Well, it goes without saying that 2020 was a nightmare of a year and though it’s the least important tragedy of the last 365 days, it was a year that will have unprecedented negative effects on the film industry. We’re not too far from theaters being exclusively designed to play ten different comic book and big-budget franchise films for the entirety of the calendar year. Disney will probably acquire AMC soon enough and that will be that. The only good movies will be played at local (and, unfortunately, overpriced) indie theaters that only have two screens, and otherwise, you better have an HBO subscription. Still, as an avid film lover, I spent much of the pandemic at home and streaming whatever I could whenever I could. I’ve watched roughly 285 movies since March and 45 of those films came out in 2020. Way too many of the 2020 movies were absolutely dreadful, but it is what it is. I put together a little list keeping track of what I watched from this year and ranked them here:
45. BRAHMS: THE BOY II dir. William Brent Bell (found on Showtime/Amazon)
This is unquestionably one of the worst and most shameful films I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The first entry in the Brahms Cinematic universe (BCU, for short), THE BOY (2018) was dreadfully stupid to the point that it was a little funny, but this movie was just stupid, nonsensical, and above-all-else, utterly boring. It’s irredeemably bad, and easily the worst film from a very bad cinematic year.
44. ARTEMIS FOWL dir. Kenneth Branagh (found on Disney+)
After watching this, I was convinced I had seen a fake movie. This film is the ugliest looking movie I have watched in quite some time. This film also had a budget of 125 million dollars (???) and tries to set up a sequel in the final five minutes. I despise Disney and would like the company to be disbanded. This film is a nightmare. Though this isn’t new information, this film is further proof that Josh Gad is a shameless whore who will do anything for money. Everybody involved in this project should be disgusted with themselves. Kenneth Branagh deserves the guillotine.
43. THE HUNT dir. Craig Zobel (found on Cinemax/Amazon)
Any other year, this would’ve been able to claim the bottom spot for worst film of the year. This film is neoliberal fodder to a dreadfully embarrassing degree. The plot of the film essentially is that rich liberals decide to kidnap a small group of dumb conservatives and then delight in hunting them. None of the characters are interesting or compelling and all of them are stupid. I was grateful as they were killed off one-by-one, because it made me aware that the film was closer to ending. This movie also has some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue I’ve heard in any movie in years. I spent the vast majority of the runtime rolling my eyes and groaning. It earns one point solely for one or two competently choreographed action scenes, but this one really sucks.
42. HILLBILLY ELEGY dir. Ron Howard (found on Netflix)
A movie about a venture capitalist Ivy-leaguer that exploited his mother’s addiction problems and his families poverty to write a book and get rich, while simultaneously snubbing his nose at the rest of his home town of Appalachia, painting them all as one-dimensional caricatures that are both stupid, lazy, AND unsympathetic?? How could this one not work?? Ron Howard is not a good director. This movie made me angrier than any other film from this year. It inspired more vitriol from me than either of THE HUNT or BRAHMS: THE BOY II, not only for its gross politics and outlook on people dealing with poverty, but also for the fact that it wasted two of the most talented actresses of the past 20 years (Glenn Close and Amy Adams) and reduced them to looking like complete amateurs. Glenn Close was serviceable (at best), delivering a career-low performance. Amy Adams flailed around and shrilly screamed and cried for two hours, to the point that I felt secondhand shame for her. I would greatly appreciate if the Academy could just give her an Oscar already so she could stop taking on these type of projects.
41. HOST dir. Rob Savage (found on Amazon)
A bunch of white women host a séance over zoom because they have to be socially distanced. An angry spirit kills them all in laughably stupid ways. This will be remembered (it probably won’t be, to be fair) as the first movie produced during and about the COVID pandemic. It’s as moronic as it sounds, but it’s only 57 minutes long. It’s better than the previous three films because it was over in a blink. I could imagine that this might be fun to watch with a group of six people, totally drunk, and screaming at the TV. Maybe.
40. CADAVER dir. Jerand Herdal (found on Netflix)
I forgot what happened in this movie the second it finished. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, following a family that finds a massive hotel hosting a charity dinner. They get there and find out things are morbidly mysterious very quickly, and then a lot of one-dimensional characters get killed in completely dull and uncreative ways! This one gets somewhat of a pass because the concept behind it is actually interesting enough on paper, it was just saddled with absolutely horrifically lame execution. However, the set design was really interesting. The hotel felt like a character in itself. It was visually interesting looking, even if it and the action taking place in it was never once shot in an interesting way. Films featuring flimsy characters dying for two hours in tepid ways have very low ceilings.
39. SHE DIES TOMORROW dir. Amy Seimetz (found on Hulu/Amazon)
This is an 86-minute long movie that feels like it’s three damn hours. There’s nothing interesting or enjoyable about this experience at all. It’s another film with a weird enough concept that, if handled more deftly, I could maybe see it working, but that isn’t the case here. It’s a movie about a woman who becomes paralyzed with the idea that she is about to die. And then every person she bumps into or comes into contact with get caught with the idea, too, like a virus. In theory, this sounds interesting, and honestly, there are a couple sequences that are weird and pretty to look at, but this one ultimately feels like a whole lot of nothing by the time the film ends. It really gets so redundant that it becomes grating. A weird/cool idea can only get your so far!
