News of the World

19. Onward

20. Endings, Beginnings


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