A year-end 10 Best list in March? Surely I must be joking.
I’m not joking, and, in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, don’t call me Shirley.
Speaking of Leslie Nielsen, the past 12-odd months found me catching him in no less than four motion pictures, as I revisited 1980’s aforementioned Airplane!, introduced my oldest daughter to 1956’s Forbidden Planet, checked out the Rifftrax edition of 1977’s Day of the Animals, and caught up with 1965’s unheralded Dark Intruder. (Oh, yes, I also rewatched one of the two episodes of Columbo on which he guest-starred as well as the entirety of his short-lived TV series Police Squad!)
In other words, the pandemic did not interfere in the least with my consumption of older films, as 2020 saw me continuing to gorge on lots and lots and lots of them. Sparkling new movies, on the other hand, were severely underrepresented in my screening schedule, for obvious reasons. Previous years in my critiquing existence found me on average reviewing 150 new motion pictures (never going below 125 and on rare occasion hitting 200); 2020 witnessed me catching a comparatively slender 110 films.
As such, I needed the early months of 2021 to help me reach even that number. So while many other scribes served up their annual 10 Best lists in late December or early January, I elected to follow the example of the various awards groups that offered extended deadlines, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the National Board of Review, and my own critics’ group, the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA).
Here, then, are my picks for the best films of 2020. The smaller number of releases meant less chance of seeing a truly great movie and, indeed, nothing from the year warranted 4 stars from me. And since the pool in which I waded wasn’t especially deep, I did away with a 10 Worst list. Instead, I chose to, uh, honor only two films that were so awful, they would have deserved their Hall of Shame designation in any year, COVID-stricken or otherwise.
THE 10 BEST
1. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Emerald Fennell). The best film of 2020. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 2020 wasn’t a particularly great year for cinema, with very few releases taking hold to such a degree that they linger in the mind (or heart, or stomach) for days, weeks, months on end. That’s just one of the reasons why writer-director Emerald Fennell’s punishing drama finds itself at the top. Carey Mulligan delivered the finest performance of 2020 as a college dropout who repeatedly places herself in dangerous situations in order to avenge a past wrong. A #MeToo movement meme taking the form of a riveting motion picture, this bold and bracing work refuses to pull any punches, with even the film’s final stretch painfully pointing out the toxicity of a patriarchal society.
2. FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt). In its immersion into a particular time and place, writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s best film to date is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (like this one, set in the developing Northwest). It draws another parallel with its understated notion that the frontier was not particularly kind to dreamers, inventors or Good Samaritans — in this case, that would be wanna-be entrepreneurs Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). For a movie full of harshness and hardship, First Cow nevertheless exudes a strangely optimistic pull, as its humanity rises above all other aspects of its compelling tale.
3. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (Aaron Sorkin). Woe to the poor soul who turns to cinema expecting an accurate history lesson. Three movies on this list have their roots in America’s past, yet, like most films based on fact, they play fast and loose with the true tales. Still, that can be forgiven when the works still nail the essence of the incident while simultaneously entertaining rather than sermonizing. This engrossing film about the protestors who were arrested and tried in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is one such endeavor, a zippy and freewheeling piece with sobering parallels to 2020’s Divided States of America.
4. HAMILTON (Thomas Kail). What does it say about the cinema of 2020 that not one but two titles appearing on this list are nothing more than filmed stage shows? (See also #7.) In a regular year, I might have considered these works ineligible; in 2020, we needed all the pleasure we could find. And not much could match the good vibrations emanating from this documentation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash. Miranda’s infectious tunes, Daveed Diggs’ phenomenal Marquis de Lafayette / Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Groff’s playful King George III, the championing of the immigrant experience — it’s a treasure trove of musical theater par excellence.
5. NOMADLAND (Chloé Zhao). Like Tina Fey with Mean Girls and Charlie Kaufman with Adaptation., Chloé Zhao has taken a non-fiction book and, through cinematic alchemy, transformed it into a fictional feature film. Yet the reality remains in the background, in the margins, and in the supporting players. Frances McDormand, cast as a post-Great Recession wanderer who lives in her van (“houseless, not homeless”), is the lead yet also paradoxically portrays the least important character — she serves witness to the vast array of non-actors who are basically playing themselves against the vast backdrop of a country as harsh as it is inviting.