38. VIVARIUM dir. Lorcan Finnegan (found on Amazon Prime/Amazon)
A movie that contemplates if the American dream of the 50s (having a stable marriage, a 9-to-5 job, a kid, and having a comfy house with a white-picket fence) is really all it’s hyped up to be. Spoiler: It’s not. This one made me mad. It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. I was interested in watching it because of their previous 2018 collaboration (THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE), where they had really interesting chemistry. However, that movie was more interesting, engaging, and better than this movie. This movie stunk, mostly because you can sum up what the director is trying to get across in 14-seconds and he decided to drag that over 90-minutes for a full-length feature. It’s also frustrating because the answer to the questions the director is asking are easy to find and obvious. For most people, it isn’t hard to think about if living a life ala the American dream of the 50s would be a nightmare: It would be a resounding yes, and honestly, this final result is seen coming miles before the film finishes, but audiences watching it are forced to sit around until it comes to that same conclusion. Like, of course marriage and day-to-day life becomes monotonous and redundant. How about trying to show your audiences something that may shock or surprise them?? VIVARIUM does have a couple of unnerving and disturbing moments, and I can at least admire the director TRYING to make something interesting, but this one isn’t good. Still, it’s better and closer to being a real movie more so than anything that came before it.
37. RUN dir. Aneesh Chaganty (found on Hulu)
Have you ever seen Hulu’s original mini-series THE ACT, a show where a girl has a protective and overbearing mother who’s devoted her life to taking care of the girl because she is paralyzed (as well as having dozens of other major health conditions), only to discover that her mother was psychotic and tricking her into thinking that she couldn’t walk or talk care of herself? I present to you Hulu’s original movie RUN, which follows the EXACT same plot, but instead of doing it over eight episodes with award-worthy performances from a bunch of interesting actors, you can have it for two hours with Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen. This movie is inoffensive for the first hour. It’s tired, especially for anybody who just watched THE ACT, but it isn’t AWFUL. The last hour is an absolute mess, though, and the final ten minutes is about as bad of an ending as any I saw in a film this year.
36. BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) dir. Cathy Yan (found on Amazon)
I eviscerated this earlier in the year and I also talked about a good film that will appear much higher on this list (THE ASSISTANT), so if you want long thoughts on those, click here: https://mikemekus.blog/2020/02/19/harley-quinn-birds-of-prey-and-the-assistant/ This film is whatever. Margot Robbie does a good enough job here because she’s a professional. She’s one of the best actresses alive, so her being good should come as no surprise to anybody and shouldn’t really garner the film any extra points. We’ve simply progressed past the need for loud, overly-bright, questionably written superhero movies. And the way this film was being touted as a great feminist movie was utterly insane, further proof that these types of movies have melted everyone’s brains. Ewan McGregor is delightfully fun, though, chewing every line of dialogue written for him. There are also a couple of really solid action set pieces in this one, too, but for the most part this is skippable, even if it’s an improvement from the slog that was SUICIDE SQUAD (2016).
35. HAPPIEST SEASON dir. Clea DuVall (found on Hulu)
I wanted to like this one more. It’s a story about a relationship between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as they go home to Harper’s house for the holiday season. There’s only one problem: Harper’s conservative and “perfect” family has no idea that Harper is a lesbian and that she has a girlfriend! It’s cheesy, like most holiday romcoms, and littered with plenty of eye-roll worthy lines of dialogue, but it’s not awful. Aubrey Plaza as Riley, Harper’s ex, plays a nice addition to the cast and shines whenever she’s onscreen. Dan Levy also does some inspired work as Abby’s best friend and the source of much of the comic relief in the movie. Allison Brie is Harper’s sister, Sloane (???). She is serviceable. I would appreciate it if Allison Brie, a very capable actress, could find some work in some good movies that truly showcase her as the talent that she is. Anyways, this one is fine.
34. THE RENTAL dir. Dave Franco (found on Amazon)
An 88-minute mumblecore slasher film directed by Dave Franco? Uhhh… okay. This movie is totally average. It’s quick, and has a decent enough concept (somebody sets up a camera in an Air BnB to spy on people who come in and stay in the house so he can come in and kill them), but unfortunately, it doesn’t really do anything interesting with any of the four main characters in the story. It’s all pretty standard stuff, with paint-by-the-numbers plot beats happening left-and-right. Allison Brie is the best actress in this film and at times, somehow manages to elevate the material because she is that good. I would appreciate it if Allison Brie, a very capable actress, could find some work in some good movies that truly showcases her as the talent that she is. Overall, this one isn’t super memorable, but it’s inoffensive, I suppose. It certainly isn’t PSYCHO (1960), though.
33. THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME dir. Antonio Campos (found on Netflix)
This one is a total mess, but because it has a runtime of 138 minutes, it manages to have enough good stuff in it that it earns this placement. It follows the story of communities in Ohio and West Virginia post-World War II that are brimming with awful and twisted people. The prologue for this movie feels like it lasts for an eternity. It has some interesting sequences, but it’s way too long. Once it finishes, though, the movie starts to pick up a bit. The casting in the film is also mostly strong, too, featuring Tom Holland, and Bill Skarsgård, Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough, Haley Bennett, Jason Clarke, Harry Melling, and, most importantly, Robert Pattinson. Holland is the protagonist and he does well enough work to keep the film afloat. Pattinson is completely under-utilized. Of all the main cast, he feels like he appears onscreen the least amount, but he makes the most out of every second. He does this awful AWFUL southern dialect (he had no dialect coach) that is absolutely perfect. It’s perfect only because the dialect doesn’t really matter, ultimately: Pattinson is 100% committed and invested in every single line he says, so the dialect, though amusing, starts to actually become interesting and really unique. Pattinson is a superstar and he gives a completely magnetic, memorable performance here. Even if the movie isn’t the best, he does enough to elevate it and make it worthy of watching.
