Let’s get this out of the way first… this was a weird year for film. Around this time in previous years, I was watching a plethora of screeners of movies that producers were pushing for Oscar contention. This year, COVID caused mayhem to my finances and I didn’t pay my SAG dues (oops), so no screeners for me. I actually don’t even know if they sent them out this year, what with the Oscars being pushed back a couple months.
So, this list is rather more incomplete than my top 10 lists in previous years. Please let me know if there’s anything glaringly obvious that I left off, something that you thought was great this year that I might not have heard of (or worse, forgot about).
The Ones I Missed
I’ll start by listing the films I’m sad I didn’t get a chance to see yet, because I think they have the potential to edge a few of my current choices off the list and into the honorable mentions category. These might be some of the ones you want to recommend I watch, so I’ll just upfront the ones I’ve heard of.
One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, Possessor, Kajillionaire, Saint Maud, Greyhound, 40 Year Old Version, Emma, First Cow, Devil All the Time, News of the World, An American Pickle, Dick Johnson is Dead, Greta, She Dies Tomorrow, Color Out of Space, Words on Bathroom Walls, Dark and Wicked, Shirley, On the Rocks, The Assistant
I fully believe at least 3 of those (2 of which are pictured) could easily end up in my top 5.
Here are the films that I saw and enjoyed but couldn’t find space for them in the Top 10. You might say this is “cheating,” as a way to get a few extra films onto the list, and you’d be right. I’m not cheating a lot, I only have three films for this section.
Palm Springs, The Social Dilemma, and Class Action Park.
Two of these are documentaries. The Social Dilemma breaks down exactly how social media has infiltrated our minds and our habits and is changing the way we interact with each other in real life, and Class Action Park chronicles a “no rules” amusement park in New Jersey in the 1980s where a lot of the guests died. Both docs are equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and are well worth your time if you haven’t seen them.
If you haven’t seen Palm Springs, I don’t want to spoil the premise here (but the movie is even better than it sounds if you’re aware of the premise already). It stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and JK Simmons. It’s a comedy, and it isn’t what you might expect if you’ve seen any of those actors’ other projects. It’s a blast, and it’s streaming on Hulu.
I don’t like to rag on bad movies. Every movie is made by at least one person trying their best to make it work, so I don’t like to paint with a single brush. That said, these films aren’t horrible, but they’re high profile enough that if you haven’t seen it and are considering it, my honest recommendation to you is that you skip it entirely.
Those films are Mulan, Artemis Fowl, and The Witches.
“Oh, come on,” I can hear some of you saying, “those are for children!”
You’re right. But as you’ll see in my top 10, I’m a pretty big fan of movies for children. These are movies that are just so bland and boring that it would be better to just watch something else. The Mulan remake feels completely lifeless, and Artemis Fowl throws out everything interesting about the book and makes another one of those Disney films that you’ll forget even exists in a year or two (anybody remember The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?).
And don’t worry, Disney is 10,000x more powerful than I’ll ever be, this is punching up.
The Witches takes a 30 minute story and drags it out to nearly 2 hours. It’s an interesting enough story if you haven’t seen the original, but the plot doesn’t do anything with its dozens of setups, with the story feeling like it ends before the interesting part has even begun. If you’re dying to watch it, go for it. It’s not going to hurt you. But if you have even a sliver of a doubt, save yourself. Skip it.
My Top 10
#10 Invisible Man
A version of the Invisible Man that works as a story about the horrors of gaslighting? Yes, please! There’s something that works so well about Whannell’s use of negative space. The villain in invisible, so you never know if what you’re looking at is actually an empty room, or if danger lurks in plain sight. It works so well for 90% of its runtime that I was able to forgive the film for its over-the-top third (fourth?) twist and silly ending. The movie managed to get me to hold my breath for the larger part of 100 minutes, so if that’s something you’re looking for, check out The Invisible Man.
#9 His House
A story as much about survivor’s guilt as the immigrant experience, His House feels urgent. The story follows a young couple struggling to integrate into society after immigrating to London from war-torn South Sudan. As they move into their new government-appointed housing, they begin to believe a malevolent force has followed them to their new home. There are a few decent scare sequences, but the strength of this film comes from its two lead performances by Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku (who you may recognize as Ruby from Lovecraft Country). They imbue these characters with pathos and dignity as they play the very real trauma of losing a child, and feeling unwanted in an unfamiliar land.
