This year has sucked. You don’t need me to rant and rave about it. We all know it did.
But the movie year? Well, that has been pretty resilient despite COVID-19 throwing the entire distribution model into chaos. Streaming outlets kicked much ass, with Netflix dominating the summer with a series of unexpected blockbusters, while Hulu, Amazon, Disney+, and to a lesser degree HBO Max and Apple TV+ all made big strides.
I’ve always said there’s no such thing as a bad movie year, and anyone who thinks so isn’t looking hard enough. With everything that has gone down in 2020, there were a ton of good movies, but I’d be lying if I said this was a great year for film. Plenty of gems exist, but I would also say there were more 3-star efforts than usual. Perhaps it has something to do with smaller films gaining prominence in a depleted field. It doesn’t really matter.
It was extraordinarily easy to come up with my 20 favorite films this time around. Normally I start out by jotting down everything in consideration, before whittling the list down. I started at 23, so I didn’t have far to go. My only criteria, as I said in my Best Overlooked Films of 2020 piece, is that I didn’t want any pandemic movies trying to capture this awful moment in time. Fuck that. I don’t care that you shot it during lockdown. The movies I chose run the gamut; there’s a lot of paranoia-fueled stuff in there, a few that are just plain fun and pure escapism, and only one superhero movie. It won’t be so light in 2021.
So here they are. Check out the list below. Remember, these are MY picks and not yours, but feel free to weigh-in with your choices.
20. Love and Monsters
Director: Michael Matthews
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Dan Ewing, Ariana Greenblatt
19. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (review)
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch
18. Boys State (review)
Directors: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine
17. The Swerve (review)
Director: Dean Kapsalis
Cast: Azura Skye, Ashley Bell, Bryce Pinkham
16. Enola Holmes (review)
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Helena Bonham Carter
15. News of the World (review)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
14. EMMA. (review)
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Callum Turner, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor
13. Sound of Metal (review)
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke
12. The Invisible Man (review)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer
11. The Outpost (review)
Director: Rod Lurie
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Caleb Landry Jones, Scott Eastwood, Jack Kesy, Milo Gibson
10. The Vast of Night (review)
Director: Andrew Patterson
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Good sci-fi is hard to come by. I mean, sure, there’s plenty of sci-fi around, but not the kind that creeps into your bones and stays there. Arriving on Amazon about halfway through the year, Andrew Patterson’s retro thriller follows a plucky switchboard operator and a local radio DJ as they investigate weird goings-on in their fair city. What they unravel is a bizarre mystery straight out of The Twilight Zone; weird radio signals, creepy locals, and the possibility of life from another planet. Employing an impeccable score that gives you the willies, and stellar camerawork that includes an amazing long-tracking shot down an eerily-lit street, The Vast of Night is about as good as this genre gets, and proves you don’t need big studio dollars to pull that off.
9. The Nest (review)
Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche
In his first film since Martha Marcy May Marlene nearly a decade ago, Sean Durkin wrings similar paranoid tension from the story of one family’s overly ambitious climb up the social ladder, and the economic ruin that followed. The Nest is a complex movie, one that deals with the family dynamics of all of its screwed-up members. Jude Law’s patriarch is a liar, Carrie Coon as a mother who tries to roll with the punches and fails, and two children who resent all of it and make things worse. Strangely enough, there’s a glimmer of hope that peeks through all of the drama, as this family climbs their way out of the rubble of their lives. I saw this at Sundance, which feels like two lifetimes ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Part of it is the performances which are uniformly excellent, but also that Durkin managed to make a movie that feels of this moment even though I don’t think he was necessarily trying to.
8. Possessor (review)
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott
Another Sundance film from a director who took a decade off from his breakthrough debut. Having spoken with Brandon Cronenberg, I know that we both share an undying love of spy movies, and the mental fracture that happens when an agent goes too deep undercover. Well, take that idea and ramp it up to about a thousand and you have Possessor. In yet another perfect, challenging performance by Andrea Riseborough, she plays Vos, an assassin who is able to possess the bodies of others, thus making it easy to take out her marks. Christopher Abbott is her target, but when he proves difficult to claim, her mind splits into a thousand pieces. Talk about fucking weird; you basically have Riseborough and Abbott playing aspects of one another, making for what had to have been the most bizarre shoot ever. But then you have Cronenberg, who throws all of that body horror goodness we expect from that talented family line, and there jus wasn’t another movie like this in 2020.
7. Black Bear (review)
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
Three in a row for the Park City crew! Yeah, it’s another Sundance flick, which just goes to show how strong that lineup was this year. It’s also back-to-back Christopher Abbott joints, so he had a Helluva 2020, as well (check out my interview with him here). Black Bear is a movie I walked into knowing only two things: that it had Aubrey Plaza in it, and that it had Abbott in it. That was enough for me. The experience was similar to my favorite Sundance screening ever, for a film called R100, and it’s because I don’t think Black Bear is for everyone, but those who dig it will fucking love it. Very little is actually explained to you. All you really know is that a couple is entertaining a filmmaker friend and…well, a weird sort of power struggle takes place that tests the lovers’ commitment, brings out their desires, and yes there’s an actual damn black bear that shows up. Levine, best known for the indie comedy Gabi on the Roof in July, keeps his art house sentiments firmly in place and doesn’t coddle his audience. This thing gets really strange, and you gotta roll with it because the payoff is worth it.