32. SPREE dir. Eugene Kotlyarenko (found on Hulu/Amazon)
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this movie about a livestreamer going on a murder spree because he’s hellbent on becoming a viral sensation was… entertaining. It stars STRANGERS THINGS fan-favorite Joe Keery in an absolutely manic and unhinged performance. Keery is really going for it. Like, GOING FOR IT. The entire film is shot in a way that is made to look like audiences are watching the movie on a livestream. There isn’t much to this other than that description, but it’s good fun and entertaining, even if it is sort of mindless. Do I agree that all of the constant exposure to social media has probably warped everybody’s brains in inconceivably awful ways? Yeah, probably. Do I think it’s a bit embarrassing to comment on that in a movie? Perhaps. Still, this is fun enough and I wasn’t angry that I watched it.
31. THE INVISBLE MAN dir. Leigh Whannell (found on Amazon)
I went into this one with very high hopes because I had heard such great things, but this was honestly a let-down. The movie is perfectly competent and does what it sets out to do mostly, but it’s just not all that interesting. The movie is about a woman, Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) trying to escape an abusive relationship with a billionaire who also happens to have a suit that makes him invisible. He is able to torment her forever because of this, even after she gets away from him… Do you get it? Do you get it yet?? Like, yeah, sure, the concept on paper sounds like it should be interesting, and Leigh Whannell is one of the most acclaimed modern-horror directors ever, but this one felt very textbook and clean-cut. It lacked bite and grit entirely, and it also wasn’t even really scary, either, save for one very well-done sequence in a restaurant that comes midway through the film (if you’ve seen it, you know the EXACT sequence). I understand that the horror is supposed to be that this is how survivors of domestic abuse ACTUALLY feel, but like, it all just feels very thin and surface-level. Good scary movies have a palpable tension. This lacks that entirely. Moss is a gifted actress and she does a nice job overall, but not a good enough job to elevate this to the places it wants to go and was sold as going to.
30. THE HALF OF IT dir. Alice Wu (found on Netflix)
This film does quite a bit well, but there’s also a good bit it does poorly. It’s an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age Netflix original tale about a high school love triangle between an earnest, yet dense boy who hires a bookish girl in his class to write his crush love letters because she’s smarter than him and a much better writer. As the whole plot keeps up, the bookish girl comes to develop feelings for the girl she’s writing for and the dense boy starts developing feelings for the person he has hired to write for him. That’s a more than solid elevator pitch, but some of it is handled a bit clunkily. Alexxis Lemire does an excellent job as the pretty, popular girl who is the object of everybody’s affections, but unfortunately, she’s underutilized in the film. Leah Lewis, the bookish girl, carries the film on her shoulders quite adeptly. She has great chemistry with everybody she acts with. Even Daniel Diemer as the himbo, does nice work, being completely endearing for much of the runtime. Wu’s direction is pretty strong, but some of the issues with the film come with the writing (she was responsible for both, as this a story loosely based off of her life), which in many places reminds me of the “How do you do, fellow kids?” Steve Buscemi meme. Sometimes it gets really hard for adults to write accurate dialogue for younger people and whenever I noticed that, it really took me out of the film. One of the last scenes of the film, taking place in a church, is also wholly embarrassing. Still, it manages to subvert expectations and tropes in quite a few places and ends up being a fairly enjoyable watch.
29. HORSE GIRL dir. Jeff Baena (found on Netflix)
…I am once again stating that I would appreciate it if Allison Brie, a very capable actress, could find some work in some good movies that truly showcases her as the talent that she is. This is the third project of Brie’s that ends up on this list from 2020. It’s the strongest of the films and the one that best showcases her talent, but it still doesn’t quite fit the bill as a truly good movie, unfortunately. It’s alright, and shows promise early on, but as it draws towards its conclusion, the wheels start to fall off. HORSE GIRL is a movie about a girl (Allison Brie) with a fondness for crafts and horses who one day becomes convinced that she was abducted and probed by Aliens. It’s all (likely) a metaphor for how disturbing and nightmarish having psychotic depression can be, but the movie just ultimately doesn’t stick its landing. It does enough bizarre and interesting things throughout the film to make it a worthwhile watch, but the ending goes on FAR too long, to the point that the tension absolutely dissipates. Brie puts on an acting masterclass, but it ultimately all ends up feeling a bit meaningless and waste as the credits start to roll. Fine movie that is incredibly frustrating because it could’ve been special, honestly.
28. ON THE ROCKS dir. Sofia Coppola (found on Apple TV+)
An aging man (Bill Murray) and his daughter (Rashida Jones) go on a fun little adventure trying to figure out if her husband is having an affair or not. Most of this movie feels like fluff, but it doesn’t do much wrong, either. Bill Murray is incredible, per usual, delivering every line he’s given with the languid sarcasm audiences have come to being accustomed with him for decades. He’s still got it, for sure. Rashida Jones is a shockingly sweet scene partner and compliment to Murray, too. I can never shake the fact that every character she plays is just some form of Ann Perkins, her character from PARKS AND RECREATION, but she does her job well-enough here. The conclusion felt a bit obvious as it was being reached, but that was mostly alright because this isn’t some complex story. It’s a harmless movie that really doesn’t do anything wrong, save perhaps for not being entirely memorable.
27. SHIRLEY dir. Josephine Decker (found on Hulu/Amazon)
The cult of scientology has produced some incredible performers: Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and obviously, Elizabeth Moss. She’s great here, and though her performance in THE INVISBLE MAN garnered her more acclaim than her performance in SHIRLEY as the title character did, she is better here and this is a better film. SHIRLEY is a film about an older couple who lets a younger couple live with them for some time. The woman in the older couple is Shirley Jackson, a famous horror writer (notable for having written THE LOTTERY and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE). This is a slow-burn thriller that is exceptionally unnerving in plenty of moments, and outside of the excellent Moss performance, Josephine Decker gets great performances from Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young and Victoria Pedretti. Though the film’s ending leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a good, pulpy time.
26. POSSESSOR dir. Brandon Cronenberg (found on Amazon)
This film is karaoke-David Cronenberg, which is understandable, seeing as it’s helmed by his son, Brandon. Anybody who likes a David Cronenberg film will speak on the inescapable paranoia those films create (mostly about the future and technology), and, of course, the gruesome body horror. Those elements are present here, though they’re applied in far less deft ways. POSSESOR is a film about a future where tech allows people to possess other people. Here, a trained assassin (Andrea Riseborough) uses the technology to execute high-profile people. It’s an interesting premise and at times, is very effective. However, the back half drags a bit, which is unlike most David Cronenberg projects. Brandon, unlike his father, hasn’t quite yet mastered the art of ratcheting up tension so that it reaches a fever-pitch climax. The most interesting stuff happened midway through the movie and then it felt like Brandon spent the back half of the runtime flexing the filmmaking techniques of his father, as opposed to finding his own voice. It’s an admirable debut, and one that makes me excited for Brandon’s potential, but it’s not quite wholly fleshed out yet.
25. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 dir. Aaron Sorkin (found on Netflix)
This is a film about one of the most famous trials of the 20th century, one where a bunch of democrats were arrested and tried with conspiracy to incite a riot outside of the DNC during the Vietnam war. Do you like Aaron Sorkin as a writer? This might be for you. Do you like him as a director? If so, why? This movie gets some pretty sub-par directing from Sorkin. The shots are mostly flat and uninteresting, honestly. The writing is decent, if you like Sorkin as a writer, and pretty insufferable if you don’t. It’s unfortunate this movie wasn’t better, because this could have been really timely, given the state of the world when it was released. I have to commend it for the collection of weird and interesting character actors featured in this: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Caitlin Fitzgerald, etc, etc. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also in this, though he’s not all that compelling, and Eddie Redmayne, in particular, is rather irksome, despite being one of the most important characters. Strong, Baron Cohen, and Rylance are all particularly strong, despite this film being neoliberal hogwash. It has one of the most shamefully cringeworthy endings of the year, too, no question. At least this film resembles a movie, which is more than many films that come before it on this list can say. It’ll win a bunch of Oscars and I’ll be angry, but whatever.
24. YES, GOD, YES dir. Karen Maine (found on Netflix/Amazon)
In just about any other year, this would comfortably be, like, the 22nd best movie of the year, but unfortunately, 2020 is a nightmare and instead this ends up nearly cracking the top ten. Movies about the white Christian experience are entirely played out and have been explored to death, in more interesting ways than here oftentimes, too. Still, YES, GOD, YES is a pretty decent watch. This is a coming-of-age film about a young high school girl who goes to bible camp and learns that it’s okay to have sexual urges and to masturbate. The film rests on Natalia Dyer’s shoulders, and she’s wonderfully wholesome, sweet, and insanely awesome in this, playing Alice. Timothy Simons as Father Murphy, a literal extension of the patriarchy of the church, is hypocritical and awful, but fun enough to watch. Wolfgang Novogratz (incredible name) is also more than solid at playing the naïve and charming older boy that serves as the object of Alice’s lust and sexual awakening. It’s a tired concept, but with a lead performance as good as Dyer’s, it manages to elevate into something enjoyable.
23. EMMA. dir. Autumn de Wilde (found on Amazon)
I went long on this, THE WAY BACK, and FIRST COW earlier this year and you can read my long thoughts here: https://mikemekus.blog/2020/03/18/the-way-back-emma-and-first-cow/ EMMA. is another adaptation of the Jane Austen 1815 novel about a young woman, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who involves herself in the love lives of everybody she’s surrounded by. It’s a mostly delightful movie solely because of Anya Taylor-Joy, one of the best young actresses alive. She’s onscreen for just about the entire runtime and she pads the film with the most disaffected glances of all time. She should be cast as a spoiled, bratty teenager in every movie ever. Nobody works that type quite like she does. The costumes are also absolutely exceptional, much to the surprise of nobody.
22. PALM SPRINGS dir. Max Barbakow (found on Hulu)
This film is just GROUNDHOG DAY (I feel like this is the most imitated concept in the history of entertainment since 1993, to be honest) with a twist: Instead of one person repeating the same day over-and-over again, it’s two people this time! This proves to be more than effective as far as pumping some juice into a concept that has become done-to-death, by this point. Andy Samberg plays Andy Samberg more than competently. He’s funny and charming, though that’s just about all he is. Cristin Milioti, a very underrated actress, does her usual good work. She’s the more interesting of the two characters, mostly because she’s a pretty awful person. She’s given a bit more to work with and that proves to be wise. J.K. Simmons also makes a couple appearances and is clearly having so much fun. He steals the whole show, honestly, making the most of his limited time onscreen. This is just a bit too clean-cut, but it’s a really breezy watch and fun enough.
21. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS dir. Eliza Hittman (found on Amazon)
This is an indie mumblecore movie about a teenage girl who gets pregnant in Pennsylvania but is unable to get an abortion, so she and her cousin travel to Manhattan to try and have the procedure. Sidney Flanigan gives an inspired and painful performance as Autumn, the teenager in need of the operation, while Talia Ryder oozes charm and tenderness as her cousin. The two girls have really magnetic chemistry together. The direction from Hittman is effective, especially in the most important and impressive extended scene from the film. She’s also responsible for the screenplay, which is decent enough and gleans about as much possible from what feels like eons and eons of silence at times. The overall message of the film shouldn’t be shocking to anybody who knows anything about how difficult it is to be a young person in a situation like this, but it’s an evocative enough film that gets the job done.
