It’s not a fresh take to say this year has been one of the crappiest of my (and probably many of our) lives. We all did our best to find things to keep us busy, from getting really into new video games, reading, or whatever other weird hobby you may have picked up. Mine was really no surprise; I went to a forever comfort place for me: movies. I watched far more than I probably ever have in a given year since the beginning of 2020, from catching up on many pre-60’s classics I hadn’t seen (Casablanca; it’s good!) to filling in franchise blind spots like Fast & the Furious or Lord of the Rings Extended Editions.
Yet I was always most excited for the new movies. This year-end list has been something I’ve done for over a decade now, and there was no way I was letting 2020 put an end to that also. Even with many theaters shutting their doors, most new releases being pushed back, or things shifting to streaming/VOD, 2020 has had its fair share of great movies. Understandably, most of the ones on this list are smaller, non-blockbusters (of which in a normal year I’d probably have at least a couple). So here are my 10 favorites of this year, in no specific order unless stated below!
Chloe Zhao is one of the most refreshing, sincere and authentic writer/directors in recent years and Nomadland establishes that further. Her 2018 movie ‘The Rider’ made my Top 10 list as well, and Nomadland is even better in my opinion. Anchored by an incredible, understated but powerful performance by the great Frances Mcdormand, Nomadland follows some of the many people left adrift post-recession. With no more career, lost family members and homes, these people turn to the road in search of temporary work and community together.
Nomadland often feels antithetical to most things we expect from movies. Comfortable in showing through visuals and action, practically free of plot or traditional purpose, like the characters it follows. It feels like an especially timely movie for a year like this, showing what happens when our country fails us and we have to find other avenues and methods to live our lives. Ultimately it’s the texture of Zhao’s movie and quiet integrity of its characters that struck me with Nomadland. Just like her last movie, this is something only she could make, and I hope she gets to keep making whatever she wants from here on.
First Cow is one that I felt I had to write about right after Nomadland. Both made by female directors, paced slowly but deliberately, and focusing on specific periods and times in America, about Americans. Focusing on a laid back, well-meaning baker named ‘Cookie’ and his new friend King-lu, they do their best to make their way in a new American frontier, being some of the earliest settlers in the Oregon territories. This involves stealing milk each night from what is presumably the ‘first cow’ in the region, and using it to make baked goods that take the area by storm.
Among the warm, beautiful friendship at its center, an external force begins to encroach on Cookie and King-lu. I won’t go into much detail, but it made me think First Cow would be a great first movie in an unofficial trilogy with There Will Be Blood and something like Wolf of Wall Street. The insidious birth and growth of capitalism, and how early it dug its roots into the American life. Despite its dark edges, I’d say First Cow is probably my favorite movie of the year for all the warm kindness at the heart of it. John Magaro and Orion Lee as Cookie and King-Lu make this movie magical, and I’ve thought about it more than any other this year.
Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed has been one of my favorite up and coming actors since I saw Four Lions a decade ago, and he’s finally gotten a leading role deserving of his immense talent. As Ruben, he plays a touring metal drummer in an up and coming 2 piece band with his girlfriend (in sequences they actually played live, and honestly sounded pretty badass). That is, until Ruben begins to lose his hearing suddenly and completely. From there, he embarks on an Introspective journey to figure out how to continue living without a prior purpose.
This movie rests almost solely on Ahmed, and it’s maybe the best performance this year. However, actor Paul Raci is also an adrenaline shot of empathy and caring as his counselor and mentor at a deaf and hearing impaired community. The directing by Darius Marder also deftly balances the external world around Ruben through sound as well as the internal echo chamber of Rubens reality. It’s a tough movie to watch on an emotional level but has such a great, cathartic journey that this one is easily way up there for me this year.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is a director I’m only finally catching up with, whose movie ‘Do the Right Thing’ I finally saw this year and completely blew me away. Da 5 Bloods dropped early this year and was my absolute favorite for much of 2020. A movie not defined by any 1 tone or genre, breaking free of the shackles of the medium every opportunity it gets. At its center, it’s about 4 Vietnam-vet friends going back to the country as older men to retrieve gold they’d found there as young men. Yet it’s also about grief, loss, anger, guilt, and more.
