If I’m remembering the family lore correctly, my parents brought three-year-old me to a screening of “Love Story” in 1970, meaning that it’s literally been half a century since I spent less time in movie theaters than I did in 2020. Naturally, I had bigger worries than that during the pandemic (and I fared better than many, many others) — but losing the cultural experience of communal, big screen cinema-going was yet another sad reversal of norms in America, and now I can’t even see “Soul” because my local multiplex was recently shuttered (again) due to the latest COVID spike and I simply refuse to spring for yet another streaming service. Yet even without Pixar’s latest in the mix, the annus horribilis offered many other fine features, most of which I wish I’d had a chance to see on the big screen.
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy 2020 films as yet unseen by moi): Soul, Time, Forty-Year-Old Version, Sound of Metal, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, First Cow, One Night in Miami
1. PALM SPRINGS
This endlessly clever entry in the repeating day time loop genre premiered (by “lucky” coincidence) in a year when the entire world was more or less stuck in the quarantine version of “Groundhog Day”. Of course, unlike Andy Samberg (finally finding his leading man groove and well matched by the dry martini wit of co-star Cristin Milioti), most of us were stuck at home on our couches rather than a sun-dappled, fully catered luxury resort. Yet whereas Bill Murray’s classic comedy was about a selfish man learning to be more of a mensch, Max Barbakow’s film (featuring a sweetly existential screenplay by Andy Siara) had a more timely message about not giving up and finding the strength to move forward.
Hollywood routinely wastes hundreds of millions on visions of the future as shallow and blatantly artificial as Elon Musk’s epidermis. Yet indie writer/director Noah Hutton, working with a mere fraction of those galactic budgets, managed to create a believably cohesive, fully imagined near future “gig” economy satire where contract non-employees known as cablers hike through the wilderness connecting quantum hubs (basically an advanced form of computing technology allowing Wall Street to screw over the 99% faster than ever before). Hutton’s inventive storytelling weaves a clever web throughout as a working class jamoke named Ray (played with endearing New Yawk charisma by Dean Imperial in his feature debut) crosses paths with fellow toilers in the wild, including a sardonic political agitator (Madeline Wise from HBO’s “Crashing”) and several friendly strangers who suddenly turn inexplicably hostile.
3. ONCE UPON A TIME IN UGANDA
Co-directed by Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez, this uplifting, utterly charming documentary chronicles the inspiring tale of Isaac Nabwana (a.k.a. “Africa’s Tarantino”), the “Wakaliwood” community of filmmakers he created and continues to motivate in the Kampala neighborhood of Wakaliga, and his unlikely friendship with a white New York fan named Alan Hofmanis who winds up promoting his films to the world. Beyond its fascinating themes and character arcs, the many joys of “Once Upon A Time in Uganda” stem from its celebration of creativity, ingenuity, and communities of like-minded individuals from all walks of life (turbo-charged throughout with clips from the work of Nabwana and his collaborators, a.k.a. “the Beatles of exploding heads,” as well as events in the lives of the documentary’s real-life characters cleverly restaged as action sequences by Czubek and Perez). Wakaliwood Forever!
4. THE DONUT KING
A well-deserving winner of SXSW 2020’s Special Jury Recognition for Achievement in Documentary Storytelling, director Alice Gu’s profile of the California “donut king” Ted Ngoy is simultaneously a personal history packed with twists and romantic drama, a gripping, tragic chronicle of the 1970s “Killing Fields” era of Cambodian history, a timely lesson in the value of embracing and supporting (rather than demonizing) immigrants, a fascinating overview of America’s love affair with tasty round pastries, and flat out food porn. It’s a credit to Gu that her feature debut seamlessly blends such a range of topics and tones as she charts Ngoy’s astonishing journey from the fall of Phnom Penh and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge to his rise as the godfather of a Cambodian American donut empire battling external corporate threats and his own inner demons at high stakes Vegas blackjack tables.
5. MY DARLING VIVIAN
The Vivian of the title is Vivian Liberto, who basically raised Roseanne Cash and her sisters Tara, Cindy, and Kathy after Johnny, their father (a.k.a. the Man in Black) disappeared into a fame-fueled spiral of touring and drug addiction. Enriched by a treasure trove of family photos, home movies, and previously unheard recordings, Matt Riddlehoover’s biopic defiantly upends the accepted Nashville and Hollywood narrative depicted in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line”. In the Cash sisters’ retelling, “Walk the Line” was actually a love song to their mother before their father ran off with June Carter, stranding his first wife and his daughters with a parrot, a dog, and a monkey on a rattlesnake-infested ranch in the middle of nowhere. “That’s not how children should be raised,” Rosanne notes wryly at one point in this belated yet compelling tribute to the woman who somehow steered her daughters safely through a grueling ring of fire.
After hitting the screens of international film festivals in 2019 (then stumbling into wide pandemic release across a spectrum of theaters and streaming services), this astonishing film by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho is set in a tiny Brazilian village which, for some mysterious reason, no longer appears on maps. And not unlike the tiny Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks, the eccentric, mostly likable locals have more than a passing familiarity with deadly evil best experienced (as in David Lynch’s genre mash-ups) with no foreknowledge of where it all leads (except for the minor spoiler that some of it involves Udo Kier).
7. LOVERS ROCK
One of five Steve McQueen films created for the BBC anthology series “Small Axe,” “Lovers Rock” unfolds before, during, and after a 1980 reggae house party in West London — so, naturally, it goes without saying that the music, costumes, and art direction are supreme. Yet the astonishing thing about this visceral mood ring of a film is how it absorbs you so completely into one all-consuming moment after another within such a tiny space, from the intimate erotic passion of a couple making out in a corner to the collective power of voices unified in a song that could last forever.
8. AMERICAN UTOPIA
The late, great Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” was simple but profound, capturing Talking Heads at the height of their power in such a joyful, conceptually clever way that (at least in some theaters) audiences were literally dancing in the aisles throughout. Yet as singular as that amazing concert film was, Spike Lee somehow gets lightning to strike yet again with this moving, celebratory chronicle of Heads front man David Byrne’s incandescent Broadway revue (which, coincidentally again, ended just weeks before the Great Shutdown).
9. THE BOYS IN THE BAND
Speaking of lightning striking twice, there was no particular reason to remake the already excellent 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play about a bittersweet gathering of gay, pre-Stonewall Manhattan friends (anchored by Leonard Frey’s astonishing co-lead performance as the acid-tongued, unclosetable Harold). Yet, as with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” another excellent 2020 cinematic adaptation, the staginess of the endeavor is eclipsed by great performances (including a never better Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto almost but not quite out-Freying Frey) — and bonus points for the out and proud A-list cast (and uber-producer Ryan Murphy) enshrining this once shunned play while Crowley was still alive to enjoy it.
To be clear, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending action thriller is way dumber than it thinks it is. But as one of only three movies I actually managed to see on the big screen in 2020 (even alone, masked up, and with no goddamn popcorn), “Tenet” nevertheless filled a deep, aching need at the core of my soul to sit in a big dark room watching planes, brains, and automobiles blow up real good while forgetting myself for awhile. Here’s to a return to theaters in 2021.
Honorable Mention: Light from Light, TFw No Gf, I Will Make You Mine, Circus of Books, Have A Nice Trip, Driveways, Da 5 Bloods, The Capote Tapes, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kajillionaire, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Memorable cinematic moments of 2020: the surprisingly layered interviews with incels in Tfw No Gf, the luminous Billie Piper in Rare Beasts, the inventive gadgets of Lapsis, the young Waka Stars of Once Upon a Time in Uganda, the charming musicians of I Will Make You Mine, Fran Lebowitz in The Booksellers (or anything), Brian Dennehy’s touching swansong in Driveways, the dinosaurs in Palm Springs, the breathtaking opera house mission in Tenet, Jessie Buckley and the rapidly aging parents of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Old Dolio Dyne figuring out her parents’ final message in Kajillionaire, America’s sweetheart Bill Burr in The King of Staten Island, the reading of the names in The Trial of the Chicago 7, yet another humiliating moment for Rudy in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the late Chadwick Boseman’s gripping monologue in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, some of the extremely satisfying bloodshed in Bacurau.
Most Overrated: Mank
Charles Dance was amazing. But the rest of the film was meandering, way less impactful than it intended to be, and way too impressed with its own brilliance (…and, no, it’s not that I didn’t “get” the cinematic references, especially after being smacked upside the head with them for two-plus hours).
Wished I’d Liked It More: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The cinematic equivalent of 2019’s most exasperating book, “Trust Exercise,” in the way Charlie Kaufman starts so very strong before eventually losing himself in his own hall of mirrors.