The year that was 2020 didn’t offer us much. In fact, many would say, that it did more than its fair share of taking. However, what happens when you put two cinephiles in quarantine and lockdown for an extended period of time? Well, you watch a bunch of movies. This year offered us the chance to watch older movies we hadn’t seen before and, of course, watch an unprecedented number of new movies. Yes, there were a lot of new movies this year even if we had to circumvent the theaters to watch them. I can’t wait to get back in the cinemas in 2021, but the pandemic did give films that normally wouldn’t have had an extensive theatrical run a better chance to shine and shine they did. Get ready to add some entries to your queues because here are the top ten films that I enjoyed in 2020.
There was a very brief window between lockdowns when I was able to don a mask and sit in a massive IMAX theater and watch Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It blew my mind. Unfortunately, I did just re-watch it at home and it was not the same. It’s no surprise that Nolan loves IMAX and formats his films for that experience, but it is a shame that many won’t ever get to enjoy the richness of those brief couple of hours I got. John David Washington added another amazing performance to his burgeoning resume, and Robert Pattinson was an absolute delight. Nolan always makes you work a little bit to follow his movies, but Tenet was a spectacle I am grateful I got to see in all its glory. There were even large portions of the film where the characters were wearing masks, so it felt like I was in the movie.
Tenet is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.
If I were to read the synopsis or describe what takes place in this movie, you’d probably never believe it was any good. On paper, this sounds like any other sort of college party movie, but Cooper Raiff’s filmmaking debut is way more Before Sunrise than it is Animal House. Sh*%house is somewhat of a selfish entry on this list because I am a white male who went to college, and so, in many ways, this film was made for me, but Raiff captures something here that is a little transcendent of the subject matter. He is able to really show what those early years in college can be like. He also creates a character whose sensitivity and emotions are on display which really takes this movie away from the red solo cups and out from under the black lights into something refreshing and different.
Sh*%house is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.
8. The Truth
Hirokazu Koreeda made big waves with his 2018 film, Shoplifters, about a Japanese family of small-time crooks. Naturally, his next film would be about an aging French actress and her relationship with her daughter. That is what we get with The Truth. This is a very intimate, and often funny, drama about myths and narratives that form in any family. Uncovering the truth in a family’s history can be really painful especially when it’s been hidden or protected over decades and decades. Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve absolutely soar as the mother and daughter dueling over what is true, how they have been hurt, and how they can keep existing as a family. They are both the heroes of their own story and there aren’t easy paths to the truth or to healing. It might be worth diving into and pondering the story you’ve created around your own family.
The Truth is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.
7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would have gotten my stream from the very start. Another August Wilson adaptation with Viola Davis. A 1, a 2, and you know what to do! Just hit play! Then the unthinkable happened. You see, this movie also features a career best performance from Chadwick Boseman. It would have been such a joy to watch Boseman’s star continue to rise as he worked the awards circuit and watched another role of his become iconic. As Levee, Boseman dances across August Wilson’s words with charm, confidence, pain, and desperation. If you haven’t yet processed the loss of this incredible person and talent, that’s ok. But when you’re ready, seeing him do his thing one last time could be somewhat cathartic.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.
Like I said before, there wasn’t a lot of abundance in 2020. However, director Steve McQueen popped off this year. He didn’t just give us another shiny entry into his already glimmering catalogue, he gave us five! Amazon is categorizing his anthology as a series, but Small Axe is actually 5 films depicting stories of West Indian immigrants in England in the late 70’s to early 80’s. Each one offers a unique story, but the best of these to me is the courtroom drama, Mangrove, about the trial of “The Mangrove Nine.” Black Panther’s Letitia Wright has never been better in the role of activist Altheia Jones. This is definitely more proof to the positives of the streaming revolution. No movie studio is going to fund five movies like this, but especially now that there is such a demand for content, more stories like this get to be told.
The Small Axe anthology is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
5. The Painter and The Thief
What if someone was able to truly see you? I’m not saying that picture you chose as your profile picture but to see you at your very worst. Does that thought scare you? If you had to paint that picture would it be an attractive one? The Painter and The Thief absolutely floored me. It documents the real-life friendship of painter Barbora Kysilkova and the man who stole her paintings, Karl Bertil-Nordland. Kysilkova meets Bertil-Nordland at his absolute worst. He is struggling with his addiction and on his way to prison for the theft that he barely remembers. At the trial, she asks him why he stole the paintings, and his response is because they were beautiful. The next question is what takes these two on an unimaginable journey of forgiveness and the beauty of art. Kysilkova asks if he would meet with her so she can paint him. Sometimes we all need someone who can see us as we truly are and still see our inherent value. It is in those long sessions of sitting in occasional conversation, but mostly silence, that a bond forms that changes them both. It is such a clear picture of restoration that I won’t be able to shake.
The Painter and The Thief is currently streaming on Hulu.
4. First Cow
I’m not sure a movie made me hungrier this year than First Cow. Director Kelly Reichardt tells a slow, quiet story of two men who are drawn together by a very significant arrival in their pioneer community in Oregon. That arrival, of course, is the territory’s first cow. There is a genuine calm to this movie that was very welcome this year. Normally, when I’m watching movies and tv set in this time period I’m distracted by how muddy and ugly everything is, but this was a beautiful film in both theme and aesthetics. One word of warning, though, this movie features scenes of delicious looking donut fritters covered in honey.
First Cow is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.
3. The Assistant
The Assistant is an incredibly timely film in its subject matter but also in featuring a young actress that is becoming a megastar in Julia Garner. Very few actors could bring to the table what she does in this super subtle movie. In the film, Garner plays the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein type. She does such a brilliant job conveying what is happening in this young woman under the surface. She has to because she is in a position where she can be penalized greatly if the wrong word, emotion, or facial expression breaks through. The tension is crushing. Sadly, I would imagine that many women won’t have to make great leaps to understand what Garner’s character is feeling, but her performance and the film as a whole invite everyone else into this experience.
The Assistant is currently streaming on Hulu.
I am cheating somewhat with this one because Minari won’t be broadly available for some time. Our local film festival offered an opportunity to screen this new film starring The Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun at our drive-inn and we jumped at the chance. The film is about a Korean family attempting to assimilate into the American south in the 80’s. After exiting The Walking Dead with a bashed in head, Yeun has been making some fantastic choices to follow up his television success. Burning was one of the best films of the last few years and featured a powerhouse performance by the artist formerly known as Glen. Yeun isn’t the whole story here, though he delivers another great showing. This is a family drama, and every character brings a lot of depth to their Arkansasan agrarian life. This is another film that has a calmness to it in the midst of its tension and humor. There is an authenticity here brought in from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s own life story, and I am thankful for it. If you want to know more, I did write a full review here!
Look for Minari to be available sometime in early 2021.
1. Sound of Metal
I’m more of a pop music kind of guy. In fact, the music in the beginning of Sound of Metal confuses me more than anything. It’s chaotic, loud, and impossible to ignore. It turns out, though, that this music is actually holding together the mind of Ruben, the film’s lead played masterfully by Riz Ahmed. There are moments early on when it seems, externally, that Ruben has it all together, but once this heavy metal drummer suddenly loses his hearing, the internal metal music of his mind comes pounding to the outside. It isn’t just that he won’t be able to drum, it’s that this music was allowing him to direct the chaos of his mind. From a technical standpoint this movie features some amazing cinematography and wildly clever sound design, but it is the performances that pull you in. In those poorly lit clubs filled with the screeching guitars and vocals, I wanted to pull away from the screen, but the way this story is told kept drawing me closer and closer. Most of us have been stripped of some form of physical or emotional safety net this year, and Sound of Metal brings us into that very situation when things are dire and we’re prone to scramble or forced into bad situations just to try and survive. That reality is reflected in this film, but, by the end, I believe Ruben is going to keep on living and you should to.
Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.