I’m not going to lie—I almost didn’t make a top ten list of my favorite films released in 2020. It was a weird year with a lot of movies that I enjoyed but wasn’t frequently blown away by, not to mention the fact that I have a pile of films I haven’t gotten to watch yet. Seeing more movies on the small screen at home as opposed to on a large screen in a movie theater was an adjustment for me as well. But I decided it might be good to document right now, on January 5, 2021, my current picks for the best movies I watched in 2020, subject to change. While I found many of the year’s big studio movies disappointing (and there were less to see on that front with most films’ releases being postponed until sometime this year), there were many smaller films that I loved, as well as films I didn’t expect to be as great as they were. So as I continue to catch up on the plethora of films I still need to watch, here are my current picks for some of the best films of 2020:
“One Night in Miami” is another actors’ showcase, but this one is a really solid film that is also the directorial debut of Regina King. Based on a play by Kemp Powers (who adapted it for the screen), “One Night in Miami” is a fictional account of a real encounter between four Black icons: boxer Cassius Clay (not yet known as Muhammed Ali, played by Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), football player-turned-actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The action is set over the course of one night, following Clay’s boxing win that makes him the world heavyweight champion. Malcolm invites Clay, along with Brown and Cooke, to his motel room to discuss their various accomplishments, but the conversation quickly turns heated as Malcolm and Cooke clash over their different ideas of success for a Black man.
Writer/director Remi Weekes’ staggering debut feature is an intense examination of the refugee experience told through the lens of a haunted house movie. The story follows Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), refugees who fled the violence of Sudan, ending up in London. The government grants them probational asylum and assigns them a shabby house just outside London. They soon become aware of a disturbing presence in their new house, each of them seeing visions of Nyagak, their daughter who died during their escape. Even outside of its more blatant horror elements, “His House” does a fantastic job portraying both the terrors outside of the couple’s previous life, and in their new one.
What more can be said about director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara’s Groundhog Day-esque romantic comedy “Palm Springs” other than that it is an utter delight? The film opens on the day of the Palm Springs-set wedding of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Nyles (Andy Samberg) is having issues with his flighty bridesmaid girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) but bonds with Tala’s cynical sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti). When they venture out into the desert, Sarah follows Nyles into a mysterious vortex in a cave; when she wakes up, it’s the wedding day all over again.
Comic book movies can be dicey territory, but I think it’s safe to say that most people found the 2016 ensemble film “Suicide Squad” to be an unsatisfying mess. The best part of that movie, however, was that it gave us Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn. The character, who first appeared on “Batman: The Animated Series” in 1992 and has since become a major fan favorite, is iconic Batman villain Joker’s on again/off again girlfriend, a bubbly yet sadistic woman who was a psychiatrist before her former patient seduced her, and who is rarely seen away from his side (or talking about him, or doing things for him). But as the full title of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” suggests, this follow-up to “Suicide Squad” gives Harley the opportunity to find herself and be her own woman, away from the Joker. And you know? It’s pretty great.
In her 2010 western “Meek’s Cutoff,” director Kelly Reichardt explored a group of pioneers trying to survive on the frontier in 19th century Oregon. Reichardt returns to that time and place with her new drama, “First Cow,” which she also co-wrote along with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the novel The Half Life on which the film is based)… “First Cow” explores similar themes in a similar style to Reichardt’s previous films, which have become known for their minimalist style (it’s also of note that Reichardt serves as her own editor). As such, “First Cow” is punctuated with lingering, quiet moments that allow the audience to immerse themselves in the characters and their environment.
The soundscape of Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is a masterpiece in and of itself. The film opens with Ruben (Riz Ahmed), one half of a metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), banging away on the drums, the barrage of noise practically exploding in the viewer’s ears. But the film ends in complete silence. Soon after the opening scenes, Ruben begins experiencing hearing loss, the conversations and noises surrounding him becoming muted, until eventually they can’t be heard at all. He wants to try to get implants to fix his hearing, but they’re too expensive, so Lou—further concerned about what this incident will do to Ruben because he is a recovering drug addict—takes him to a community for recovering deaf addicts run by Joe (played by the incredible Paul Raci). “Sound of Metal” is primarily about what happens when a person is faced with a change that completely alters the course of their life.
To watch “Wolfwalkers” is to experience magic. The film, which is directed by Cartoon Saloon co-founder Tomm Moore and Ross Steward and utilizes a combination of 2D animation styles, is set in 1650 Kilkenny, Ireland. Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her hunter father Bill (Sean Bean) have been ordered by Lord Cromwell (Simon McBurney) to clear the nearby woods of wolves so they can be turned into farmland. It is while disobeying her father’s orders to stay put and venturing out into the woods that Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a young girl who calls herself a wolfwalker—her soul can leave her body and take the form of a wolf.
Director Steve McQueen may be best known for his heavier movies, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more joyous film this year than “Lovers Rock,” the second installment in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. “Lovers Rock” is a 70 minute slice-of-life set at a blues house party in 1980s West London, at a time when Black people weren’t welcome in many of the city’s predominantly white nightclubs. The film follows several characters over the course of the evening as they sing and sway to the reggae music known as “lovers rock,” particularly focusing on Martha (Amara-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward), two young people who meet and fall for each other at the party.
Minari is a plant originally from East Asia known for its ability to grow almost anywhere it’s planted. The metaphor of minari in regards to the Yi family at the focus of writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s drama of the same name sounds heavy-handed, but in practice it, like most of Chung’s film, is perfect.
Imagine being faced with a medical crisis with no one to turn to for help. It’s a sad reality for so many Americans, and especially for women trying to obtain an abortion. Writer and director Eliza Hittman portrays this struggle in her devastating film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which follows Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old from a small town in Pennsylvania who discovers she is pregnant and wants an abortion.
On a surface level, Spike Lee’s newest joint, “Da 5 Bloods,” is about Black Vietnam War veterans reuniting and reopening their traumatic past. It’s a perspective of the war that never gets represented on screen. But in that special way that only he has, Lee connects the struggles of the past, present, and future in this incredibly urgent film that has been released at exactly the right moment in time.
Almost every year, a movie comes along that—for better or for worse—feels completely fresh, bold, and unpredictable. “Promising Young Woman,” the debut feature film from writer/director Emerald Fennell, is that movie for 2020. A timely and provocative revenge thriller that serves as a scathing indictment of a misogynistic society that protects abusers, “Promising Young Woman” is a film that puts the viewer under its spell immediately, thanks to its tense and enraging story, a masterful use of costumes, soundtrack, sets, and cinematography, and a fabulous lead performance from Carey Mulligan.
Driving down a lonely highway. Floating in a creek. Gazing at the sweeping vistas of the American West. Writer and director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is comprised of many of these quiet moments. The film serves as a character study for Fern (Frances McDormand), an older woman who, after losing her job and her home in the recession, hits the road in her van and starts living the life of a nomad. Zhao’s film isn’t set on following a conventional narrative plot structure, instead allowing Fern to drift in and out of these moments, just as she drifts further from conventional society as the film progresses.
*click the links to read my full review of each film