The entire cast is excellent, but I want to shout out Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman in particular. Lindo is an actor I always enjoy seeing but is on another level here, as a jaded, angry man filled with guilt and racked with trauma from his time in Vietnam. Boseman, in a role that has only become increasingly spiritual and powerful after his death, carried a gravitas and weight that hangs over the entire movie. In one of the final scenes I won’t spoil here, these 2 actors have a moment that absolutely destroyed me, and in thinking about it with the context of Boseman’s passing, almost feels like a sincere and passionate goodbye to the viewer. It’s maybe the best scene in a movie this year. Ultimately, many who didn’t like the movie call it ‘messy’ or overstuffed and I don’t disagree; it’s insanely ambitious and trying for a lot, but in my opinion, absolutely succeeds at telling a powerful story.
One of my most anticipated movies of the year was ‘Mank’, David Finchers first movie since 2014’s ‘Gone Girl’ and it didn’t disappoint. I’m already such a sucker for Hollywood movies, and Fincher being one of my favorite directors, this was destined for my list. What I didn’t expect was for this movie to feel so light and fun, 2 descriptors that don’t always fit Finchers prior movies. Mank doesn’t so much get into the making of Citizen Kane as much as the inspirations behind it, and the character of the man who wrote it. It’s a period piece that ends up telling a timely story about greed and power structures, and the people who try to create art at the center of it.
The heart of this movie is the script. Fincher is an immensely technical director but if there’s one through-line in his best movies, it’s an impeccable script. This one was written by his own late father Jack Fincher decades ago, this being a passion project for them since the mid-90’s. I hope Jack Fincher gets a posthumous writing nomination because Mank packs in enough heart, witty banter and cutting commentary on Hollywood to fill a miniseries; to the point I knew I’d only caught about half of everything that happened by the time credits rolled (Fincher always makes DENSE movies but this one pushes it even further). This, also like many of his movies, will surely age like a fine wine and I already can’t wait to revisit it in years to come.
This is another one in the Nomadland/First Cow category in many ways, a movie so content with showing and letting characters just exist and be happy on screen. I should mention that this is part of a larger group of films by Steve McQueen on Amazon called ‘Small Axe’, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen them all yet. This was the one I’d heard most about so I checked it out first. Taking place in London in the 1970’s, the entire story unfolds over a single night at a party with a diverse group of people from predominantly England and the West Indies. There’s certainly conflict in the movie, but the way the movie just embraces finding happiness in the moment feels almost more like a documentary, and antithetical to most movies released these days.
Lovers Rock is barely 70 minutes long, and spends a majority of the time showing people in close proximity, dancing with each other and having the time of their lives (jeez I wonder why it hit so hard this year, huh) It’s content with rhythm and movement, joy and dancing, no desire for melodrama or forced stakes. Not to say that we don’t get glimpses into the world outside this party. Almost every encounter with a white character holds a tension, one in particular with a group of boys at night who start harassing a young woman when she briefly leaves the party. It drives to further underline what this party represents for this young group of people: a brief haven of safety, joy and comfort in an unjust and imbalanced world.
Growing up, some of my favorite movies were animated. Films like Atlantis, Treasure Planet or non-Disney movies by Don Bluth like Titan A.E. Sure these were blatant attempts to keep young boys interested in animation but they definitely worked on me, and I love the medium to this day. I haven’t seen many animated movies this year but my favorite animated movie so far this year is Wolfwalkers, from the relatively new Irish cartoon studio ‘Cartoon Saloon’. They’ve been quietly growing their reputation in America for a decade but this is the first of there’s I’ve seen and I loved it.
First of all, the movie is completely 2D animated, which seems like it might be poised for a comeback (and I can’t wait). It’s a beautiful, almost water-color aesthetic, with sharp edges that remind me of someone like Mike Mignola (Hellboy) or Gendy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack) yet entirely its own style. The story reminds me more of Miyazaki than something western, not afraid to go darker than most Disney/Dreamworks movies do. The relationship between the father and daughter hit me especially, as someone who wants nothing more than protecting my son from the darkness in the world, yet being unable to do so forever. It’s a really specialty movie that I’d recommend checking out if you have Apple +.
