Review: The year that changed cinema: Top 20 movies of 2020
The Surrogate, Soul, Promising Young Woman, Pieces of a Woman, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are among the best films of 2020
It was just like yesterday, or was it approximately three years ago that Bong-Joon Ho’s masterpiece “Parasite” swept The Oscars? Who's to say anymore in the zany and wild time that is 2020! Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s now the leading cause of death in the United States, massive blockbusters ala “Black Widow,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” and “Top Gun: Maverick” were pushed into purgatory. Some, like “Greyhound,” “Mulan,” and “Trolls: World Tour,” ditched theatrical plans altogether and went straight into your homes for a premium price. “Tenet” was the only brave soul that dared opened in the midst of a pandemic, and though its worldwide box office was encouraging (because other countries seemed to control the virus better than the U.S.) its tepid domestic results were enough for Warner Bros. to send their entire 2021 slate to HBO MAX and theaters simultaneously.
We’re witnessing history in the entertainment sector, from the rise of Netflix and Disney+ to Universal breaking traditional precedent (usually movies played in theaters exclusively for 90 days before a digital release) by hatching a landmark deal with major theater chains - AMC/REGAL/CINEMARK - to allow their films to be available via premium video-on-demand in as little as 17 days. Remember when “The Sixth Sense'' had an August theatrical opening and debuted on VHS in March? Those days are gone.
But having these big and splashy blockbusters (this will be the first year since 2009 to not have a Marvel movie) pushed aside, it allowed somber, intimate drama’s to soak up the spotlight. Folks watched films in record numbers (including this critic whose yearly haul reached a career high of 250 and counting!) Like many others, I broadened my horizons and watched things I wouldn’t have in a normal year. Why? I had the time. With sports cancelled, birthday parties postponed, social gatherings severely limited, most people were left home with their shiny electronics.
Thanks to my newfound “freedom” (that’s what I’m calling it) I took on more movies this year than I could possibly handle (which, to me, was a relief and a chore). I started a #QurantineCatchup series where I tasked myself with watching classic (or fan favorite) films that eluded me over the years. But in a year that rocked the political and social world with minimal to celebrate, it was a beautiful year for cinema. First time filmmakers made crushing debuts (including my #1 of the year), women finally got the spotlight, and a wide array of diverse and emerging talent made their voices heard.
No matter which way you slice it, that’s cause for celebration.
Here are my top 20 movies of the year with 10 honorable mentions.
Cooper Raiff’s sincere directing debut “Shithouse” captured the awkward transition from high school to college in a way most seasoned pros don’t. Originally slated for a debut at SXSW, this knowing and funny comedy put a fresh spin on the boy meets girl troupe. (Available to rent on demand)
19. The Assistant
An early February surprise, Kitty Green’s workplace drama “The Assistant” gave Julie Garner her best role to date. Garner played Jane, an assistant for a slimy film executive (though it's never stated, it’s implied to be Harvey Weinstein). In the era of #MeToo and the Times-Up movements, “The Assistant” is a gripping indictment on workplace abuse and harassment that showed there’s plenty of work to be done when it comes to believing victims. (Streaming on Hulu)
18. Come Play
When I said Jacob Chase's “Come Play” was the scariest movie since “The Conjuring,” I wasn’t kidding. This techno horror thriller about a demonic entity named Larry who lives inside cell phones and tablets stalking children was a terrifying roller coaster that never let up. (On PVOD)
Carol Mirabella-Davis’s “Swallow” put an interesting metaphor on how men control female bodies. Haley Bennet - in a tour-de-force performance - played an ailing, isolated housewife in upstate New York who develops Pica and starts ingesting harmful objects (ranging from a battery to a thumbtack). It’s not a pretty sight, but one that’s stark imagery and divine lust is hard to ignore. (On VOD/Digital)
16. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” was the first casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s limited release shuttered in early March leaving A24 in a bind whether or not to release it. Thankfully they did, giving audiences a masterful period piece about the American dream. John Magaro and Orion Lee shine as a pair of free thinking entrepreneurs that sought to foster their own ambitions into reality. “First Cow” is a work of art. (on VOD)
15. Palm Springs
Few movies made me laugh as hard as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti‘s wildly inventive comedy “Palm Springs,” a film which put a fun twist on the “Groundhog Day” formula. (streaming on Hulu)
14. The Invisible Man
After the ill-advised “Dark Universe” died a painful death, it left Universal scrambling for a Plan B. I’m not sure Leigh Whannell’s massively entertaining remake of “The Invisible Man” was what they had in mind, but it proved any naysayers (including this critic) wrong. Tense and packed with enough commentary on toxic masculinity to make your head explode, “The Invisible Man” saw an iconic monster reborn. (streaming on HBO and HBO MAX)
13. Rebuilding Paradise
Ron Howard’s documentary about the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history packed an emotional wallop. It proved the inconsistent director (who made the year's most problematic film: “Hillbilly Elegy”) can still touch on human empathy when you least expect it.
12. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s deeply personal “Never Rarely Sometimes Always'' showed a universal look at teenage pregnancy with newcomer Sidney Flangian delivering a nuanced performance that melted hearts. It forces the audience to come at these serious subjects with a new lens, and perhaps educating those who need it most. (streaming on HBO and HBO MAX)
11. David Byrne’s American Utopia
“American Utopia,” from director Spike Lee, brought Broadway into our homes. Considering the pandemic has shuttered live performances until mid-2021, it was invigorating to see Talking Heads frontman, David Byrne chew up the screen for two hours. No movie made me feel more alive in 2020. (streaming on HBO and HBO MAX)
10. SMALL AXE: MANGROVE
Steve McQueen’s first part of the sprawling “Small Axe” anthology has found itself in the middle of a pointless debate: Is it a movie or a TV series? The answer is obvious and “Mangrove” is a fiery cinematic experience about the true story of the Mangrove Nine and the trial that took place at the Old Bailey in 1970. (On Prime Video)
9. BOYS STATE
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s enthralling doc “Boys State” shined a spotlight on the Boys State initiative, a program where thousands of 17-year boys from Texas are tasked with forming their own government - electing officials, holding debates etc. Of course, being an election year “Boys State” struck a topical nerve, but it also sparked some hope for the future (depending on which angle you looked at it from). In a year filled with excellent documentaries, “Boys State” was undoubtedly the best. (on Apple TV+)
8. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
A twisty rape revenge thriller that really bites, Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” puts Carey Mulligan in the drivers seat and never lets off the throttle. You won’t see the ending coming until it hits you in the face. (Opens Dec 25th)
7. PIECES OF A WOMAN
The first thirty minutes of Kornel Mundruczo’s heartbreaking “Pieces of a Woman” has a thirty minute, one-shot sequence of the main character going through childbirth. It’s a harrowing and unforgettable scene that won’t easily be shaken (especially considering what comes after but the less you know going in, the better). Vanessa Kirby solidifies her status as an Oscar frontrunner with co-star, 88 year old Ellen Burstyn, delivering her best work in decades. (On Netflix Jan 7th 2021)
One of only a handful of theatrical experiences I had this year was Christopher Nolan’s mind bending “Tenet.” Some have complained about the topsy-turvy timeline around the use of “inversion” and found “Tenet” a confusing bore. But I was engulfed in what was being thrown at me, including a head spinning final sequence that left my jaw on the floor. You don’t see many $200 million dollar original pictures anymore, let alone one rooted in international espionage that’s not James Bond - but Nolan, in my book, still remains king. (On VOD)
Less Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari” is a raw and vivid portrait of a Korean family in 1980s America hoping to create a better future for themselves. Though Steven Yuen is outstanding, the entire supporting cast - Han Ye-Ri and Youn Yuh-jung chief among them - shine in this gorgeous and emotional heritage saga about finding light in the darkness. (Opens Feb 2021)
4. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
George C Wolfe’s masterful cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s classic “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman plenty to sink their teeth into. Filled with vibrant cinematography, music and costumes, “Black Bottom” gives Boseman the role of a lifetime, reminding us how lost the world will be without him. (On Netflix Dec 18th)
Forcing children to sit down and question where their souls come from and the implications of death and identity doesn’t scream “kids movie!” but Pixar has always been known to tackle tough subject matter in a way approachable to young ones. Pete Doctor’s brilliant and life affirming “Soul” is no different, and offers stunning animation, an immaculate score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and slick vocal performance all across the board. Not to be missed this holiday season. (On Disney+ Dec 25th)
2. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a masterful courtroom drama that highlighted the trial of seven individuals charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention. Another topical and relevant film in a year that hit a nerve, Sorkin’s approach and A-list cast - including Sacha Baron Coen, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance - helped elevate this already engrossing narrative into something sensational. No objections from this critic! (On Netflix)
1. THE SURROGATE
Out of the 250+ movies I screened this year, none touched me quite like Jeremy Hersh’s under the radar drama “The Surrogate.” Jasmine Batchelor gives the performance of the year as a surrogate for her two gay best friends - played with equal brilliance by Chris Perfetti and Sullivan Jones - who finds out the baby she’s carrying has down syndrome. This forces a tough ultimatum and forges discussions on eugenics, abortion, and personal distress in a manner hard to swallow. This is a moving and unflinching drama that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved in this tumultuous year, but I’m thrilled to say it’s the best movie of 2020. An absolute knockout. (On Starz Dec 18th and currently available on VOD)
10 HONORABLE MENTIONS: Movies that *just* missed the cut.
SHE DIES TOMORROW
DA 5 BLOODS
SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK
NEWS OF THE WORLD
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2020:
You Should Have Left
The War With Grandpa
The Postcard Killings
The Empty Man