What a bizarre year for movies. Everything major got either postponed until 2021 or the last two months of the year, making it impossible to see everything. This is my first Top 10 list that feels incomplete, because there are at least four major Oscar contenders I had no way of seeing. Supposed juggernauts like Nomadland, Minari and The Father, and acclaimed documentaries like Collective, Time and Dick Johnson is Dead. Do Frances McDormand and Anthony Hopkins really deserve more Oscars this year? Can’t answer that, folks.
I’m going to hold off on posting my end of the year individual achievement citations (Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sexualized Food Scene, ect.) until our March Oscar season because that’s when I feel I’ve had enough time to see everything. For now, I have my top ten 2020 movies I’ve seen thus far, four honorable mentions and a quick list of 15 acting performances that stood out for me.
Here we go…
A fascinating mind-fuck about dealing with awkward people, featuring a career best performance by Aubrey Plaza. $5.99 rental on Amazon.
Brilliantly acted quirk-fest about a family of con artists that packs unexpected emotional wallops. My vote for Miranda July‘s best film. $5.99 Rental on Amazon.
Doesn’t re-invent the wheel of college rom-coms but executes it better than almost anything in recent memory. Writer/Director/Producer/Editor and Lead Actor Cooper Raif does it all at 23. $4.99 Rental on Amazon.
Weathering With You
Not nearly as proficient and emotionally resonant as Makoto Shinkai‘s previous anime, Your Name, but still boasts a quartet of likeable characters and a compelling story. Voice talents include Alison Brie, Lee Pace and an underused Riz Ahmed. Available on HBOMax.
I’ve haven’t seen that Betty Gilpin movie The Hunt but from what I’ve heard this is like a much better version of that. Set in some type of dystopian future not too unlike our own, Bacurau derives its title from the village in which it’s set, a small one in Brazil that has become the target of desperate, slime ball politicians seeking re-election and ruthless, psychotic American and European mercenaries hunting people for sport. Bacurau thrives in the contrast between its ambiguous narrative and clear social message, offering an absolutely insane and unpredictable two and a quarter hours. My only real complaint is that it wasn’t an hour longer to explore all these wonderful characters and subplots. Available on Criterion Channel or for $4.99 Rental on Amazon.
9. The Assistant
One of best and most honest representations of the little nuances of workplace misogyny I’ve ever seen, brought to stunning life by lead actress Julia Garner, who the film never sees a scene or rarely a frame without. Basically, she’s an assistant for some high-powered, gross Harvey Weinstein movie producer type, who you never see. The boss only exists as this scolding, barely audible voice on the other end of her desk phone. Succession‘s Matthew MacFayden has a great extended cameo as an H.R. guy that gas lights her in the nicest way possible. Those expecting broad, elaborate payoffs will hate the movie. Those craving something that isn’t in a hurry to show all of its cards, will love it. Can’t wait to see what writer/director Kitty Green does next. Available on HULU.
The good courtroom movie this year was Steve McQueen‘s Mangrove, the introductory feature to his five-film Small Axe anthology. Strikingly powerful without ever appearing ham-fisted or pandering, it tells the real life story of the patrons and owners of a Caribbean restaurant in 60s London being harassed and brutalized by racist police officers. When shit hits the fan and some cops get boo-boos, there’s a major trial where the Mangrove regulars, exquisitely played by Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby and anti-vaxxer Letitia Wright, have to defend themselves. It’s rousing and life-affirming in all the ways a great courtroom drama should be while never seeming forced or manipulated in a John Grisham type way. Available on Amazon Prime.
7. Palm Springs
Coming along at just the right time during quarantine, where we all needed a little something fun and light to soothe our sad, isolated lives, Palm Springs is my pick for the most consistently funny movie of 2020. Basically, it’s a take on the Groundhogs Day formula that doesn’t waste time with explaining what that is — because everyone already knows what that is! Andy Samberg is great in his first somewhat dramatic role but the movie belongs to Cristin Millioti, who really lands the material. Available on HULU.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman‘s crushing but tender abortion movie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, is a great character study and hero’s journey about a 16-year-old Pennsylvania girl (the incredible Sidney Flanigan) who travels with her friend to Brooklyn in order to obtain a legal abortion without her potentially abusive parents finding out. This could have easily been either a really bleak movie or cliche-ridden sapfest, but Hittman remains refreshingly honest and humane at every turn. This is a film that loves and empathizes with its characters and organically unfolds, never sounding remotely preachy. Available on HBOMax.
This is a Pixar movie for adults that children can also maybe enjoy and that’s really the main thing you need to know going into this. Your five year old won’t give a shit about it, but your thirty-five year old will love it! A high school band teacher and aspiring jazz musician (voiced by Jamie Foxx) dies in a freak accident right around the time his life seemed to be turning a corner. In the afterlife, he gets a second chance to return to Earth but in the process must mentor a pre-human entity? in what it is like to be human. The plot is really difficult to concisely explain in a single paragraph, but needless to say it develops clearly over the course of an hour and forty minutes or so. Don’t worry, your thirty-five year old will get it! Soul is a highly restrained, naturally funny, deeply intelligent and effortlessly poignant slice of fantasy. Be sure to tell your thirty-five year old you love them after. Available on Disney+.
4. The Nest
Subtle domestic dramas that rely almost entirely on the micro expressions of celebrated character actors is totally my jam. When I saw this trailer, showcasing what seemed like two powerful yet restrained performances by Carrie Coon and Jude Law, as well as a critic quote calling it “hyper nuanced”, I instantly got a chub. Sean Durkin‘s follow-up to his superb 2011 sex cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, delivers on its promise of something both engaging and nuanced, a story about an upper middle class couple on the verge of divorce, uprooted from the states to the gorgeous but eerily isolated English countryside. Set in the 1980s when Reaganism reigned supreme, the husband is a classic Type A personality narcissist who is of course, a fucking stock trader. Living way above his means and riding on that upcoming check that never seems to arrive, his wife begins to suspect their entire life is built on bullshit. She’s right. What ensues is a tense series of some of the most realistic marital confrontations I’ve seen, in a film that finely details the corrosive effect capitalist greed can have on the family unit. Available for $4.99 rental on Amazon.
3. Sound of Metal
There are movie experiences that simply make you say “Wow.” Once or twice a year, a film will do that to me and Sound of Metal is this year’s “Wow” movie. From first time writer/director Darius Marder, comes a compelling and completely honest character study about a drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), that in one of the most frightening on-screen sequences of 2020, wakes up to discover he’s deaf. As much as the trailer leads you to believe otherwise, Ruben or the film is not out for your sympathy, it’s simply there to follow this guy closely as his life takes a complete 180 and he struggles to adjust, maybe gaining insights of our own along the way. As brilliant as Riz Ahmed is in this, and he’s a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, the performance of the film comes from Paul Raci as Joe. Joe is the warm but no-bullshit leader of the compound Ruben is staying at to help him learn to communicate without his voice. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Available on Amazon Prime.
2. First Cow
The only film on this list to be released pre-Quarantine, First Cow is underrated indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt‘s best film. Funny, delicate, heartwarming and ultimately heartbreaking, this quiet buddy western takes us back to the frontier days of the Pacific Northwest, where fur trade deserter, Cookie (a beautifully understated John Magaro) strikes up a friendship with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) on the run after he killed a white man in self defense. They go on the run and into business together, selling donut cakes with milk they pilfer from some rich asshole’s cow. First Cow is less interested in plot and more interested in how the central friendship develops. Much like how Luca Guadagnino‘s Call Me By Your Name‘s deliberate pace made you fall in love with the two romantic leads in real time, First Cow uses it to show you how a bromance is formed in real time. It’s impossible to gauge the film’s impact on you until it’s all over, with a final shot that is utterly (no pun intended) perfect. In a year where filmmakers are hitting us with fine but aggressive pieces to match the real horrors going on in a Covid-colored world, Kelly Reichardt is hitting all the notes but doing it with restraint. How amazing. Available on SHOWTIME and for $3.99 Rental on Amazon.
1. Lovers Rock
I always know when I’ve seen the best or definitive film of the year. It’s a feeling that washes over me like I just accomplished something, although in reality, I just sat on my fat ass and watched a movie. It happened to me last year with Parasite, as well as in 2016 with Moonlight. It’s unlike the feeling I get watching a drummer movie like Sound of Metal or Whiplash, which is more of a full-throttle, energetic shock. This feeling is more substantial, if that makes sense, more mellow, like the mellow and soothing reggae music of Steve McQueen‘s second entry to his Small Axe anthology, Lovers Rock. A tight but somehow meaty 68 minute film centered around a house party in the West Indies community in 1980s West London. If that seems a bit unsubstantial, that’s ok, McQueen‘s film is less about telling an epic plot-driven narrative (like Mangrove) and more concerned with giving you a full, lived-in experience. This is the sexiest and most realistic house party I’ve ever seen on film, so technically perfect in it’s capturing of the little details we all know from house parties we’ve attended (like the sound a hand makes rubbing against a denim-covered booty), that it succeeds in coercing the same level of intense emotion from its audience that a dialed-in character study or great tearjerker would. Again, this isn’t about narrative substance its about evoking a time that Covid-19 has ripped away from all of us. We all miss our friends and parties and that warm sense of community we had, and for 68 short minutes, McQueen tries and I’d argue, succeeds, in bringing it all back. What an unexpectedly perfect (and certainly not planned) time for this to drop. Silly Games, all day. Available on Amazon Prime.
Performances that Stood Out
- Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods
- Carrie Coon & Jude Law – The Nest
- Sidney Flanigan – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- Paul Raci – Sound of Metal
- Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
- Aubrey Plaza – Black Bear
- Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
- Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- Julia Garner – The Assistant
- Shaun Parkes – Mangrove
- Glynn Turman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- Amanda Seyfried – Mank
- John Magaro – First Cow
- Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
- Gina Rodriguez – Kajillionaire
Best Ensemble – One Night in Miami – Ben Kingsley-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom, Jr.
Every movie I’ve seen this year, ranked:
- Lovers Rock (A)
- First Cow (A-)
- Sound of Metal (A-)
- The Nest (A-)
- Soul (A-)
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always (A-)
- Palm Springs (A-)
- Mangrove (B+)
- The Assistant (B+)
- Bacurau (B+)
- Shithouse! (B+)
- Kajillionaire (B+)
- Weathering With You (B+)
- Black Bear (B+)
- One Night in Miami (B)
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (B)
- Mank (B)
- Da 5 Bloods (B)
- Relic (B)
- Red, White and Blue (B)
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (B)
- His House (B)
- You Don’t Nomi (B)
- Borat Subsequent Movie Film (B)
- Host (B)
- The Invisible Man (B)
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B)
- The Wolf of Snow Hollow (B)
- The Vast of Night (B-)
- Showbiz Kids (B-)
- Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (B-)
- Bill and Ted Face the Music (B-)
- Promising Young Woman (B-)
- Color Out of Space (B-)
- Possessor (C+)
- Another Round (C+)
- Tenet (C)
- Sonic the Hedgehog (C)
- The Lodge (C)
- The King of Staten Island (C)
- Wonder Woman 1984 (C)
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 (C-)
- She Dies Tomorrow (C-)
- Bad Boys for Life (C-)
- Big Time Adolescence (C-)
- The Rental (D+)
- The Devil All the Time (D+)
- The Last Blockbuster (D+)
- The Prom (D+)
- The Grudge (D)
- Tremors 7: Shrieker Island (D-)
- Money Plane (F)
- American Pie Presents Girls’ Rules (F)
- Wild Mountain Thyme (F)
- The Lie (F)
Didn’t Have A Chance to See:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Dick Johnson is Dead
The Forty Year Old Version
Pieces of a Woman