THE BEST MOVIES OF 2020
2020, for the most part, was a complete wash of a calendar year. The world came to a screeching halt in the wake of the worst global threat we have seen in centuries, and the film industry was not immune to Covid's devastation. Still, in this strangest of all years, there was a solid crop of remarkable and deeply moving films. Most major studios pushed their larger titles to 2021 in an attempt to gross more at the box office, which opened the door for smaller films to share a larger portion of the spotlight. Black stories especially, saw a wellspring in 2020 unlike any we may have ever seen, and there are several of them dotted throughout this list in addition to the ones that were near misses.
About the list itself... This is the latest this list has ever posted for obvious reasons. I set a couple of arbitrary deadlines in order for me to make this list with as much integrity as possible. Only films I saw before March 1st were eligible, which left out some that may have been heavy players. Notable films I did not get a chance to see like Promising Young Woman or The Father, both of which scooped up Best Picture Noms, are among the omissions. Additionally, Steve McQueen's excellent Small Ax anthology does not factor in to the list as I have deemed it (again somewhat arbitrarily) a miniseries, and not film. That said, here is the 12th, although somewhat caveated, edition of my annual list of the Best Movies of the Year. (Quick Aside: this is the first that will be posted directly to my new Website, so that's Cool!)
#10. TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
I will go on record and say that Aaron Sorkin is certainly a better writer than he is a director, and his latest effort certainly has its share more melodramatic pitfalls. But Sorkin going back to the courtroom is something we can agree was a rare delight in an otherwise dismal year. The speed, the snark, the humor was all on pristine display and carried out by one of the strongest ensembles of the year. It may not be a perfect film, what with a usually terrific Frank Langella playing a cartoon villain in a judges gown, and some cheesiness in its most triumphant moments, but most of the movie truly does sing. It's sprawling and emotional and prudent of our times. Most importantly, and perhaps most surprisingly considering the content material, it's fun to watch, in a year of film that desperately needed some fun (as you will see from the rest of this list). High praise is due for jotting out a script that is so deeply funny while remaining so deeply important. Thanks in large part to Netflix the whole world WAS watching, and many, like me, seemed to have liked what they saw, as evidenced by a strong haul at the globes and some key nominations at this year's Oscars. Trial of the Chicago 7 is a movie that MAY not crack my list in a deeper year, but there is a lot to enjoy about this whip-smart film.
Currently Streaming on Netflix
David Fincher's passion piece and ode to his father is a gift to all of us. Mank is an undeniably beautiful picture to look at. Black and White may have never looked so breathtaking. But the issue with making a movie about the origins of one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, is that people are going to look at those movies side by side. In undertaking this project, Fincher took a picture with his prettiest friend, and it is impossible to not be left wanting. This is not to knock the movie. Mank is probably AS GOOD of a film as THIS FILM can be. But as hundreds of critics have said, thousands of times, "It ain't Citizen Kane." Which normally is an unfair and unnecessary comparison to make, but in this case, one impossible not to. Citizen Kane's lasting legacy is that it was the most wholly ambitious film ever made when considering how innovative and bombastic the film work is against the backdrop of its era. Mank attempts to emulate this, at times, but rarely succeeds. The film is too tidy, too neat, and too pretty to have the evocative punch of Citizen Kane. That sounds like a lot of negativity about a film that I believe only has 8 superiors this year. I promise you I think this movie is awesome. Gary Oldman is amazing as always and being the chameleon his is, was able, in my opinion, to succeed in playing a character 25 years his junior. Amanda Seyfried and Arliss Howard also shine in support, and the climactic scene (the first of two, really) at Hearst's dinner party is possibly the best single scene of the year. The Academy, and by extension Hollywood, is said to "love movies about themselves." If they love this then it's proof that it isn't about flattery, but about recognition, as this is by NO MEANS a love letter. Welles, Hearst, MGM, and the whole industry take their lumps in this catty little wonder. Taken alone, which is a difficult ask, Mank is a sumptuous delight anchored by a few phenomenal performances and some timeless scenes, and a fitting tribute.
