Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Best of 2020: The 11 Best Films(?) of the Year (and just a few months more)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Best of 2020: The 11 Best Films(?) of the Year (and just a few months more)

by Tony Dayoub

The question mark in the post title is because some have taken issue with whether my nominee for best film of the year is actually a movie or not (as I'll address when discussing it below). But then the pandemic made this a strange year, right? This morning, the Oscar nominees were announced. Due to the shutdown of movie theaters this year, the Academy extended their eligibility window to include films released all the way through February 28, 2021 instead of the usual deadline of December 31st. Of course, the other unusual consideration is that pictures need not have played theatrically for at least one week in New York and Los Angeles as is typically the case in previous years. An unexpected byproduct of the shutdown has been that it has allowed viewers' attention to shift from the popular blockbusters (which saw their releases mostly postponed this past year) to the smaller independent films that are usually crowded out by these tentpole movies.

Surprisingly then, 2020 turned out to be a staggeringly great year for cinema, especially in the arena of documentaries, for people of color, and for women. There were so many good nonfiction works in 2020 as to make it difficult to process which are the most memorable. Many of the movies below, in fact most, are either made by or focus on women or people of color. The other weird wrinkle this year is that many of these films can be streamed from home. Whenever possible, the platform where each title can be streamed has been included in the interest of assisting you, dear reader, in finding the movie.

Here, for your consideration, are my top films of 2020 (and the beginning of 2021) followed by the winners of the respective critics' polls I participated in.

1. Small Axe, directed by Steve McQueen - Streaming on Prime Video -
Is it a film? Several movies? Or a limited series for TV? McQueen himself considers it the latter as he made these set of films specifically for British television. He's wrong. The five chapters are triumphantly cinematic both in stature and quality. Each entry has its own distinct feel, but together they form essential parts of a whole depicting the complex culture and cultural issues facing London's West Indian immigrant community under the collective heading of Small Axe. The two standouts are "Mangrove" and "Lovers Rock." The former features Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones, the leader of the British Black Panther movement and one of the nine protesters arrested for rioting in support of the Black-owned Mangrove restaurant in sixties-era London. The latter is brilliant in its simplicity, almost completely devoid of any plot and taking place entirely at an atmospheric house party in the eighties. Even McQueen's best films can sometimes feel bloodless. Not so with the inspired Small Axe, the best piece(s) of cinema I saw all year.

2. One Night in Miami..., dir. Regina King - Streaming on Prime Video -
Actress Regina King makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of the Kemp Powers play, an apocryphal telling of the night that boxer Muhammad Ali--née Cassius Clay--beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing championship. Clay meets up with Malcolm X, football player Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke for an extended and politically charged conversation. King does a fantastic job of opening the play up and deriving great performances from her young cast as the larger than life quartet while somehow managing to both transcend and preserve the stage origins of Powers' masterpiece.

3. Possessor, dir. Brandon Cronenberg - Streaming on Hulu -
Among the most original movies not just of 2020 but of any year, Possessor takes corporate espionage to the next level. Set in a near future in which assassins are dispatched by multinational corporations by using brain implant technology to inhabit the bodies of people close to their target in order to eliminate them. The best of them is played by Andrea Riseborough as a woman slowly losing her grip on sanity after one too many times jumping into other physical vessels. Christopher Abbott plays the latest man she's jumped into whose personality tries to assert itself over that of the intruder seeking to use him to get to a CEO played by Sean Bean. Director Cronenberg's father is David, the famed Canadian auteur known for his body horror flicks. Between the volume of gore in this movie and the depth of its examination into identity, Possessor proves that the apple doesn't far from the tree when it comes to this talented filmmaker.

4. The Assistant, directed by Kitty Green - Streaming on Hulu -
 Ozark's Julia Garner plays a young office intern trying to make the best impression at her new workplace. A kind of dread suffuses the film as the young intern has to roll with all the obstacles presented to her when she tries to prove she is capable of doing more than what she's been tasked with. It's something most viewers can identify with, endeavoring to maintain your sense of self worth after the punishing routine of working for those who want to keep you within the boxes they've made for you. Garner's assistant is different enough from her better known role as the ambitious Ruth Langmore that it is a real treat to see her range in this brief but relatable character study.

5. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, dir. Jason Woliner - Streaming on Prime Video -
 Sacha Baron Cohen's political mockumentary benefits from the perfect timing of its release deep into 2020's presidential election cycle. Its centerpiece achievement is Cohen's not very deceptive setup of Donald J. Trump's corrupt attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in a hotel room with a Kazakh starlet (the show-stealing Maria Bakalova) where the sleazy shyster is caught on camera about to sexually assault the young woman. This scene proved to be as prescient regarding Giuliani's eventual slow-moving public meltdown as the rest of the comedy was accurate in its spotlighting of the American Midwest's burgeoning fringe element.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, dir. Eliza Hittman - Streaming on HBO Max -
A sympathetic, often harrowing exploration of the considerable lengths a teenage girl must go through to get an abortion, this movie is distressing in its realism. Even more impressive is that Sidney Flanigan is making her debut as Autumn, the pregnant teenager that is the film's beating heart. Autumn's resolute determination in the face of the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles she must face to assert control over her body and her future is both inspiring and disturbing. If only more people would give this kind of sober film a chance, one wonders what kind of impact it might have on their outlook in regards to the controversial subject.

7. Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee - Streaming on Netflix -
 Lee's unique look at Black veterans and their problematic time in Vietnam is also an exciting heist movie. This thanks to the strong performances of the criminally ignored Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman in one of his final roles. Their appearances almost--almost--eclipse the rest of the excellent acting ensemble, which includes The Wire's Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., as well as the suddenly hot Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country). Ostensibly a movie about former war buddies reuniting in Vietnam to overcome their residual trauma from the war, explore the new, capitalistic iteration of the country, and oh yeah... dig up some buried treasure the vets stole from the Viet Cong, what Bloods really ends up delving into is the long history of America using African Americans to fight its wars abroad while they face racism in every other aspect of their lives at home.

8. Minari, dir. Lee Isaac Chung -
They don't come any gentler or more rewarding than this film. Of all the movies on the list, Minari has the most potential to grow in importance through the upcoming years. It stars The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun, a fine actor who has broken out of the usual sterotyping that limits genre actors, as a Korean father who moves his family to Arkansas in the eighties to pursue his dream of starting a farm. Most noteworthy is the relationship between his young, health-challenged son and the boy's maternal grandmother, a feisty woman as delineated by the riveting Youn Yuh-jung. Add a supporting turn by the always interesting Will Patton, and you have a movie you want to wrap yourself in like a warm blanket.

9. Promising Young Woman, dir. Emerald Fennell -
 Actress Fennell makes her feature directing debut with Promising Young Woman, a movie she also wrote. And it is as close to perfect a film to serve as her calling card in Hollywood for years to come. Directing Carey Mulligan to a brilliant performance as a kind of vigilante/bait on the hunt for misogynists in the dating arena, Fennell is able to wring some clever wit out of the serious subject matter. What the movie ends up as is a highly stylized black comedy that is always thought provoking as it challenges the archaic rituals of the dating world that leave women holding the short end of the stick. Fennell and Mulligan both have something intelligent and even darkly funny to be proud of here.

10. The Social Dilemma, dir. Jeff Orlowski - Streaming on Netflix -
 As I mentioned earlier, 2020's documentary field was among the most competitive of the past several years. The Social Dilemma may prove to be the most alarming. And this despite other excellent timely docs like the pandemic response thriller, Totally Under Control, and the enraging voter rights piece, All In: The Fight for Democracy. This because The Social Dilemma's frightening implications about social media's mind warping effects on society are even more far-reaching.

11. Sound of Metal, dir. Darius Marder - Streaming on Prime Video -
At one point, The Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance was going to direct this film off of Marder's script. Maybe because he saw how invested Marder was in his story, he encouraged Marder to helm the feature himself. Marder expertly brings us into the aural world of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who quickly and permanently loses his hearing. Ahmed communicates the initial panic, then denial, then fear that Ruben feels concerning the downbeat prospect the loss of identity his condition represents. Together, Marder and Ahmed end up delivering one of the quietest and most powerful of 2020's narrative features.

Honorable Mention: All In: The Fight for Democracy (Prime Video), Bad Education (HBO Max), Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV+), Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO Max), Boys State (Apple TV+), Crip Camp (Netflix), David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO Max), First Cow (Showtime), Hamilton (Disney+), The Invisible Man (HBO Max), John Lewis: Good Trouble (HBO Max), The King of Staten Island (HBO Max), Let Him Go, Let Them All Talk (HBO Max), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix), Malcolm & Marie (Netflix), Mank (Netflix), The Midnight Sky (Netflix), The Nest, News of the World, Night of the Kings, Nomadland (Hulu), On the Rocks (Apple TV+), Palm Springs (Hulu), Pieces of a Woman (Netflix), Soul (Disney+), Totally Under Control (Hulu), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix), The Way I See It (Peacock), Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+)

Most Overrated: Nomadland

Most Underrated: Let Him Go

Breakthrough Artist of the Year: Emerald Fennel (Promising Young Woman)


Winners are in red where my own vote coincides.

Best Picture: Nomadland
Best Director: Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Best Actor: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)
Best Supporting Actor: Paul Raci (Sound of Metal)
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-jung (Minari)
Best Original Screenplay: Promising Young Woman - Emerald Fennell
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nomadland - Chloé Zhao
Best Cinematography: Nomadland - Joshua James Richards
Best Production Design: Mank - Donald Graham Burt, Chris Craine, Dan Webster
Best Original Score: Soul - Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Best Original Song: "Speak Now" - Leslie Odom, Jr. & Sam Ashworth (One Night in Miami)
Best Ensemble: One Night in Miami
Best Foreign Language Film: Another Round
Breakthrough Award: Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman)
Best Animated Film: Soul
Best Documentary Film: Time
Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema: John Lewis: Good Trouble (Dawn Porter)

Top 10
1. Nomadland
2. Minari
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
4. Promising Young Woman
5. Sound of Metal
6. One Night in Miami...
7. Da 5 Bloods
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
9. Soul
10. Mank

Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom)
Best Actress: Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Best Supporting Actor: Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7)
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-jung (Minari)
Best Ensemble: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Best Director: Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Best Original Screenplay: Minari - Lee Isaac Chung
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nomadland - Chloé Zhao
Best Documentary: Time
Best Foreign-Language Film: Another Round
Best Animated Film: Soul
Best Cinematography: Nomadland - Joshua James Richards
The Gene Wyatt Award: Minari

No comments: