Well, that happened. 2020 was a movie year like no other in my lifetime. Since the pandemic started and until now, I’ve only been to the theater 4 times. 4 TIMES. I can’t remember a year where that happened. I’ve been regularly hitting up multiple movies a month since Summer 1989 (Batman! Ghostbusters II! Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! Man, that was a memorable summer.). Theatrical moviegoing has been a major part of my life for over 30 years, and to have that experience mostly taken from me this year absolutely stings. What are the 4 movies I risked my life to see, you might ask? Unhinged, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Freaky. Sad, right?
That’s not to say I didn’t see any new movies. I did. In fact, I quite enjoyed the number of streaming options this year. And, with blockbusters by and large taken out of the equation (save for WW84 and Tenet), my favorites list is a little more diverse than normal. Lots more room for indies, documentaries, and foreign flicks. I also rewatched a TON of movies. With no summer movie season in the cards, I basically curated my own summer movie season of yesteryear with a bunch of ’80s, ’90s and ’00s blockbusters I hadn’t revisited in years. Stay tuned for a separate post on my favorite rewatches of 2020.
But, for now, let’s get to my top 15. Yes, I said 15 – we’re in a pandemic, I can alter the usual top 10 format if it brings me joy. So can you. Why play by society’s rules this year? A few quick initial notes :
- I haven’t had an opportunity to see critically hailed faves like Nomadland, Minari, The Father, or Promising Young Woman. You may see those flicks on others’ lists. I’ll have to wait until 2021.
- As for Honorable Mentions: The Platform, Lovers Rock, Bacurau, Bad Boys for Life, Mangrove, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, American Utopia, The Prom, Tenet, The Personal History of David Copperfield, His House, The Vast of Night, and The Nest.
- And, I have to give special love to two TV docu-series that rank among the best things I saw this year: The Last Dance and Cheer.
Here we go – my 15 favorite movies from this weird, weird year:
15. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Maybe it’s the A Few Good Men fanboy in me, but Aaron Sorkin + Courtroom Drama is irresistible catnip. The sprawling ensemble cast is almost uniformly excellent, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II the standout as Bobby Seale. The ending has its problems – the awkward fadeout while Abbie Hoffman is on the stand, the self-congratulatory post-script – but up until then, the movie operates as polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment, with Sorkin’s patented crackling dialogue.
14. EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA. A blast of joy in an otherwise soul-crushing year, Eurovision was released on Netflix in the thick of summer, and offered breezy laughs and catchy music to a weary audience. This is the best Will Ferrell vehicle in years, and Rachel McAdams continues to prove herself as not only one of our more versatile actresses, but one of the funniest too. Like she did in Game Night, she steals the show here. I’ve listened to the soundtrack countless number of times – my Spotify most-played list is proof of that.
13. WOLFWALKERS. The best animated movie of the year. I was expecting Soul to take the crown, but while I didn’t warm to that Pixar flick as much as others have, I absolutely loved Wolfwalkers. It comes from the same Irish studio that made the Oscar-nominated Secret of the Kells. The mythical world-building and beautiful 2D animation make this a special, even magical movie for kids and adults alike. Magic is an oft-overused word when it comes to movies, but this one has it in spades. Gentle and emotionally rich, it plays more like a Miyazaki film than today’s usual studio animated fare.
12. FIRST COW. I’ve never really been much of a Kelly Reichardt fan, and for the first 20 minutes of First Cow, I sat there with my arms crossed. Too slow. Nothing happening. I was ready to jump ship. But, the film slowly casts a spell over the viewer with the period detail of its production design, the simplicity of the main characters’ friendship at its center, and the relaxed, effortless believability of the performances. When the plot really kicks in and generates some legit suspense, I had fully turned myself over to its charms. Critically acclaimed and for good reason.
11. SHITHOUSE. Don’t let the title turn you off. This is not some lewd, Animal House-style comedy about college life. Rather, it’s a frequently funny and talky drama about a college freshman not fitting in and finding kinship with his RA over the course of one night. It seems to have more in common with Richard Linklater’s movies than anything else. Rare to see a college-aged male character as emotionally open as the one here. This is an impressive debut for writer-director-star Cooper Raiff. Expect great things from this guy.
10. POSSESSOR. Not for the feint of heart. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg is apparently a chip off the old block of his dad, David. Dark, nihilistic, uber-violent science fiction with a fascinating body swap premise and remarkable performances from Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott. Some of the imagery here is impossible to shake.
9. BAD EDUCATION. More people should be talking about Hugh Jackman’s performance here. It’s one of the best, if not THE best, he’s ever given. As a huge fan of 1999’s Election, I found much to admire – the two films go for similar comedic tones at times and take a similarly jaded look at dysfunctional educational systems. But, as its plot unfolds, Bad Education charts its own path and reveals surprising character secrets that continually alter our understanding of events. Based on a true story that I’d never heard, and it’s a wild one. Premiered on HBO, but this is no mere television movie.