Currently Streaming on Netflix
#8. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
One Night in Miami is a fun thought exercise, drenched through with emotional depth, that bears remarkably sophisticated fruit. Lets take four of the most impactful African Americans of the 20th Century (Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown for those who haven't seen it) and let them hash out their philosophical musings in a close quarter powder keg of intrigue. It is honestly, a can't miss premise, and it doesn't miss. After a riveting montage to start the film, it takes a while to grab its footing and for its formula to start paying dividends. But once it does, it unshakably seizes your attention. The portrayals are all phenomenal with Leslie Odom Jr (of Hamilton fame) and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Cooke and X respectively stealing the show and steering the ship. The dynamic between those two titanic figures is scintillating to watch as they spar scene after scene. Odom's otherworldly talent is not wasted for a moment here. I suppose its fitting that their characters garner the most attention as they are the two whose lives would be untimely cut down in the years that would follow the tall tale. Their looming tragic ends add heft to their words. Words crafted beautifully by screenwriter Kemp Powers and seamlessly adapted to the screen by rookie director Regina King. The new hyphenate certainly has a bright future with a beginning as promising as this. The film saves its finest point for its final moment. As Sam Cooke's unparalleled voice bellows out for a change, we realize that some change would come (even if Cooke and X weren't there to see it) and that much more change remains ahead of us. We realize that WE dictate our circumstance in the now and especially in the future and that our words have the power to move, to mobilize, and to motivate each other for the better.
Included with Prime on Amazon Prime
#7. I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
Some directors attempt to intentionally disorient their audience to help the earn the cathartic revelations of their films. Some directors are apathetic to their audience's understanding of the film and allow the art to stand for itself regardless of reception. And then there's Charlie Kaufman, who I suspect may actively hate his audience. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a slog to get through, but it's inescapable once the credits roll. I have definitely thought about this movie more, and for longer, than any other title released this year. Despite the initial appearance of a straightforward concept and a cast of tremendous and affable characters, it is the least accessible movie I saw this year. Yet I am enamored by how it confounds me. Watching it was a joyless experience and I can't wait to do it again. It is film school fodder to be sure. Herman Melville is screaming at the screen to take it easy on the metaphor. Evidently very little of the film represents what it means at face value, and the symbolism runs deeper than an ocean trench. For these things it is an unforgettable piece of art, but is more of an adventure in conjecture than it is a complete film. I honestly can't tell if I love that I hate it or hate that I love it. And if that doesn't make sense to you, just skip this one, because that's crackerjack analysis compared to what it requires to gain a moment's traction with I'm Thinking of Ending Things. AND I MEAN THIS AS A HIGH COMPLIMENT. I think. I suppose if you measure greatness by how few could achieve the feat (like Michael Jordan dunking from the foul line) then this movie is unfathomably great. No one could, would, or certainly should make a movie this dense. But it does make it special, and special is good enough for me... Feel free to hit up the comment section on this one especially if you want to discuss.
Currently Streaming on Netflix
#6. THE SOUND OF METAL
This year in film had a bevy of outstanding small pictures. Movies with intimate specificity and earthbound realism. "Slice of Life" movies they are, sometimes, referred to as, and this year saw numerous great additions to the burgeoning genre. One such picture was the glorious little number called The Sound of Metal. Simple in its premise, a metal drummer's hearing begins rapidly deteriorating placing his livelihood, relationships, and passion in jeopardy. A nightmare for all, but especially devastating to someone in his line of work. We watch as our hero claws his way through his new way of life, spurning helpful hands and many close to him in his failed attempts to reconcile his understandably volatile emotions and his determination to return to normalcy. Riz Ahmed likely gives the best performance of the year as our lead. I KNOW this person. Being heavily into rock and metal growing up, I know this distinct combination of kind hearted and hot headedness intimately. It's a unique and rare character nuance that Ahmed surgically taps in to. Journeyman actor and hearing capable son of deaf parents, Paul Raci, is also remarkable in a role that its hard to argue he wasn't born to play. The authenticity his real life lends to the portrayal is invaluable to the earnestness of the entire film. His Best Supporting Actor Nomination was one of the pleasant surprises of announcement morning. This is a movie about reflection. About surrendering distraction. About the humbling nature of life's unexpected turns and the courage we glean from those around us to navigate those turns. The movie is surprising in very small ways that pack an enormous impact and it is such a texturally rich picture the whole way through.