David Cronenberg is one of the most prolific horror directors of all time, so when I heard his son was also making horror movies I was intrigued to check this out. He made prior movies like 2013’s Antiviral, but Possessor is one I heard a lot of buzz about and it didn’t disappoint. It has elements of body horror and philosophical ideas behind its neon and blood-soaked aesthetic, just a combination of everything I love out of a good horror movie. Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott are both great for different reasons, Riseborough carrying over a lot of the otherworldly energy from something like Mandy and Abbot being almost uncomfortably vulnerable as he’s torn apart from inside.
Possessor is also almost oppressively dark and grim, a movie in sharp contrast to many of the others that made my list but hey, people contain multitudes! It’s been a dark and grim year as well, but I’ll still always love the escapism of a world and scenario where things are *much* worse than they are in this reality. Cronenberg makes such a visceral and authentic-feeling world of dispassionate people who do things for their own self interest with little-to-no care for others around them. We’re all just cogs in a machine for those who profit and benefit off us. It’s in these ways that Cronenberg has made a movie like his father, where science fiction and horror meet reality in a depressingly accurate way.
There are few things more satisfying to watch than when Pixar decides to “go big”. Movies like Inside Out, Wall-E or even the Toy Story movies in my opinion, are not only pinnacles of animation for the eras they’re made in but also philosophical observations that continue to grow and evolve over the years. Soul in many ways feel like a companion to Inside Out, but is probably Pixar’s most ambitious project yet. I don’t want to spoil anything if you haven’t seen it, but some of the locations and concepts the movie portrays blew my mind. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall hearing them discuss how they’d portray these things in animation, one of the most impressive displays of visual art I’ve seen in a long time.
One thing I really love about these recent Pixar movies like Soul or Inside Out, is that they really have something to say. Kids entertainment almost always feels pretty empty and hollow, not doing much except keeping kids eyes busy for a little while why their parents do the dishes or make dinner (especially YouTube, man what a cesspool). I appreciate that Pixar takes the responsibility of having the hugest possible platform and makes movies that make us feel and care but also have something to say. In Inside Out’s case, sadness and happiness are both important to have in our lives and we shouldn’t try to escape it. Soul goes even bigger, taking aim at our passions and our purpose in life and how we define ourselves. I’m glad my son gets to grow up in a world where they’re making movies as powerful, diverse and ponderous as Soul.
The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is far from a perfect movie. It definitely has flaws, especially in the back half of the movie, but I think the first half to 2/3 are pretty much perfect. Not only perfectly constructed, but experimental in ways I didn’t expect. I should say, this is one of those rare movies that feels like it was made just for me. From the Twilight Zone homage of an opening (dubbing the following story a tale from ‘Paradox Theater’) to the obvious Spielberg vibes of the focus on teens in a period setting with supernatural elements at play. It’s a pretty easy way to end up one of my favorites of the year, but in opposition to the safe, comfort of Super 8, The Vast of Night is fresh and subversive in ways I didn’t expect.
I honestly didn’t expect this one to make the list, coming close to putting Tenet or Palm Springs, 2 other movies from this year I loved. The difference is that I’ve watched this movie 3 times now. I haven’t even watched another movie from this year more than once, and yet I keep wanting to revisit this one. I think it has to do with the direction, pulling you into the various scenes around town, dense, clever dialogue between characters you immediately care about, and a mystery that you immediately want to figure out along side the characters. Although I don’t really think it nails the finish, and runs into pacing problems near the end, I love so much of this movie that I’d be lying to myself if I left it off this list. It’s writer/director Andrew Patterson’s first movie and I seriously can’t wait to see what he does next, whether it’s more ‘Paradox Theater’ entries like this (sounds good to me) or something totally new and unexpected, sign me up.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
So that’s that for 2020. I’m writing this days away from 2021, and things are at once bleak and hopeful, worse than they’ve ever been but the exit sign in view. I can’t wait to see and hang out with the people I love without anxiety, go to the movies, go see live music. 2021 and on will eventually be great but we’ve just gotta hang tight for a few more months. Hell, if any of these movies sound interesting, check them out while you’re staying home in quarantine, I’d recommend them all. Thanks so much for reading and indulging my dumb annual tradition, stay home and stay safe.