6. Palm Springs (review)
Director: Max Barbacow
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, JK Simmons
I can’t believe there’s an Andy Samberg movie in here. Ugh. I sorta hate myself for it, but there’s just no denying the joy that was Palm Springs. Another that played in Park City, where it scored a record-breaking distribution deal, it was eventually released by Hulu perfectly in the middle of summer. And considering all of the doom and gloom out there, it was like diving into a pool of water that’s just the right temperature. Samberg is charming and witty and strangely likable in this time-loop love story, but when paired up with the effervescent Cristin Milioti the two are so much fun you wouldn’t mind being stuck in there with them.
5. Charm City Kings (review)
Director: Angel Manuel Soto
Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from Charm City Kings when it was screened at Sundance this year. I went in basically because it was a Baltimore movie, based on the dirt bike doc 12 O’Clock Boys, and there was a certain obligation since it was fairly local. I was not prepared for how good this movie was. A familiar coming-of-age story with echoes of Boyz n the Hood, it follows the 14-year-old Mouse as he dreams of becoming a member of the Midnight Clique, a gang of black motorcycle riders whose actions veer towards the criminal. What ultimately sets the film apart is just straight-up authenticity, from the way Soto captures the tenor of the city, to the performances beginning with the charismatic newcomer Jahi Di’Allo Winston and rapper Meek Mill, who might want to consider taking on this acting thing full-time. Taking its cues from the acclaimed documentary, Charm City Kings features dazzling scenes of black men and women tearing up the streets in their flashy rides, poppin’ wheelies as they dare the local police to do anything about it. There’s power in those moments, to see black people literally taking life by the handlebars and riding it at full speed. Of all of the films that I saw this year this one took me by surprise the most.
4. Birds of Prey (review)
Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina
I’m probably a bigger fan of the DCEU than most, liking pretty much everything they’ve produced with the exception of Justice League. And I knew right away that I was going to love Birds of Prey. The only question was how much. Turns out, quite a Goddamn lot! This colorful, funky, chaotic all-girl riot squad of a movie has everything I want: crazy characters, an oddball sense of humor, mad comic violence, and even the perfect breakfast food: a simple bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. Margot Robbie manages to add layers to Harley Quinn’s lunacy, making her a character that is both sympathetic and somewhat believavble underneath all that clown makeup. Ewan McGregor’s pompous, demonic take on Black Mask is a hoot, and don’t even get me started on how much I love my girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress. You don’t want me to go down that road because it’ll never stop. That this didn’t do better theatrically, partially due to the oncoming pandemic, still bugs me, but I’m happy that it found an audience on digital. If anybody at WB is reading this, and I know you are, then get moving on that damn sequel already!
3. Promising Young Woman (review)
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Chris Lowell, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge
I swear, this is the final Sundance movie on the list, and it very nearly was #1. Nothing else in Park City punched me in the gut the way Promising Young Woman did. When I first reviewed it, practically minutes after seeing it, I said that it was a film that “demands to be heard.” I think that’s what struck me most about it, not just the plot twists or Carey Mulligan’s incredible performance, or that ending…my God that ENDING, but that it wasn’t afraid to hold everyone to task for what we were seeing play out in the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. It’s a revenge movie, sure, but so much more than that. This was screaming in the streets that something has to change, and we’re all to blame for it if it doesn’t. The choices Fennell makes are calculated to illicit the most accute response, especially in the casting of the many male offenders in the film. I love the way the audience’s emotions are played with here. I love the way people are polarized about it because it means they are talking about it, and I have a feeling that will be the case for a long time to come.
2. One Night in Miami (review)
Director: Regina King
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr.
Race, religion, celebrity, and power, and more make stirring conversation among black champions in Regina King’s stunning and moving directorial debut. An adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play, essentially a fictionalized account of a real-life encounter between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, King’s stylish and sophisticated film explores the conflict between fame and activism, something all four men had to wrestle with during the turbulent 1960s. Although it takes place over a single night and mostly in a single location, King never lets that hold her or the excellent cast back. In fact, the movie’s best scenes are when they are in that simple hotel room, with these awesome actors tangling with one another in ways that are both friendly and ferocious. Not only is King’s direction dynamic, but the entire ensemble is deserving of recognition and I expect at least a couple will be recognized with awards.
- Nomadland (review)
Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
I’ve always admired movies about the untraditional bonds we forge when everything is lost. Chloe Zhao’s sensitive, magnificent drama Nomadland is that on a scale both grandiose and deeply intimate, buoyed by a performance by Frances McDormand that ranks among the best, if not the best, in her Hall of Fame career. Zhao follows McDormand throughout the wide-open American West like a documentarian does her subject, exploring what the meaning of “freedom” is to those who live on the margins. Much of the film is captured in silence, just McDormand and the vastness of the frontier, with cinematography by Joshua James Richards that makes you feel as if you’re intruding on a personal journey we’re not meant to see. The authenticity is what shines through most, bolstered by a cast of true nomads and Oscar-nominee David Strathairn, who pop up in meaningful and colorful ways alongside McDormand. There’s a cost that comes with the independence these people have found. Certainty is not a thing that exists, but in braving the precariousness of life there are rewards and tremendous beauty to be found.
Some Honorable Mentions that very nearly made the list: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Broken Hearts Gallery, Minari, Wolfwalkers, Totally Under Control.