20. EDUCATION dir. Steve McQueen (found on Amazon Prime)
This is the final film of McQueen’s SMALL AXE five-film Amazon series and though it’s good, it’s definitely the least essential. Here, McQueen does his best to tackle how corrupt and wretched the education system is for so many young black children. The handling of the material is a bit more awkward than some may expect from typical McQueen movies, but it’s earnest and sincere enough to be worthy of watching, despite the fact that it’s a strange way to conclude the series. Kenyah Sandy does lovely work as Kingsley Smith (the protagonist) and Sharlene Whyte gives an absolutely gutting performance as Agnes Smith, Kingsley’s mother. The ending is especially powerful and ties the movie up quite nicely. Even if it’s the SMALL AXE film I’ll think of the least when I recall the series, it’s a testament to McQueen’s capability as a director that it still earns this high of a spot on the list.
19. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM dir. George C. Wolfe (found on Netflix)
Though this is a good movie, just like with 2016s FENCES, this film suffers from the fact that it’s very clearly designed to be performed onstage. August Wilson is one of the most gifted playwrights of all time, but his material doesn’t always perfectly translate to a bigger screen and this adaptation is no different. Still, it’s a commendable adaptation that was an especially painful watch, given the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, who stars as Levee here. Maybe I’m looking through a death-lens, but this was the performance of Boseman’s life. He was a superstar actor by every definition and this film only solidified that. Few performers possessed the versatility that he had and despite the fact that he was battling with a terminal illness while he was filming this, he commanded attention at every second he was onscreen. Viola Davis, who plays the title character, is one of the most renown actresses to ever live and she was, quite frankly, acted off the screen by him. It’s impossible to watch this movie and take your eyes off of Boseman. He will most likely go on to win a posthumous Best Leading Actor Oscar (in a crowded year, too) and it will be deserved.
18. ALEX WHEATLE dir. Steve McQueen (found on Amazon Prime)
This is the fourth film of McQueen’s SMALL AXE Amazon series. For most, this seemed like the consensus “worst” of the five films, but I’m not quite sure why that is. This is a more than solid film about community and identifying what it means to belong. The story follows Alex Wheatle (played effortlessly by Sheyi Cole) as he tries to grapple with adopting the mannerisms and lifestyle of a black community despite having been raised in a white institutional home with major British influence. He discovers his sense of self and purpose during the Brixton Uprising of 1981. One of the best parts of this movie is the sense of capturing rebellion through the music of the “rebels”. McQueen is a master of framing and this one has some of the most exquisite and well-captured framing in the entire SMALL AXE series. The movie is lit exceptionally well, too. Is it as good as LOVERS ROCK or even as “important” as MANGROVE? Perhaps not, but it’s still a good picture, even if it probably would benefit from a slightly longer runtime.
17. THE WAY BACK dir. Gavin O’Connor (found on Amazon)
This is a grueling and authentic look at alcoholism and depression and how both can crush your spirit. In another year, Ben Affleck would’ve earned himself an Oscar nomination for his fearless work here (it’s a very personal story for Ben, somewhat mirroring his divorce with Jennifer Garner). It is a sports movie, so as I went into it with the expectation of many of the usual clichés that come with the genre, but the film did a wonderfully impressive job of subverting those clichés, while still leaning into them when appropriate. This isn’t a particularly happy film, and really, it’s not all that inspiring or motivational. Instead, it’s quietly devastating and deeply painful, illustrating how addiction is something you have to carry with you every day and constantly battle. Life for so many is often grueling and painful and this film captures that perfectly. It’s not a very fun watch, but it’s quite good and one of the more underrated features from 2020.
16. TENET dir. Christopher Nolan (found on Amazon)
Christopher Nolan did NOT manage to save movie theaters with TENET like he had hoped, but I have to tip my cap to him for even trying. I risked my immunocompromised diabetic ass to see this film in a theater (to be fair, there was only eleven other people in the whole 200-seat theater when I caught a Wednesday matinee) and I have to admit, though the movie is quite flawed (the sound is overbearing and the dialogue is nightmarishly difficult to understand at many moments), the movie theater experience still absolutely rips. This movie can probably be described as schlock, but it’s damn good schlock. Nolan is the master of the big-budget blockbuster. I won’t waste time trying to explain the plot of the movie (even the actors in it really don’t know what the plot is, to be fair), but it’s a movie basically about bending time to feature a bunch of incredibly choreographed action sequences. Or something. John David Washington does works well enough as “The Protagonist” (that’s actually his name) and Robert Pattinson is effortlessly awesome as he is in every movie. Elizabeth Debicki is as watchable as she is tall. This movie is the epitome of “Head empty, just vibes” but it’s fun as hell and I’ll probably revisit it soon enough, though definitely with subtitles. Nothing beats watching movies on a big screen and this film was a briefly perfect moment where, for two-and-a-half hours, things felt somewhat normal.
15. MANK dir. David Fincher (found on Netflix)
This is a decent movie, but it’s also the least essential Fincher film not named ALIEN 3 and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. I was fonder of this initially, but since seeing it, much of it has faded from my mind. This film tells the tale of Herman Mankiewicz as he writes the cinematic masterpiece CITIZEN KANE. Gary Oldman plays the title character. Oldman is a classically great actor, but after having recently won an Oscar for an incredibly boring and forgettable performance in DARKEST HOUR, I would’ve preferred him to stop taking on projects that are designed to win him awards. He’s good here, especially in the final act, but nothing about what he does is remarkably memorable. Amanda Seyfried, one of the more underrated working actresses alive right now, is a triumph, however. She glows at every moment she’s featured. She’s far more interesting and captivating than anything that comes from Oldman. Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, Mank’s rival and the person CITIZEN KANE is about, does wonderful work, too. The movie has more heart than maybe any Fincher film ever, but in providing that heart, it lacks the usual calculated bite that makes Fincher so unique and mesmerizing as an auteur. I also detested the gimmick of trying to make the movie look like it was shot on film. It was annoying and embarrassing, honestly. Though it sounds like I didn’t enjoy this movie, that isn’t true. I liked it quite a bit, especially the ending, which I found to be really satisfying. Anybody who is a fan of classic Hollywood movies will probably enjoy this one. My issue with the movie is that it’s a Fincher movie, and I typically finish Fincher movies LOVING them, not just liking/admiring them.
14. SOUL dir. Pete Doctor (found on Disney+)
The latest film from Pixar is a visual feast and one of the most beautifully animated films in quite some time, though it does feel tired praising animation in 2020 (there is nothing we can’t do or create on a computer nowadays). Still, SOUL follows the story of jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voiced by the always excellent Jamie Foxx) and his pursuit of finding meaning and purpose in his life. Though this film feels like a bit of a retread of 2015s INSIDE OUT, it’s still an effective film. It is a bit of an eyeroll having Disney of all companies telling audiences that there is more to life than their jobs, but the film has some great jazz music and a couple of really fun visual gags and heartfelt moments. I can imagine how this film could be a bit alienating for young audience members, but there’s a lot to be had for the crowd who grew up on Pixar movies. I do somewhat long for the days when Pixar just wrote good stories with good characters for the sake of telling good stories as opposed to using their animation to tell obvious and “important” stories. Somehow, the movies felt more momentous when the animation was in service of taking us on a journey with unique characters and situations as opposed to using the animation to get “deep” themes across, but whatever. I love cats and jazz, so it was a fun enough ride. Also, the Knicks joke was incredible.
13. MANGROVE dir. Steve McQueen (found on Amazon Prime)
MANGROVE was the first film of Steve McQueen’s SMALL AXE Amazon series and was the one that has generated the most buzz, outside of maybe LOVERS ROCK. It’s a very good courtroom drama (it has somewhat similar subject matter to THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, but it puts that film to shame because McQueen is a gifted director) led by excellent performances from Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, and Malachi Kirby. Wright, in particular, is quite exceptional here, good enough to make me forget about her stupid anti-vaxxer tweets that came out right around the time of the film’s release. My problem with this film, and it’s a minor one, is that I think McQueen so often relishes in the misery of the black experience; This film is no exception. A lot of what this film exposes (the way in which the police and white institutions are heinous towards black folk) is nothing new to just about anybody who pays attention to the world. This is the type of film that I could imagine a ton of white people putting as one of their three best films of the year just so they could let everybody know they’re not racist. It’s a very solid McQueen movie, but he tops it once or twice later on in the series. Still, the framing and steady camerawork manages to make a movie that takes place quite frequently in a single courtroom never feel redundant.
12. DA 5 BLOODS dir. Spike Lee (found on Netflix)
Spike Lee is one of the most acclaimed directors to have ever shot a film. He’s an all-timer and his film DA 5 BLOODS, which came out at the height of the protests from this summer,felt like the perfect movie for the moment. It’s a film about four older black Vietnam war vets going back to Vietnam to try and find the remains of their squadmate and the gold they left in the country. Though it has issues that often come up with a lot of movies concerning the Vietnam war (the Vietnamese are marginalized into a faceless enemy which is quite frustrating) and there are some glaring logic problems in the screenplay, the film is shot with so much love and energy that it’s easy enough to look past it. Delroy Lindo gives the performance of his life as a black Trump supporter plagued with hellish PTSD. In any other year, he would easily win the Oscar. Jonathon Majors plays his son and gives a performance that continues to show everybody why he’s the next one up. Chadwick Boseman has a couple of moments that are exceptionally chilling, especially given the fact that he passed not too long after this came out. This one affected me more than most of the films from this year (especially when considering the climate when it was released). It’s a bit overlong, but it’s oozing with emotion and love and tackles black trauma in a way only Spike can manage. And the final dolly shot at the end? Perfect.
11. RED, WHITE, AND BLUE dir. Steve McQueen (found on Amazon Prime)
This is the McQueen from this year that I feel like I haven’t heard anybody talk about too much and I’m not sure why. It’s exceptionally shot, perhaps with McQueen’s most precise and careful camerawork of the entire SMALL AXE series. It stars John Boyega as he decides to become a police officer after his father is assaulted by a corrupt cop. Boyega tries his best to entire a corrupt system and change it from the inside. It’s particularly compelling to see a young black man grapple with and struggle with all of the conflicts that come from his decision. To the people in the black community, who he has always been a member of, he’s a traitor and a scab, selling out and becoming the enemy. And to the white people that he’s trying to shape up and reform, he’s just another threatening black man. With a runtime of only 80 minutes, this feels like it could benefit from an additional 20 or so minutes, but it’s anchored by such a stellar performance from Boyega that it’s hard to be upset. Boyega has superstar potential. The way in which he was underutilized in STAR WARS was criminal. McQueen does not make that mistake, fully letting Boyega go to work. It’s a quietly piercing performance, tethered with intimate pain as well as powerful learning moments. The warehouse sequence near the end is one of the most riveting sequences of the entire year.
10. SHITHOUSE dir. Cooper Raiff (found on Amazon)
Nothing shines through in a movie more than authenticity. Director, writer, and star of SHITHOUSE, 22-year-old Cooper Raiff, provides one of the most authentic films of the entire year. It’s an imperfect movie, but the authenticity more than makes up for whatever flaws it has. SHITHOUSE follows new college freshman Alex as he navigates the oft nightmarish experience of leaving home and growing acclimated to a college environment where he doesn’t have any friends and isn’t particularly confident or charismatic. The film is absolutely awkward at times, painful at others, and mostly always very sweet. Dylan Gelula plays Maggie, one of the first friends Alex makes, and she does some wonderful work here. She and Raiff have remarkable chemistry. There isn’t anything particularly deep or even shocking about this movie, either. It’s just done really, really well and captures the feelings of college perfectly. It smells of nostalgia, sentimentality, and despite how awkward it is, comfortability. It’s a movie that’s completely comforting without ever feeling overly-saccharine. I couldn’t recommend it more, despite hating the title. It’ll probably go down as the one I most revisit from this year.
9. BAD EDUCATION dir. Cory Finley (found on HBO/Amazon)
Cory Finley blew me away with his 2017 film THOROUGHBREDS and as soon as I heard he was making another movie about people-who-think-they’re-smarter-than-they-are-trying-to-get-away-with-terrible-crimes, I was instantly excited. BAD EDUCATION is a true story about the time when a journalist from a high school newspaper uncovered massive tax embezzlement and fraudulent spending from the higher ups of her school. Hugh Jackman, an underrated actor, stars as Frank Tassone, the superintendent of the Roslyn High School District, giving his finest performance since Chris Nolan’s THE PRESTIEGE (2006). Without giving too much away, he gives a completely calculated yet frighteningly unhinged performance and is impossible to look away from. The supporting cast is excellent top-to-bottom, as well, with contributions from Allison Janney, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Ray Romano, and Annaleigh Ashford. It’s a slick movie. Finley makes great use of the investigative journalism genre, making every clue discovered completely thrilling and tense. Jackman really goes for it here and it pays off. It’s a painful and uncomfortable film that left me a little sick, but it was absolutely worth watching.
8. THE ASSISTANT dir. Kitty Green (found on Hulu/Amazon)
Though it isn’t billed as one, this is without a doubt the best horror movie of the year. THE ASSISTANT comes from writer and director Kitty Green and is the first major feature to tackle #MeToo, specifically as it is related to Harvey Weinstein. It follows Julia Garner, one of the most wonderful young actresses alive right now, as Jane, as she goes about her day as an assistant to one of the most important and powerful film executives in the world. As the day progresses, it goes from exhausting and emotionally draining to terrifying and abusive. Garner is in every frame of the film, quietly being berated and abused from just about everybody she comes into contact with. Green shoots the film with a meticulous and carefully plotted precision, capturing the most minute details with perfect clarity. There may not have been a more stomach-turning and revolting scene in a movie this year than when the brilliant Matthew Macfadyen (Tom Wambsgans in HBO’s original drama SUCCESSION), playing a higher-up at HR in the film’s most pivotal moment, gaslights and invalidates every inquiry of Jane’s and works to silence her. Green and Garner manage to do an admirable job capturing the relentless nature in which women are victimized in the workplace. It’s a movie that will leave you exhausted, but it feels like essential viewing, nonetheless.
7. BLACK BEAR dir. Lawrence Michael Levine (found on Amazon)
This one will go down as my personal favorite of the year, even if I think the films that slot higher on this list are just slightly better. This is a hard one to talk about because so much of what makes the film work can only take place if you go in absolutely blind, but if you’re a fan of Aubrey Plaza, she gives an acting masterclass here. She most likely will not be nominated for an Oscar for her work, but she’s more than worthy of a nomination. This is the finest performance of her career. She also shares the screen with Sarah Gádon (an actress I loved in Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film, ENEMY), who does excellent complementary work here, and Christopher Abbott, who is fine, but certainly the least impressive of the three leads. This film is a treat for for people that are interested in or have had first-hand experience working on a film set or even for anybody who has ever struggled to get thoughts out when writing. It has a really exciting and fun twist that took the film in a completely different direction, too. I love when a movie can surprise me, and honestly, so few films this year shocked me, so even though this film is imperfect, I have to give it its rightful praise. Go in blind and enjoy. At worst, it’s a breezy and thrilling watch.
6. NOMADLAND dir. Chloé Zhao (found via bootleg link)
This film is the anti-HILLBILLY ELEGY. It’s a movie brimming with compassion and empathy. It’s also a scathing indictment of late-stage capitalism and the corporate nightmare that is America. As opposed to with HILBILLY ELEGY, which robbed the impoverished of their voice, this is a meditative and quiet look at white poverty. It’s packed with sorrow and anguish and gives an insightful look into the lives of the oft overlooked nomad. The story follows Frances McDormand as Fern, a recently widowed nomad in Nevada. McDormand is an actress I’ve long respected more than I’ve actually been affected by. That changed after watching this. Her usual wryness is more cutting here than it typically is, and she’s able to get so much across with her eyes and her brow. Her pain, her exasperation, and her unbelievable spirit all shine through here. Zhao shoots the hell out of this, creating an atmosphere that feels wholly authentic and appropriate. This film isn’t poverty porn and never looks to exploit the people that it’s capturing. Instead, it beautifully humanizes them and lets their story and their voices soar. It’s as heart-breaking as it is incredible.
