I want to put 2020 behind us as much as you all likely do. So in lieu of a lengthy intro to my annual Movies of the Year article, this time with downbeat commentary on delayed releases and shuttered cineplexes and the potential demise of the traditional film experience and everything else we don't want to reflect on, what say we just skip to the good stuff?
And in terms of this year's account, it's all good stuff. (The included titles, I mean, not necessarily the way I've written about them.) Because 2020 was so bad for so many reasons, I simply don't have it in me to deliver my usual “10 Worst” addendum or other catty listings of inane flicks … even though it should be remembered that 2020 did give us Dolittle and a reboot of Fantasy Island by mid-February, so I guess we shoulda seen the next 10 months coming.
Instead, I'm doubling down on my traditional Top 10 with a Top 20 for 2020, and at no extra cost, am including them in pairings that might make for outstanding double-features. With the exception of Promising Young Woman, which is still at the Davenport cineplex and will be available for home viewing on January 15, all of the excellent works below are either streaming on various services or readily rentable or both. So set some time aside, visit your providers and/or whip out those holiday gift cards, and let's get cracking!
1) Da 5 Bloods and David Byrne's American Utopia. Last spring, Spike Lee unveiled his short film New York, New York – a loving tribute, with Frank Sinatra's iconic crooning as accompaniment, to Lee's hometown, its empty pandemic-era streets, and the heroic health-care workers striving to make the city the beautifully bustling metropolis it once was and will again be. Running just over three minutes, this mini-movie is practically flawless. Which makes it merely the third-best Spike Lee joint released in 2020.
I'm hard-pressed to offer a definitive ranking of the other two. Da 5 Bloods is certainly the more ambitious project – a combination war drama, action adventure, treasure hunt, jungle thriller, mordant comedy, elegy for lost Black lives, and celebration of slow yet unstoppable progress. Also a master's class in screen performance, with the extraordinarily impassioned and fearsome Delroy Lindo reuniting former Vietnam troops (Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah “Shi-i-i-i-i-it!” Whitlock Jr.) in a search for hidden gold and the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman). This mash-up of subtle and operatic styles should have yielded a mess, and the film, like the America viewed in Lee's presentational mirror, occasionally is a mess. Just like messy America, though, it's also glorious, directed with spectacular energy and imagination and, at just over two-and-a-half hours, lacking a single boring moment. Watching Netflix's June release now, it's easy for your heart to momentarily sink at the first sight of Boseman, whose work in this and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom would have made him the actor of the year even if he hadn't tragically passed. Yet Boseman's commanding portrayal instantly lifts you right back up, as does the sheer chutzpah of Lee's epic that frequently echoes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now and can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with both.
If Da 5 Bloods is joy mixed with pain, David Byrne's American Utopia – Lee's concert film of the musician's limited-run 2018 Broadway event – is almost nothing but joy, a shot of cinematic adrenaline to the heart that could've woken up Pulp Fiction's Uma Thurman if no one was able to find that syringe. A blend of Byrne's solo compositions, Talking Heads favorites, and tunes borrowed from other artists performed by the headliner and 11 stunning ensemble members, the repertoire's performance alone would make the movie worthwhile. But Lee proves every bit the visual stylist here that he is in his personal joints, giving us every conceivable camera angle (plus a few inconceivable ones) and making every song distinctive, with “Hell You Talmabout” a vociferous rallying cry and “Toe Jam” a showcase of barefoot beauty to give Tarantino the shakes. For my part, I was all but shaking with delight during the 105 minutes of American Utopia. Clubs may be closed, but that doesn't mean you can't stream Lee's winner in your living room, scoot the furniture, crank up the volume, and dance.