Included with Prime on Amazon Prime
#5. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM
Denzel Washington's promise to bring all 10 of August Wilson's Century Cycle plays to screen is off to a scalding hot start. Fences ranked 3rd on this list back in 2016 and now Ma Rainey chimes in here at 5. Detractors will say that its simply a play put on film, and that's the type of negativity we don't need in our lives. This is dizzying dialogue and top drawer acting performances from every single cast member. Is a degree of visual story telling lost within this much monologuing? Probably. But let these people shine. When the notes are that pretty, and the players that talented, you let the music play. The quality of Chadwick Boseman's performance here makes the tragic news of his death all the more heartbreaking. It's hard not to draw parallels to Heath Ledger, another fine actor who passed away hot on the tails of his greatest performance, and leaving us all to wonder what could have been. Boseman will likely join Ledger as this millennium's only posthumous Oscar Winners. His performance here is as raw and visceral as any I have seen in some time. The script provides him as many as 3 sprawling monologues that are his parting gift to us and serve a final showcase of a transcendent talent. Viola Davis is equally as resplendent in her ornery title role and honestly may be the best actor working today. One welcomed facet of the movie, being adapted from the stage, is that it is a lean machine. Fewer sets, less fluff, longer sequences, the movie lets the actors feast and I missed that a little bit. This movie showcases the clashing of opinions and battle of wills bore out through verbal and, at times, physical conflict. The tension bounces off the walls filling the subdue chambers with animosity. Its a palpable film with sneaky messages belying the more obvious themes. We watch as the lives of these people are torn asunder in real time as they point the finger at each other for their pain, even though they fully realize the pressure is applied to them from altogether different thumb. There is a wrenching, squirming, inevitability to it all. Whether its more play or more film does nothing to diminish its thunderous blow to the conscience nor its viability as a masterpiece.
Currently Streaming on Netflix
If you're looking for authenticity in film, you've found it in Chloe Zhao's exquisitely shot Nomadland. Playing almost documentary-like in its honesty, we are shown a side of American life few can even conjure let alone hope to endure. Yet, despite the obscurity of the nomad's way of life, there is a deep seeded and long forgotten understanding with them. There is a primal instinct that echoes faintly from within to remind us, the consumerist American, the audience watching comfortably from their roomy living room, on a garishly oversized television, streaming from one of the several services we subscribe to, that we DO have the capacity to live that way. The movie fools us in to thinking we might even prefer it. As luscious frontier landscapes dance beautifully across the screen, part of us yearns to reconnect with the survivalist spirit we once felt so affixed to as children. We watch the untethered freedom of these people with contemptuous superiority, begrudging respect, and introspection into our own fortitudes. This is made possible on the filmmaking side by shrewd writing and an inconceivably lived-in performance from Frances McDormand. She has 2 Oscars already and this is probably her best work. The first part likely precludes her from being rewarded for the second. Most of the remaining characters are not actors but actual nomads who have shirked the consensus of what modern life should entail, whether by pioneer choice, or by unfortunate circumstance. Either way, we are richer for witnessing the investigative examination into this unique curiosity of Americana. Nomadland will most likely be the Best Picture winner at this years Oscars as it already won the top prize at the Globes, Critics Choice, and now the Producers Guild. It would be hard to say its not deserving.
Currently Streaming on HULU
#3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Are you full or did you save room for another slice of life? Writer/Director Eliza Hittman's story of a rural Pennsylvanian teen seeking medical attention in New York City to terminate her pregnancy is the most tender film of the year. The most important choice Hittman makes is to steer clear of the morality of the hot-button issue as much as possible. Thematically speaking, there is no finger wagging at the teen, nor is there condemnation of the regressive legal structures that force the young woman to seek alternative aid. The characters and conflicts just ARE. They are taken at face value as real life occurrences and interactions that happen every single day. And in this honesty comes a tidal wave of humanity. By not reducing our lead or her antagonists to caricatures of political standard bearers, we unearth a greater understanding of the predicament. Put plainly, it's the most balanced and thoughtful examination of abortion in any medium I have ever seen. All this is not to say there aren't moments where the characters are despicable to one another, or that we question the corruptibility of the circumstance, but these are presented as narrative devices and not expository postulations from the creative team. This all hinges on incredibly understated performances of Sidney Flannigan and her cousin/friend played terrifically by Talia Ryder. Don't look for diatribes or soliloquies, as there are none to be found. These are performances that largely exist only on the skin. Faces say much more than words can hope to. Because of the intense subtlety of the film, many viewers may feel alienated at first, but the hyper-realism eventually starts to give way to a mesmerizing dreamlike quality. And before the credits roll, we learn what the movie always was meant to be; an odyssey of a young woman realizing her agency and self-determination. The two young girls venture into the unknown, using any and all of the tools afforded them by the life they inherited, in the hopes of returning without something, but having gained much more.
Currently Streaming on HBO Max
#2. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
I may think there is 1 better film this year, but I KNOW that this is the most important story told this year. Director Shaka King gives us the screen treatment that Fred Hampton's tragic story deserves. Hampton was a young idealistic political activist and chairman for the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, who was assassinated by police while asleep in his bed, in 1969. Going in to the film, we know how it ends, and it does nothing but DEEPEN the impact of the scenes that precede it. The raid sequence that concludes in Hampton's assassination is perfectly captured as his wife, 9 months pregnant, helplessly glares ahead as her husband is murdered. In her mind, it was a foregone conclusion. She understood that the more influential and important Fred Hampton became the more likely it was that he would not be permitted to continue. Throughout the film she is conflicted as she watches her baby's father soar in to the sky, knowing that he would inevitably fly too close to the sun. This moment was the fruition of that concern, and it is captured with nauseating accuracy. It is the the ultimately defeated look on her face that cuts to the core of the issue of race that persists today. What direction is there to go? Do not fail, but also do not succeed too much. Always be good, but never strive to be great. And most importantly don't be so idealistic as to believe you can effect any change to the status quo. This is the message we send. The film itself is excellent throughout. It is a running joke this year that the Academy put, both, the Judas AND the Messiah in the Supporting Actor category, which begs the question; who is hell is the lead then? But I don't hate it because both Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are deserving of any recognition bestowed on them for their incredible work here. Stanfield's nervous energy eludes to his character's conflicted conscience with such beautifully intricacy. Kaluuya is in pure power form. He is magnetic, but its not all straight fastballs. He crafts a complete person around Hampton's undeniable gravitas. In the end we are left with a welcomed addition to the canon of great Crime Dramas. This one looks comfortable bumping elbows with other all time greats. It is the most important and may be the most enduring film released this year.
Currently Streaming on HBO Max
Minari, like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, and Sound of Metal, is a small and focused picture. What separates it is the tirelessly beating heart at the center. Without diminishing anything of those other wonderful films, Minari takes the time to ingratiate the characters to the audience and defies you not to root for them. A Korean family moves from the hustle and bustle of 1980's California to the more secluded Arkansas countryside in an attempt to live out their version of the American Dream and we desperately want them to succeed. Lee Isaac Chung crafts a lovely film imbued with flashes of inspiration in every scene. Everything feels organic, no conflict feels forced, no character out of step with their own reality. And despite this precision, the film is a charming and fun watch. Minari just felt different than any other movie this year. More generosity of character, more insights to the adorably mundane, and more propulsion from scene to scene. I would say it's absolutely the most three-dimensional film of year. One feels as though they could step in to that ramshackle little trailer and join in on the family shenanigans, and most importantly we would WANT to do that. Steven Yeun (who was always the best part of the Walking Dead anyway) has become a star in recent years and now has the hard-earned distinction of the being the first Asian American to be nominated in the Lead Actor category. He is a revelation. He is a perfect characterization of your typical hardworking 80's dad. Dedicated, knowledgeable, capable, and with his own unique temperament. He's reminiscent of a time where, as children, we thought our dads were super heroes. Impossibly strong and equally wise. We put blind faith in this person, and as we grow, we long to be thought of in the same way, despite being so keenly aware of our own shortcomings. This is a man doing the best he can and we can all hope to be guided so strongly by that compass. The movie is just unforgettably great. Maybe I'm biased. Maybe the fact that this is the first movie I saw in theatres is over a year, or that they rightfully depicted Mountain Dew as a panacea for all ails made me more enamored with the film than others. But from credits to credits I never had any doubt of what I was watching. I was watching the best movie of the year.
In theatres and Video On Demand
So there it is. My opinion of the best movies of this bizarre year! I hope you enjoyed reading my rationales and feel free to leave your frustration of agreement in the comment sections. Here's hoping to seeing more movies in theatres in 2021!