5. SOUND OF METAL dir. Darius Marder (found on Amazon Prime)
This was probably the most difficult watch of 2020. SOUND OF METAL follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a metal drummer who suddenly finds that he’s begun to majorly lose his hearing. Ruben lives in a mobile home with Lou (the always good Olivia Cooke), his girlfriend who also sings the metal with him when he makes the discovery, and the fallout that ensues from the loss of hearing is devastating. He eventually becomes part of a deaf community, led by Paul Raci, where he begins to find comfort and solace and understanding. This is an unbelievably empathetic movie, with the performance from Raci, in particular, being totally steadfast and warm. Riz Ahmed, who was excellent in 2015s NIGHTCRAWLER, gives the performance of his life. He will rightfully contend for an Oscar from this one. Ahmed gives Ruben an overwhelming amount of humanity. His initial confusion and mania as the deafness starts to set in is as terrifying as it is crippling and his eyes are always ripe with sadness. He carries that with him throughout the film, completely wearing all of his emotions on his sleeve at all times. Olivia Cooke is Ahmed’s equal, though she has less screen time than him. She does a good work of shouldering a lot of the emotional burden in the early parts of the film. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, but this film will most likely sweep the sound categories at this year’s Oscars as well. The final twenty minutes of this film are gutting. One of the most heartbreaking and memorable pictures of the year.
4. LOVERS ROCK dir. Steve McQueen (found on Amazon Prime)
There are some people who have issues with Steve McQueen, not because he isn’t an incredible filmmaker, but because his films so often focus on trauma and tragedy being inflicted upon black people (despite the fact that he himself is black)… I find this critique to be, though not totally accurate, have some legs (see: 12 YEARS A SLAVE), but the second film in the SMALL AXE series that McQueen did for Amazon sort of demolishes that idea. This is a super-quick watch (70 mins) and it flies by. It’s a simple movie with no real plot that captures the full atmosphere of a party as it happens through the course of one night. Though the movie has some boozy and dark moments, as almost every party does, watching this was absolutely delightful. In a year full of so much tragedy and overwhelming horror, particularly towards black and brown people, it felt good to see black joy so articulately captured on screen. McQueen films all of the dance sequences in this with overwhelming amounts of love. It’s the type of film that should leave you grinning ear-to-ear.
3. I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS dir. Charlie Kaufman (found on Netflix)
Perhaps it will be somewhat controversial to have a film so divisive this high on the list, but this one is absolutely incredible. If you’ve seen a Charlie Kaufman film, you probably know what you’re getting into before it starts. It’s not a FUN movie, but… it is so strange it’s fun. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are the leads here and they’re the perfect pair for a Kaufman mumblecore movie. Plemons (one of the most consistently hired actors who nobody would recognize if they passed him on the street), in particular, shines at every moment. Toni Collette and David Thewlis provide excellent support, too. It’s hard to even describe or get into the plot because there are so many interpretations of the film that talking about it in any detail almost ruins the fun. This film is a depressing nightmare, much like every film in Kaufman’s discography, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was disturbing and completely uncomfortable, but I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind since I first saw it. A lot of people may hate it or find it boring or pretentious, but… it’s good.
2. FIRST COW dir. Kelly Reichardt (found on Showtime/Amazon)
This was the final movie I saw in a theater before fleeing New York City in March and returning back home to Tampa. Up until the last day of 2020, I was convinced it would be the best film I would see all year. FIRST COW is a meditative and slow-burning movie about the joys and the dangers that come with the pursuit of the American Dream. It’s a film about the tenderness that can be found in masculinity and platonic relationships between men, just as much as it’s about baking and ingenuity. It stars John Magaro and Orion Lee as Cookie and King-Lu as they go about creating a profitable baking business in the early 1800s in the Oregon territory, with dreams of eventually making it to California. Kelly Reichardt directs this with the utmost patience and care. This is a detailed film. The first forty or so minutes are sparse with dialogue and instead do an excellent job immersing the audience into the world. It’s a world that feels completely expansive, despite the fact that it follows the story of two people and a cow so intimately. Point Park alum John Magaro is particularly good here, displaying more intimacy between him and a cow than most actors are able to display with other people. This is an incredible picture with a final shot that’s so powerful it’s able to contextualize every single previous moment in the movie in one split second.
1. MINARI dir. Lee Isaac Chung (found via bootleg link)
On the final day of 2020, I spent my morning watching the best film of the year. Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI, a somewhat autobiographical movie about his childhood, is mesmerizingly good. It stars Steven Yeun as Jacob and Han Ye-ri as his wife Monica as they travel from California to Arkansas. MINARI is a film about a family assimilating to a new country from Korea and a man trying to assimilate to his family in the early 1980s. Yeun arrives in Arkansas with a zesty glow in his eyes, hoping to become a successful farmer and tired of the years he and his wife spent sexing chickens in California to get by. It’s the type of performance that will garner him recognition from the Academy and put him on the map, despite the consistently good performances he’s been giving for the last decade. Han Ye-ri gives a practical and wonderful performance as his wife. She’s natural and assured. She loves her husband, but she has serious doubts about his plan. They have two children: Anne (played with a grounded confidence by Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim in a revelatory debut performance that is one of the finest child performances ever) and Monica has serious concerns about their wellbeing, especially David, who suffers from a heart murmur and now lives an hour away from the nearest hospital. It’s a film with multiple laugh-out-loud moments (mostly from the children and Monica’s mother) as well as gut-punches. The finale of the film was the type that unexpectedly caused me to sob, both because of the lovely score and the stunning imagery on the screen. It’s a marvel of a film, managing to be both tender and gentle as emotionally affecting and powerful. It’s the only five star film I watched this year and absolutely the best of the bunch.