2) Sound of Metal and I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Movies at their finest, and even their not-so-finest, can transport us to different worlds. Never before have I found myself in worlds quite like the ones we were invited into with this riveting pair of releases. In general outline, director/co-writer Darius Marder's Sound of Metal might read as generic uplift, telling of a punk-band drummer and recovering addict facing his worsening and irreversible hearing loss. It might have played as that, too, if not for about a thousand caveats: Riz Ahmed's shattering, emotionally transparent portrayal of the afflicted musician; the forthright, heartrending performances of Olivia Cooke and current, wholly deserving Best Supporting Actor front-runner Paul Raci; a pungent, tactful narrative that keeps finding ways to upend expectations. Yet it's the sublime, unnerving sound design that most fully creates a brand-new cinematic universe, essentially putting you in Ahmed's head through all of his character's unfamiliar, terrifying negotiations with his encroaching deafness. The sound, or lack thereof, is scary as hell. By the closing credits, it also emerges as a state of grace.
At no point does such calm invade I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the new mind-f--- by writer/director Charlie Kaufman. Its storyline is even more deceptively simple than Sound of Metal's: A young woman (Jessie Buckley) joins her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) for a trip to his parents' house, and after their visit, they drive home. If, however, you're familiar with Kaufman's Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know that can't be the whole story. And hoo-doggie is it ever not, this twisting tale of relationship confusion, personal identity, and the endless mysteries of memory so fascinatingly elusive and bizarre that a brand-new genre – horror/comedy/mystery/drama/epitaph? – seems to be originating right in front of you. Even if you appreciate it, you may not like the film on a first watch; I'm pretty sure I didn't. But I've found no other 2020 release more fun to return to and try to unpack. And in a year that, in so many ways, made no sense whatsoever, the senselessness of I'm Thinking of Ending Things somehow wound up making perfect sense. It's a Kaufman-ian world. We're just continuing to wrestle with it.
3) Onward and First Cow. An odd-seeming double-feature, to be sure, as one is an animated Pixar slapstick and the other is the most low-key of live-action indie dramas. (First Cow's synopsis on Prime lists its genres as “drama” and “kids,” and while the latter categorization is questionable, it's not entirely inappropriate, either.) But if lovely tales of literal and figurative brotherhood are what you and your family are in the mood for, you really couldn't do much better. Director Dan Scanlon's Onward begins with the goofiest of premises, with two elfin siblings (endearingly voiced by Avengers Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) taking a road trip to find the magical solution to their deceased father missing the top half of his body. Yeah: I know. In addition to all manner of clever and hysterical high jinks, however, this occasionally manic yet severely underrated charmer proves to be a trenchant and, in the end, emotionally overwhelming story about a young man finding the dad he always wanted in the brother he never fully appreciated. I laughed like mad at this thing before I started bawling like a baby, and while Soul may have been Pixar's more adventurous 2020 release, this was the more satisfying one.
Blood doesn't connect the brothers in director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt's First Cow. But unpasteurized milk sure does. Excepting a brief prelude that ultimately brings this tender, quietly gripping saga full circle, the film is set in 1820 Oregon as John Magaro's Caucasian cook and Orion Lee's Chinese entrepreneur find the answer to their financial straits, and their loneliness, in fresh milk they pilfer from their frontier community's only cow. This might make Reichardt's film sound as silly as Onward. Yet amidst the smashingly honest period detail and the legitimate tension surrounding the men's scheme, what most fully emerges is an ode to friendship as beautiful and inspiring as any I've seen in years, and one boasting the year's most haunting, moving final image – a tableau so sad yet so sweet that a day hasn't passed over the last month in which I haven't thought about it. This is one hell of a moo-vie. (So sorry for that one.)
4) Palm Springs and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Almost inarguably the two most 2020 movies of 2020. An ingenious, hilarious, charming, unexpectedly touching narrative-feature debut for director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara, Palm Springs casts Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (in a hopefully star-making role) in their own tetchily romantic take on Groundhog Day, playing inevitable lovers for whom every day is literally, maddeningly the same. And while the filmmakers couldn't have foreseen the global pandemic coming, this imaginative spin on a familiar formula landed at just the right time in July, because it frequently felt, and still feels, as though we've all been cast in Groundhog Day – just one not nearly as funny as Bill Murray's, or Samberg's and Milioti's. The film is streaming on Hulu, and even if you watched Palm Springs previously, it's worth taking in at least the first 15 minutes again – now that you know what's going on – just to experience Samberg's physical and verbal wonders as he takes in the party and flirts with Milioti for perhaps the millionth time. Actors have won Oscars for less than half of what Samberg does in that scene.
Sacha Baron Cohen's and director Jason Woliner's astonishingly ballsy Borat sequel, meanwhile, may have been initially conceived as a comedic provocation and mock-doc bullhorn to inspire Democratic voter turnout. (For what it's worth, after a handful of viewings, I actually do think Rudy Giuliani was merely tucking his shirt into his pants … but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy arguments to the contrary.) Yet what turned out to be the film's most satisfying material – barring, that is, absolutely everything involving breakout star Maria Bakalova as Borat's gradually enlightened daughter Tutar – found Kazakhstan's most clueless fictional journalist contending directly with the health crisis in America, holing up with surprisingly welcoming QAnon supporters and leading scores of mask-less fair-goers in rousing, horrifying choruses of “Wuhan Flu.” The song may not get performed at the Oscars, but for Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen and Bakalova absolutely deserve a couple of 'em.
5) Hamilton and What the Constitution Means to Me. The line between what's considered a movie and what's considered television keeps shrinking, and was certainly destined to in 2020 – a year in which the majority of what we watched was at home and, according to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the cinematic high point was Steve McQueen's Prime Video anthology series Small Axe. (I hereby demand a re-vote that will bestow that organization's 2017 Best Picture prize on David Lynch's Twin Peaks reboot.) So. Are the captured, cannily crafted performances of Lin-Manuel Miranda's iconic Founding Fathers musical, which debuted on Disney+, and Heidi Schreck's lauded stage memoir, which premiered on Prime, movies or TV? Or, given that both were recorded in front of live Broadway audiences, are they actually theatre?
I don't know. I don't really care. Few entertainments last year gave me quite as much pleasure as this two-fer of presentational hybrids: theatrical productions edited like movies that I saw on TVs … and “coincidentally” in an election year, both Constitution-minded! By this point, after so many years of pop-culture discussion and dominance, I'm not sure anything more needs to be said about the cultural touchstone and national treasure that is Hamilton – except maybe to say that director Thomas Kail's movie (or “movie”) version of The Life and Times of Alexander looks far better than filmed theatre usually looks and it sounds absolutely divine. Watching it is like if your all-time-favorite soundtrack suddenly showed up in human form and just wanted to hang. As for What the Constitution Means to Me, author/star Schreck's and director Marielle Heller's profoundly personal argument for and against its titular document as it currently stands should be required – and treasured – viewing for history scholars, curious students, feminists, anti-feminists, anyone who enjoys a good laugh, anyone who enjoys a good cry, anyone who's ever voted, anyone who ever wants to vote, and anyone with a pulse. (That should cover most of us, right?) There was literally no one I saw on-screen last year that I wanted to have a beer with more than Heidi Schreck. Damn you, 2020 … coulda had a memorable date there … .
6) The Personal History of David Copperfield and Emma. After nearly 10 months spent largely in hibernation, I'm forced to ask myself a really embarrassing question: Why didn't I read more books? Maybe because, unrepentant cinephile and lazy-ass that I am, I knew that they'd eventually be turned into movies, and these two releases – both of them enjoyed at Davenport's blessedly-still-open cineplex – felt akin to devouring hundreds of pages of wondrous prose in tidy two-hour chunks. The Personal History of David Copperfield, by director Armando Iannucci and co-adapted by Simon Blackwell, initially made me feel guilty, given that I'd never before read Charles Dickens' classic and regretted it the instant the film ended. Why didn't anyone tell me Dickens' story was so fun? And if they did, why was I too stupid to believe them?! Having come to terms with my foolishness, however, I'm currently thrilled that this Copperfield is the only one in my brain, because, right now, I really don't want to imagine anyone other than Dev Patel as David, or Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, or Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, or Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield … . (Memorable though he is, I could almost replace Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, if only to erase the idea of Paddington Bear as such a repellant asshole.)
Meanwhile, thanks to the frequency with which it's been filmed over the past quarter-century, I have a bunch of other Emmas in my head. Yet director Autumn de Wilde's Emma. (period included) is unquestionably the one I enjoy most – a deliciously randy and laugh-out-loud-funny Jane Austen adaptation that, due to the easy and alert chemistry of Johnny Flynn and The Queen's Gambit sensation Anya Taylor-Joy, is also the most swooningly romantic version of this tale I've yet experienced. (This one has a killer supporting cast, too, with deserved special mention going to Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Gemma Whelan, and the divinely dotty Miranda Hart.) For added ticklishness, the rich, pastel-heavy color schemes in both Emma. and David Copperfield make the films look like they're taking place inside tremendous birthday cakes. So you can have your English lit and eat it, too.
7) Gretel & Hansel and The Invisible Man. Man, the year in cineplex horror flicks was off to such a great start, wasn't it? Over the last weekend in January, we were treated to director Oz Perkins' Gretel & Hansel, and it was a treat that was also quite the trick: a macabre, unsettling, sometimes deeply scary rendition of the centuries-old folk tale that managed to effectively freak us out within the narrow confines of a PG-13 rating. The film is gorgeously designed, with the woods reminiscent of those in The Witch and the “gingerbread” lair like something out of Midsommar, but with more grossly lavish tchotchkes. Robin Coudert's nerve-racking score is like what you hear milliseconds before a panic attack. And Gretel & Hansel is phenomenally well-acted by Sophia Lillis and Sammy Leakey as the hungry siblings and Alice Krige as the haggard crone who feeds them, and wants to feed on them. Perkins' insidious nightmare truly put the eerily alluring Grim in this Grimm.
Then, over the last weekend in February, we got writer/director Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man, and it was likely only the nationwide closing of theaters that kept this propulsive, unapologetically #MeToo shocker from becoming the huge hit it deserved to be. On a return viewing the other night, watching Elisabeth Moss' serially abused Cecilia desperately try to convince anyone that her presumed-dead husband was actually alive but unseen, I was reminded that while the first two-thirds of the film are stellar, the third third is kind of perfunctory. But as someone who routinely misses seeing movies with crowds, I very much do whenever I think back to the collective Invisible Man gasp that greeted the sight of an airborne knife in a restaurant seconds before it slit a woman's throat, or the creeping giggle – the aural equivalent of a shudder – as Whannell's camera suggested a presence that only Moss, in one of the year's most wrung-out, emotionally naked performances, could sense. That screening came with a lot of shrieking. Here's hoping we can all shriek together again soon.
8) Promising Young Woman and Another Round. We're not always asked to like movie protagonists. Usually, though, we're at least asked to understand them, and these first-rate December releases are topnotch examples of films you can enjoy without simultaneously applauding their leads' more-than-questionable behavior. Writer/director Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman would, you'd think, boast an empathetic lead: a 30-year-old (Carey Mulligan's Cassie) who works out a previous trauma by acting fall-down drunk at bars only to turn the tables on the “nice” guys who offer to take her home … by which they generally mean their home. Yet from our first view of her after a presumed “conquest” – Is that blood? Is it merely ketchup from the (metaphoric?) hot dog she's devouring? – we never really know whether Cassie delivers deserved just-desserts or frighteningly homicidal revenge, and I've rarely been so torn between wanting to give a movie's (anti?)heroine an empathetic hug and wanting to call the cops. Fennell's film and Mulligan's wonderfully cagey portrayal, however, make the point moot, and ultimately meaningless. You should want to do both.