#8 The Trial of the Chicago 7
I know he has his haters, but I am a massive Aaron Sorkin fan. A number of films he’s written have ended up as my favorite film of their respective years (like Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and The Social Network), so I was very excited when his new film dropped on Netflix a few months ago. He can’t have known when he was making this how relevant it would feel being released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd, but the film’s depiction and understanding of police brutality in the face of peaceful protest rang a number of “this just happened” bells. This is a major moment in history that I’d never learned about, and it was both maddening and cathartic to see that we’re still fighting the same fight today that they were fighting in the 70s. The film is not without its issues, including severely underserving its single Black protagonist in Bobby Seale, who in real life was bound and gagged in front of the court for three days, but in the movie it seems like only a few hours. That said, the film is still both entertaining and hopeful, pointing to a world where protests lead to results and people are united against the forces of White Supremacy and American Imperialism.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Tenet, I’d purposefully avoided trailers and knew vaguely that it was a sort of time-travel riff on James Bond. The real selling point was, “what madness is Christopher Nolan cooking up this time?” To put it bluntly, I loved this movie. Because the film flies by at lightning speed without giving any time for character development, it can be difficult to follow (much easier with subtitles on), but the combination of incredible special effects, camera trickery, and mind-bending action scenes makes for a thoroughly enjoyable viewing even if you’re completely lost.
#6 Bill and Ted Face the Music
I’m as shocked about this as anyone. I was a big fan of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but never really liked Bogus Journey. Even after receiving mostly positive reviews, my hopes were low-to-medium when I finally sat down to watch this.
I was not prepared. I was literally bawling my eyes out for the last 15 minutes. Bill & Ted’s third outing is more hopeful and powerful than it had any right to be, and it’s joining the list of movies I’ll throw on to cheer me up after a bad day. This movie just made me feel so good.
#5 I’m Thinking of Ending Things
This isn’t a movie I’d recommend to anyone. If you’re familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s other work, you probably know you’re in for a mind-bending, time-ignoring meditation on someone’s inner psyche and the meaning of life. That’s more or less what you get here, with more than a few “twists” that are basically irrelevant. This is a movie that happens to you, and eventually you just let it happen. The premise is simple enough: A guy brings his girlfriend home to meet his parents, but she’s already decided to end the relationship. What actually happens in the film is more complex, layered, and baffling, with any or all of the events remaining up for debate in terms of their significance or even their existence.
After spending the majority of the year depressed and terrified about COVID and the election, Pixar’s Soul was exactly the balm I needed to take the edge off. Suddenly, the concept of dying an early death didn’t seem quite as terrifying. Instead of focusing on what you were able to accomplish in life, Soul asks the question, “How do you want to spend the time you have?”
All that being said, the question remains: Why does Disney keep turning their Black lead protagonists into animals? One time (The Princess and the Frog) is a fluke, but when you’re two-for-two, it starts to feel like you’re not telling us something…
This movie took me by surprise. I’ve always been a huge Pixar fan (I’ll probably put out my Pixar rankings as a separate blog soon), and this year we got two films from the studio. If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year whether I thought I’d prefer the film about a jazz musician who dies too soon trying to get back to his life on Earth or the film about two elf brothers who go on a quest to bring back their father for a single day, I would have guessed Soul. Something about the fantasy setting that’s been overtaken by technology and the overall message of Onward struck a chord somewhere deep within me and it leapt to the top five of my Pixar films (spoilers for that upcoming blog).
I wasn’t looking forward to this movie. For the first time, I thought maybe we’d get a mediocre David Fincher film. I should never have doubted him. Here, he tells the story of the man behind the legend: the guy who wrote Citizen Kane, widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. The trailer made me believe it would be a battle over who received credit for the film, but that takes up maybe 5 minutes of Mank‘s running time. Instead, we get a film that feels very similar to Citizen Kane in that it chronicles the downfall of a man who should have been better than he was, and why he chose to write his final screenplay as a very thinly veiled critique of his old friend William Randolph Hearst. It touches on politics, capitalism, the American dream, and wraps it all up in a package that, while entertaining, also feels incredibly timely for 2020.
#1 Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is one of the most reliable filmmakers out there. Even his worst films feel original and alive in a way most films can only strive to be. Da 5 Bloods centers on a group of 4 Vietnam Veterans who return to Vietnam in their old age to pay their respects to the friend they lost (Chadwick Boseman, in one of his final roles that’s even harder to watch now that he’s gone), and maybe to find some gold they know is buried in the jungles from their army days. It’s about loss, friendship, family, and all the things that get in the way. Notably, PTSD, and what happens to someone whose trauma goes untreated for 40 years. It’s also a blast to watch, and I mean that in every possible sense of the word.