We’ll never know if this year’s list of the “Best Of”/ “Top Ten” Movies of 2020 are what they are because of the oddity of being a pandemic year, or in spite of it. There are plenty of movies that never got released due to theater closings or low attendance. Some of those will either be pushed to a theatrical release, post-pandemic, or come to a streaming outlet early this year. Still, there were many films that maybe normally would have gotten lost in the shuffle of a normal “theatrical release” year, that got noticed thanks to streaming availability. Any way you slice it, 2020 was an especially challenging year for the film industry that lost millions, if not, billions of dollars, with theaters closed and audiences shying away from theaters even when they were briefly reopened. It was also an odd year for reviewers like myself. What qualifies as a movie-movie? Are short films or series part of that? Is anything on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu a legit contender? What can be considered for awards this year and is it really the “best of” the year, or the best under the circumstances?
Below is my list based on my criteria, coupled with the Academy’s considerations. For myself, I considered if the movie, on one hand, rose to the level of exceptionalism in several categories such as screenplay, cinematography, editing, performances, and come together with seamless execution (it’s not enough to just have an outstanding performance, but a mediocre script). On the other hand, did I also enjoy, appreciate and like or love the movie and its story, along with all the technical aspects? Did I finish it wanting more or wanting to re-watch it? Will it hold up beyond 2020? Based on all that, the following are my carefully considered selections in order of quality (#1 best, 2nd best, etc.)
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)- This haunting film is a great example of being minimal and quiet, yet full of heart and drawing viewers in from the start and through to the end. It is easy to understand why it won the MVFF “Audience Favorite” in two categories of the festival, and has much Oscar buzz already, with its star, Frances McDormand, said to be a frontrunner for “Best Actress.” Following the death of her husband and the loss of her job, Fern (McDormand) decides to leave her town in rural Nevada. Packing up her van, she hits the road, exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. Along the way, she meets others like herself, forging a new life on the road, looking for work here and there. Many of these roles are filled by actual nomads who know this lifestyle first hand. The film is very slow moving and sparse, but incredibly engaging. Coming soon to theaters and On Demand.
Searchlight Pictures/trailer – https://www.searchlightpictures.com/nomadland/
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg) – Although the premise of four middle-aged men testing a theory to maintain a certain daily blood alcohol level to improve their disposition, sounds a bit odd, even off-putting and definitely destined to failure, instead it soars with creativity, poignancy and delight. The drinking and the drinking culture of Denmark is in the foreground or the catalyst for the film’s deeper meaning and goals which are the importance of one to reclaim life’s purpose and passions. Leading the ensemble cast is the tremendously talented, Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” “Hannibal”). He handles the character’s large arch and various stages of inebriation with aplomb. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, forever known for his stunning directorial debut, “A Celebration” (1998), affirms his unique talent in focusing on a singular, seemingly simple story and masterfully building on life’s complexities. On Demand
One Night in Miami (Regina King) – Fictionalizing an incredible night in 1964 when four friends, luminaries who later become legends, gathered to celebrate boxing’s biggest night. A young, up-and- coming athlete, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the heavyweight champ title from Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center, and taking the world by storm. There to witness the victory and support their friend, were singing sensation, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), college football hall of famer, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and a young social justice leader called Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).
Being the year that it was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and Malcolm X being the dedicated Muslim and passionate activist that he was, the conversations between the four friends go from fun and frivolous, to heated, pointed and inspired. The fact that Clay would be using the national spotlight of his victory to announce his conversion to Muslim and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, increases the already heated exchanges between the characters. In all, they were faced with what would be their individual roles in the movement and for history. Their discussions from over 50 years ago, resonate today, with contemporary issues of race and systemic racism in America.
Official Site – https://www.onenightinmiami.movie/
Mank (David Fincher) – A young wunderkind filmmaker, Orson Welles, enlists the services of veteran screenwriter and social critic, Herman Mankiewicz to pen what would be his masterpiece movie, “Citizen Kane.” The problem is Mank is an alcoholic and recuperating from an injury. While resting his physical impairment, he is surrounded by a few characters tasked to keep him sober in order to finish the script. Along the process, he reevaluates his time in Hollywood and his associates. This isn’t the type of film subject one would expect from Hollywood heavyweight David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Gone Girl,” “Zodiac Murders”), but working from a script of his late father’s, Jack Fincher, this departure is clearly a labor of love and it is imbued with imaginativeness, spectacular performances (Gary Oldman as Mank), old Hollywood charm and innocence, and packaged in glorious black and white imagery.