6. MINARI (Lee Isaac Chung). The companion piece to Nomadland, Minari likewise examines the lives of rural folks living on the fringes. Sprinkled with autobiographical ruminations by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, this is as much about the immigrant experience as the American experience, as a Korean family tries to remain afloat in the Arkansas of the 1980s. Minari is unfussy and unassuming as it gently reminds that a house divided against itself cannot stand — a notion championed by Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and the Yi clan’s sprightly grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung).
7. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA (Spike Lee). There’s no truth to the rumor that Da 5 Bloods was the year’s best Spike Lee Joint. No, that honor would have to go to this vibrant filmization of the acclaimed Broadway production starring former Talking Heads head honcho David Byrne. As 1984’s Stop Making Sense still reigns as the greatest concert film of all time, there’s a nice symmetry in that the earlier picture showcased Byrne with his established all-American band while this latest effort finds him performing with a new generation of international musicians. Joyful, playful, and infused with progressive passion, it’s the best party around.
8. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (Regina King). Actress Regina King’s feature directorial debut reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film Insignificance, which imagined a fictional 1954 hotel room meeting between Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy. The setting is the same (a hotel room), the time has shifted a decade (1964), and the four powerhouse personalities are Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Racism, revolution, reconciliation, and personal responsibility are just some of the items discussed in this engrossing what-if.
9. PALM SPRINGS (Max Barbakow). It would be easy to dismiss Palm Springs as a Groundhog Day rip-off. It would also be myopic, misguided, and moronic. The basic premise is the same: A hapless schmuck (Andy Samberg) is forced to relive the same day over and over again. But the addition of another character (Cristin Milioti) spins the story off in unexpected ways, and the inclusion of yet another player (J.K. Simmons) further raises the existential stakes. Forget Christopher Nolan, Brandon Cronenberg, and the other boys-with-techno-toys; instead, give all the high-fives to writer-director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara for the year’s headiest entertainment.
10. SPONTANEOUS (Brian Duffield). The year’s best horror flick also happens to be the year’s best love story, nudging aside the surprisingly robust Love and Monsters for this double achievement. At an ordinary American high school, students start exploding for no apparent reason and in no particular order. Realizing their remaining days might be short, two kids (Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer) decide to hook up, only to truly, madly, deeply fall in love. Brian Duffield nails his directorial debut; Plummer (Lean on Pete) builds on his early promise; and the explosive (sorry) Langford (Knives Out) is ready for her close-up.
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions, In Preferential Order):
11. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
12. Small Axe: Mangrove
13. Corpus Christi
15. Let Him Go
16. The Invisible Man
18. Bad Education
19. The Old Guard
20. Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Steven Yeun, Minari
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Tahar Rahim, The Mauritanian
Hugh Jackman, Bad Education
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man and Shirley
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Best Supporting Actor:
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Daniel Levy, Happiest Season
Best Supporting Actress:
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Allison Janney, Bad Education
Margo Martindale, Blow the Man Down
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
Bill & Ted Face the Music
The Vast of Night
A White, White Day
The Little Things
Wonder Woman 1984
WORST OF THE WORST
1. LIKE A BOSS Here’s a truly terrible movie that wastes the talents of a good cast in material that would be beneath everyone with the exception of Rob Schneider. This comedy about two friends (Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne) who create a cosmetics company presents itself as being about female solidarity and feminine strength, but it’s really about finding obnoxious ways to demean its characters through witless situations and infantile quips. With material involving rectal thermometers and canine penises, one could fill a dozen bingo cards with the insipid dialogue and moronic sight gags that saturate this ghastly endeavor.
2. DOLITTLE This adaptation of the children’s books by Hugh Lofting is the worst yet — and that’s saying something given the general wretchedness of the 1967 version starring Rex Harrison. As the eccentric Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr. begins the film donning a fright beard and spraying spittle as he talks to the animals via a series of grunts, growls, and grimaces — the facial hair eventually disappears but the actor’s embarrassment does not. First Cats, and now this? Perhaps there ought to be a temporary ban on CGI-slathered movies featuring talking animals — unlike children, they apparently should be neither seen nor heard.