Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.

It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.

10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.

9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.

8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.

7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.

5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.

4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.

3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.

2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.

1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.

Honorable Mention Documentaries

Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.

John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.

The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.

Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

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.

10. Tenet

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.

9. Sh*%house

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.

6. Mangrove

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.

2. Minari

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.

REVIEW: Minari

What are some of the earliest memories from your childhood? As a child of the 1980’s, I remember how dark every room of our house seemed with our shiny wood paneling that was all the rage then (and that still persists behind a recent coat of white paint.) You know the kind. It is the first thing torn down on every home improvement show. All of the spaces I inhabited as a child felt so big, filled with different textures and fabrics from the leafy forest patterns of our living room cushions to the sticky, red faux leather of my family’s car seats. What did your world look like? What were you absorbing and learning as a child? Minari (pronounced MEE-NAH-REE) is a recent film that may just have you revisiting your own childhood and evaluating your own family.

The movie depicts an experience that is, as star Steven Yeun puts it, “deeply American.” Yet, it might not be the American experience you know. Through the eyes of David, the youngest child of a Korean American family in the 1980’s, we see a snapshot of their experience trying to carve out a piece of America they will call their own. The story comes partially from the memory of director Lee Isaac Chung, whose own family immigrated to America and settled in California before relocating to the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. In Arkansas, David’s father, Jacob procures a larger piece of land then they could have ever had in California. Jacob’s desire is to eventually leave his current job of gendering baby chicks and grow a commercial farm on his new plot in Razorback country.

The cast of Minari

Prior to 1965, the US was limiting the percentage of immigrants that could reside in the country. Once the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted those restrictions, there was an incredible rise in Koreans moving to America. From 1970 to 1980 that Korean population in America rose from 39,000 to 290,000. David’s family was a part of this wave, but this isn’t the story of them moving to America. As we see Jacob and his wife Monica interact, it’s obvious that this family has been working and trying to forge their path in their new country for a while. There’s tension, exhaustion, and unbalanced expectations.

Monica was comfortable in California. She thought they had decent jobs and a community that helped them feel like they were a little closer to home. For her, Arkansas feels so much farther away from everything. There is a lack of security in the couple’s relationship in the film and that particularly puts pressure on Monica to combat her husband’s lofty dreams. These dreams, though, also carry an extra weight for Jacob. Tied into his tomato plants and irrigation wells is his entire masculinity. With these parcels of land, Jacob is gambling with his manhood, his reputation as a father and provider. He has to prove that he can do this on his own. Jacob is determined to do it without the help of neighbors, friends, family, other farmers, or God.

Steven Yeun in Minari

It would be hard for David’s family to avoid faith. The Korean Presbyterian Church was a staple in Korean American communities. In the film, it is one of the first things on Monica’s mind. She clearly has found security in the church before. However, church in rural Arkansas is very different from what they’re used to. This is best expressed through Jacob’s somewhat one-sided partnership with Paul, a local laborer who wants to help Jacob succeed, and just be Jacob’s friend. Throughout the film we see Paul praying in tongues, anointing things with oil, casting out demons Jacob doesn’t see, and bearing his own literal cross every Sunday. In many ways, the church service they do attend in Arkansas feels like the most unfamiliar place they’ve been yet.

Really David’s family is trying to figure America out. What is good about this place? What is familiar? Where can they thrive? How can they survive? It is that daily grind that pulls you in. Minari is a wonderful film. Chung’s story is filled with innocence and complexity. We are trying to make sense of everything right along with David. Most perplexing to him is his maternal grandmother who curses, plays cards, and does many things different from the picture America has given David of what a grandma should be. He also doesn’t understand why he would drink a potent Korean tea over delicious Mountain Dew. The audience is guided through this drama by probably the best performances I’ve seen all year. From tiny new-comer Alan S. Kim to Remember the Titans’ Will Patton, this cast has so much to offer. Yeri Han, who plays Monica in the film can make you cry as she feels so stranded and not at “home” and then tear your heart completely out as she throws verbal and non-verbal daggers of disappointment at Jacob. You really do feel this family’s struggle as the story progresses.

The film’s title comes from a plant often used in Asian cooking. At one point, David is dragged by his grandma into a damp creek bed to plant some. It is said that minari grows wherever it is planted. It is a resilient herb that can thrive in shade or sun as long as it has water. It grows fast and is a cut-and-come-again plant that just keeps coming back. What makes David’s family keep going? There are moments in the movie that feel like things will never recover. Chung’s real-life family persisted, and so many immigrant families before and after his have as well. America is supposed to be fertile soil, but sometimes the ground is hard and dry. Thankfully, the roots of hope, faith, and family can often grow in harsh conditions.

Young Alan S. Kim in his film debut