The purported heroes of director/co-writer Thomas Vinterberg's Danish-language dramedy Another Round are even less easy to rally around, and that might be surprising considering that the four of them – including the film's peerless lead Mads Mikkelsen – are longtime high-school teachers. Of course, they're also high-school teachers who've decided to conduct an exercise in full-time day-drinking, even if that means advising one of their students to get loaded before an important exam. Surprisingly, it kind of goes well for the kid. And even though you can't necessarily say the same for our quartet of soused instructors, it certainly goes well for us, as Vinterberg's fascinating character study that's also a study of Denmark's unhidden drinking culture delivers devastating lows and exquisite highs, none higher than the awe-inspiring work of Mikkelsen. You've seen him weep blood in Casino Royale and feast on human flesh in Hannibal, but you've never seen anything like what he does in Another Round's final minute. Unless, that is, you saw Baryshnikov dance in middle age. Then you at least have an idea.
9) The Vast of Night and Possessor. It was all too easy, in 2020, to watch movies from a reclined position on your couch. It took intensely special ones to make you sit up on that couch and say, “Who-o-oah … what is this?!” I enjoyed that unanticipated, sensationally rewarding feeling with both of these genre flicks that proved far more powerful than I was prepared for. A succinct text from a friend – “See it now.” – convinced me to check out the period sci-fi The Vast of Night after it began streaming in May. Having nothing better to do, I gave it a shot. I've since given it several more, and as per usual after so many shots, I'm now completely drunk. What a stupendous low-budget thrill this is! A simple, elegant tale of a possible alien invasion in the Leave It to Beaver '50s, director/co-writer Andrew Patterson's ultra-confident, War of the Worlds-y debut opens like P.T. Anderson and closes like Spielberg, and features some of the most jaw-dropping tracking shots I've ever seen. I have no earthly idea how Patterson made this thing, let alone for a reported $700,000. But I'll be first in line for whatever he comes up with next. No prompting from pals required.
I'll probably also line up for anything Brandon Cronenberg does, even though, in regard to his sci-fi/horror freakout Possessor, one viewing might be enough – it's not like I'll have forgotten anything about it before a potential round two. Telling of assassins who carry out their missions by effectively taking over bystander brains and forcing them to do their bidding, the film finds Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott in fantastic, nerve-shredding form. But if the actors are memorable, the visuals are un-erasable, and the sobering intensity of the narrative is complemented by harrowing sounds and sights (so much blood!) as transfixing as they are upsetting. In case you were curious, yes: Brandon is the son of the legendary David Cronenberg, a maestro of queasy imagery augmented by thematic richness. Clearly, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. And the apple has razor blades in it.
10) The Boys in the Band and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Steven Soderbergh may have officially claimed the moniker with December's HBO Max release, but either of these exuberantly chatty, male-centric entertainments could also have been titled Let Them All Talk. (The actual Let Them All Talk with Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, by the way, is also totally worth watching.) Joe Mantello's The Boys in the Band is the director's adaptation of playwright Matt Crowley's groundbreaking stage piece concerning gay frenemies and the most uncomfortable birthday party ever. The 1968 material may be dated, but the film itself is bliss: a fantastically loving, angry, impassioned argument for acceptance enacted by the 2018 Broadway revival's sublime cast of Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins, and the unimpeachable Jim Parsons. If this year's competition were weaker, Parsons would be a solid contender for the Best Actor Oscar. Also if the movie were considered a “real” movie, and not a TV movie. So an Emmy will have to do.
The Academy Awards' Best Supporting Actor category, meanwhile, could be stuffed twofold with castmates from Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 and would still barely contain all of this courtroom drama's viable contenders. I'm presuming that Netflix's October release – an exploration of the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the riots surrounding Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention – will be getting lots of renewed attention in the wake of recent events in our nation's Capitol. But even with history getting the usual, occasionally troublesome Sorkin-ian polish here, the writer/director's dynamic direction and snappy editing rhythms would make Chicago 7 worth revisiting any time, as would its almost embarrassingly stacked cast boasting (deep breath) Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and, for less time than you want, Michael Keaton. Oh yeah, and Sacha Baron Cohen, who's an invigorating live-wire as Abbie Hoffman. If Sorkin had only found room for Maria Bakalova, this thing woulda been perfect.