8. DA 5 BLOODS. Having just watched Spike Lee’s previous war flick, 2008’s very boring Miracle at St. Anna, I’m even more impressed with what he pulled off in Da 5 Bloods. Only Spike could have made this movie. It’s chock full of jarring tonal shifts, unorthodox editing, and a powerhouse performance from Delroy Lindo. Part Vietnam war flick, and part treasure hunting adventure, with bursts of shocking violence, Da 5 Bloods continually keeps its audience on their toes. It’s a big, meaty movie, destined to inspire conversation afterwards. But, it’s also fun. Spike is a true original.
7. SOUND OF METAL. A revelatory experience. Between Riz Ahmed’s exceptional performance and the ambitious sound design, which basically makes you experience what it’s like to lose your hearing, Sound of Metal captivates in ways no other movie this year could. The scenes between Ahmed and his deaf camp counselor played by Paul Raci are some of the best of the year. So well acted. It flirts with typical disability Oscar-bait type tropes, but always goes in a more interesting, nuanced direction. One of the best final shots of the year.
6. THE INVISIBLE MAN. I didn’t get to see too many movies on the big screen, but one of the last ones I saw before the shit hit the fan was Leigh Whannell’s update on the classic Universal monster. It’s still one of my favorites. Whannell’s smart take on the material is particularly timely (toxic relationships, reported harassment), but his ace in the hole is star Elisabeth Moss, who nails yet another character put through the ringer. The low-key effects are impressive and the gasp-worthy moment involving a knife at a restaurant is the kind of scene that’s a blast to watch in a crowded theater. Proof that you don’t need a huge budget to make a big impact on your audience.
5. SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE AND BLUE. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of five new films on Amazon Prime was a triumph. McQueen is one of our most talented working directors today, and each entry in the series is worth watching. I loved the sheer filmmaking craft of Lovers Rock and the impassioned courtroom drama of Mangrove, but my favorite of the bunch was the third film, Red, White and Blue. It stars John Boyega as a cop trying to bridge the racial gap between the all-white police force and the black citizens of his West Indian community in ’80s London. Boyega, freed from Star Wars, reaches Denzel-levels of greatness with his righteous anger and pent-up indignity.
4. ANOTHER ROUND. The best foreign film of the year. Expertly executes its brilliant premise – four middle-aged high school teachers engage in a “scientific” experiment modeled after Ernest Hemingway to always maintain a constant low level of intoxication (.5%). For a while there, the alcohol improves their work and home lives. The film perceptively explores the relationship we have with alcohol. Funny and dramatic, with a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen (when is he not fantastic?) performance at its center. If Trial of Chicago 7 had issues with its final few minutes, Another Round is the complete opposite. It ends on such a high.
3. BOYS STATE. Best documentary of the year. Dynamic, infuriating, inspiring and unbelievably relevant to today’s politics. The filmmakers lucked out with the handful of boys they decided to focus on over the course of a one-week Texas program, where the all-male participants try to build a representative government from the ground up. Plays like a fictional film with riveting dramatic stakes that could rival most scripted fare. I haven’t been this taken with a documentary since 2007’s The King of Kong. Many people still haven’t seen it because it premiered on AppleTV+, but do yourself a favor and subscribe for a month to check it out.
2. HAMILTON. What more can be said about Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony-winning work of staggering genius? It’s brilliant. I saw it on Broadway back in 2016 and instantly deemed it one of the top 5 pieces of art in any format ever created (don’t ask me what the other 4 are). The filmmakers could have just pointed the camera at the stage from a far angle, and I still probably would have loved it. But, we got something better than that. This is a fluid, superbly shot and edited film that gives everyone a front row seat, and now that it’s on Disney+, you can watch the original cast perform anytime you want at the click of a button. I don’t know about you, but I always want to be in the room where it happens.
1. PALM SPRINGS. I was laughing the moment the “Lonely Island Classics” studio logo appeared on screen. No movie this year better defined the quarantine experience, or had more interesting things to say about committed relationships than Palm Springs. It takes its Groundhog Day-inspired premise as a starting point and then runs off with it, branching out in new, entertaining directions and fleshing out thematic ideas and concepts that resonate. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are a dream team. They’re both extremely funny, but capable of all the dramatic heavy lifting the script asks of them. Not only one of the best, but easily the most rewatchable movie of the year. Think I watched it 3 times in the span of 5 days. Already looking forward to watching it again. Oscar-worthy script, cool cast, high concept premise – I love Palm Springs.
And that pretty much wraps up 2020. Here’s hoping we get to see a lot more movies in theaters in 2021!
* * *