The Fight (Elie B. Despres, Josh Kriegman) – Go here for full review – https://culturevulture.net/film/the-fight-2020-2/
Official Site – https://www.fightthefilm.com/
Palm Springs ( Max Barbakow) – Wow, I didn’t see this one coming. What a wholly enjoyable surprise this film that mixes fantasy/time travel with comedy is. When the two main characters, Nyles and Sarah, played by Andy Sandberg and Cristin Milioti connect by chance at Sarah’s sister’s wedding in Palm Springs, one thing leads to another and they find that they can’t leave the day … ever. This is “Groundhog Day” but better. Hulu
Soul (Peter Docter, Kemp Powers)- It’s rare that I watch animation and even more rare that animation lands on my “Top Ten” list. This is not for lack of appreciation of the genre, but more attributed to a lack of interest. That said, there are a select few exceptions, and this is definitely and most appropriately one. When music teacher-wanna-be-professional-jazz-musician, Joe, gets what should be his big break to play with a musical legend in a NYC club, he ends up falling through a manhole and lands in between life and the sweet hereafter. In trying to get his soul back to his earthly body, he is enlisted to mentor a young soul called 22 (Tina Fey). 22 needs assistance in finding her passion and purpose before she is allowed to go to earth. At first Joe is only focused on his determination to avoid death and make his gig on earth, but along the way he learns from his young mentee, connecting with the real meaning of life and reassessing his priorities. Throughout, the audience is treated to Pixar at its best. Prepare to laugh, cry and become a part of the journey of life. Joe is voiced by Jamie Fox, and the music is largely attributed to Jon Baptiste. Batiste is perhaps best known as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, releasing a Grammy-nominated album in 2019 and serving as Co-Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. In addition to writing music for Soul, Batiste acted as a cultural consultant on the film. Stream on Disney Plus
Official site – https://movies.disney.com/soul
40-Year-Old-Version (Rhoda Blank) – Washed up New York playwright, Rhoda, teaches theater to tough and cynical high school students in order to pay the bills while struggling to get her new play produced. Haunting her endeavors are the thoughts centered on an upcoming significant birthday, and her recently passed mother, who was also a struggling artist. To compensate, Rhoda explores a new dream of being a rapper. The film was shot in black and white to evoke the music videos of the rappers from the 80s and 90s. That aesthetic actually had added value, helping to create an intimate feel. It is a small story, taking place over a few short weeks, a personal, somewhat autobiographical story, and it is filled with a fun supporting cast, and great observations and humorous lines from Rhoda. In some ways “40-Year-old-Version” is very New York and seemingly could limit it’s audience and appeal, but Blank makes a personal story universal, relatable and oh so enjoyable. It’s a great example of what a debut should be- writing what you know, not over-reaching but succeeding wonderfully. Where have you been Rhoda Blank?! Now that we discovered you, we need more, more, more. (Netflix)
Official site/trailer – https://www.netflix.com/title/80231356
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)- Who knew that in 2020 it could still be a struggle for some young women to obtain an abortion or for a teenage girl to feel safe in what should be an innocent relationship? This movie follows soft-spoken, broken-hearted Autumn who is from a small working-class town in Pennsylvania as she finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and feeling unable to reach out to her parents for help. Initially, she goes to a local clinic that gives her misinformation and attempts to dissuade her decision to abort by showing her videos. As a result, she and her cousin skip out on what they thought would one day of school and one night of work as grocery store check out clerks to go to a clinic in New York City. Because Autumn was misinformed regarding her due date, she is referred to another clinic to go to the next day. Once there, she is made aware of needing a medical procedure that will take two days. The girls’ planned overnight excursion, is now stretched to several more, with not enough money to cover their needs and their parents unaware of their whereabouts.
The scene between Autumn and the kind intake nurse at the clinic is worth the price of admission alone. The nurse gingerly asks Autumn routine questions to obtain information as to whether or not she lives in an environment/ has relationships in which she feels safe. “I’m going to ask you some personal questions,” the nurse quietly warns. “All you have to do is answer either never, rarely, sometimes or always.” We hear the questions, but the camera is focused on Autumns face. This is clearly an emotionally fraught situation for her, faced with the reality of her untenable home life with each question. With each response, we get clues to her situation and sympathize or empathize. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a quiet movie, with little dialogue and action. It explores one situation, one character and over only a few days, but its message and impact will haunt long past its 93 minutes of viewing.
Official site/ trailer – https://www.focusfeatures.com/never-rarely-sometimes-always
His House (Remi Weekes) – A vulnerable yet courageous couple escape from war-torn Sudan, but struggle in their new setting of a low income neighborhood in a small English town. Instead of being welcomed into what should be a safe environment, they are given a list of what they can and cannot do; how they should behave. Even more evil than the unfriendly officials, is the government house assigned to them. It is run down and unclean for sure, but it is haunted with ghosts in the walls and thoughts of their tormented past permeating the couple’s dreams and thoughts and threatening their marriage. All the while, an odd and ominous next-door neighbor seems to be always lurking with unsettling glances and comments. Although there is a bit of a redundancy in the horror aspect of the story line, and certain characters are not fully drawn, the film’s shortcomings are cleverly balanced out with a unique mix of political messaging and refugee social issues at its core. This is an impressive debut for writer/director Remi Weeks and undeniably strong performances from the principal actors, Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. (Netflix)
Official site/ trailer – https://www.netflix.com/title/81231197
Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, director) – Amazon Prime
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director) – Netflix
The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director) – Amazon Prime
The Dissident (Bryan Fogel, director) – On Demand All In: The Fight for Democracy (Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus, directors) – Amazon Prime