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Celebrating cinematic excellence: 2020's best movies

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As with literally every other aspect of our lives, 2020 has been a weird one when it comes to movies.

Despite the fact that movie theaters have been largely dormant for much of the year, we’ve still had the opportunity to watch a LOT of movies. I myself will have seen and reviewed more than 150 films in 2020. A lot of them have been good and some have been great.

Many of those great ones appear on this list.

Now, we’ve got 20 of my favorites from 2020 here. I’ve also included some honorable mentions, many of which might well have landed on this list had I written it on a different day. There’s a lot of fungibility here and the margins between most of these are VERY thin. Still, this is pretty close – at the very least, you can rest assured that these are among the films that I enjoyed and/or engaged with most in this very weird, very long year.

(And don’t worry – I’ll be doing my annual worst-of list as well. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of all that fun. You’ll get that in a week or two.)

So here you have it – 20 of my 2020 favorites.

(Please note: this list is in alphabetical order rather than order of preference.)

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American Utopia

“American Utopia” is one of the most compelling and moving viewing experiences I’ve had in a very long time, a blend of songs from Byrne’s “American Utopia” album and a number of cuts from his extensive back catalog, all reimagined with the help of an exceptionally talented band. The music is exceptional, with Byrne both matching the youthful chaos magic of his early work and embracing his current status as an elder statesman of sorts. To bring together such seemingly disparate energies and attitudes is a triumph – one reflected in every joyful moment on the stage. And his interstitial moments are awash in oddball charm, reflecting a sort of optimism that Byrne almost can’t help but convey even as he breaks down some of the bleakness of the present time – even then, the joy remains front and center.

Capturing that joy in an electric live space and successfully conveying it through a screen is surely a monumental task. Luckily, we just happened to get one of the greatest American filmmakers of our time to execute said task. Spike Lee’s own stylistic eye and exquisite instincts are a perfect complement to Byrne’s show; he elevates the experience not by bringing the performance out to us, but by bringing us into the performance. There’s a wild intimacy to what he does – he uses unusual angles and deft cuts, moving from handheld closeups to wide shots at just the right moment. Lee finds perspectives beyond those seen in person, turning the stage show into something cinematic while also maintaining its wonderful theatricality.

Considering the parties involved, I was always going to love “American Utopia.” I was not at all prepared to LOVE “American Utopia.” It is a moving and powerful musical document of this moment in time, one that captures the messy maelstrom of the now while also finding reasons to celebrate. Utopia might be an impossible dream, but we should be thankful for those like David Byrne who simply refuse to stop dreaming it.

(View our full review here.)

Bill & Ted Face the Music

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” reunites Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the titular duo, the film captures the essence of what made these characters resonate 30 years ago while also allowing them to tell a different kind of story, a story of adulthood and the pressures of expectations and the challenges that come in a life that lacks balance … even as they remain in many ways the same amiably goofy dudes that they’ve always been.

It’s also a story of family and what it means to live up to a legacy, of how the next generation’s ideas about the world are impacted by those who came before, but not always bound by them. It’s about the frustration of having a path dictated for you and the disappointment when it proves too difficult to properly follow. It is weird and hilarious and moving, sweetly and unapologetically strange.

In case it isn’t clear, I was always going to enjoy “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” For me, just the fact that it exists is enough. But the thing is – it’s actually pretty good. Certainly better than these sorts of delayed-continuation sequels tend to be. It is a hilarious and heartwarming opportunity to check in with some old friends – the kinds of friends with whom you can simply pick up where you left off, regardless of how long it has been.

Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes.

(View our full review here.)

Boys State

This documentary looks at the 2018 edition of Texas Boys State, following a handful of young men as they make their way through the weeklong process. We meet boys from different walks of life, with different ideologies and inclinations, as they navigate the vagaries of Boys State. It is one of the most compelling pieces of documentary filmmaking we’ve seen in some time. The portrait that it paints is of a group of young people who are reflections of the greater political climate that surrounds them. It is a movie that moves from sweet inspirational moments to unexpected gut punches, illustrative of the wildly swinging political pendulum in which these kids have spent their entire lives. The juxtaposition of innocent optimism and surprising cynicism makes for compelling watching; you can’t tear your eyes away from these kids, regardless of where you may fall on the ideological spectrum.

“Boys State” is documentary filmmaking at its finest, a well-crafted and timely exploration of today’s political landscape through the eyes of young men whose passion outweighs (and sometimes overwhelms) their limited experience. This is a look at the next generation of leaders, warts and all; it’s a snapshot of what it means to want to grow up to lead, regardless of which side of the aisle you seek to occupy. These are young people who hope to change the world. A brilliant, utterly unforgettable film.

(View our full review here.)

Crip Camp

Documentary filmmaking is at its most effective when it finds a way to both educate and entertain. Bringing real people and places to the big screen in service to a message is important, but the reality is that if an audience isn’t engaged – isn’t entertained – that message may well go unheard, no matter how important it is or how skillfully relayed.

It has been a long time since I saw a documentary that so successfully struck that balance as “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” The film – directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – tells the story of a summer camp for the disabled back in the early 1970s and the huge impact some of those campers would ultimately have in the decades-long fight for civil rights for the disabled.

It’s no surprise that the film is good – it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and actually won the Audience Award – but I wasn’t prepared for HOW good it was going to be. This is a razor sharp, poignant and wickedly funny film, one that delves deep into a part of our nation’s history that is likely unfamiliar to many. It has as colorful a cast of characters as you could hope to find, as well as a message of struggle and speaking truth to power that resonates just as fully today as it did when the story it tells unfolded.

(View our full review here.)

Da 5 Bloods

What’s that? TWO Spike Lee-helmed projects on the list?

Granted, there’s never a bad time to get a movie from America’s greatest black filmmaker, but two? Considering the state of the world in which we’re currently living, the sort of live-wire storytelling that is Lee’s specialty is particularly welcome. No one brings the sort of electric social consciousness to the screen that he does, along with style and vision that is unparalleled among his peers.

“Da 5 Bloods” is the story of a quartet of Vietnam veterans returning to the country for the first time since the war, each carrying the world-weariness of age along with the emotional burdens that still endure from their time in battle. The foursome are on a sort of dual quest to make right the real and perceived wrongs that they have suffered, all in service to the brotherhood they formed in that life-or-death time.

It’s a typical stylistic triumph from Lee, featuring the blending of aesthetic techniques and cultural touchstones that mark his best work. And he mines truly exceptional performances from his talented cast – again, the usual. This movie – much like so many others in his oeuvre – contains multitudes in a way that no other filmmaker can match, but that’s not really surprising – there’s only one Spike Lee.

(View our full review here.)

Driveways

Bigger isn’t always better.

It’s easy to forget in a world where cinematic bombast is all the rage, but less can still be more. There is still plenty of room in the moviesphere for smaller, more intimate fare. Films that rely on story without spectacle. Films that explore the tiny moments of regular people.

“Driveways,” directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and starring the late, great Brian Dennehy in one of his final roles, giving a typically outstanding performance (that might low-key be one of his very best). It’s a movie built on the unexpected connections that can develop between people due to chance factors of proximity and circumstance. It’s a story about the idea of family and how it can mean different things to different people.

And again – less is more. This isn’t a showy film, but rather a sincere one. That sincerity lends an air of verisimilitude to these relationships, making it easy to empathize. “Driveways” embraces its intimacy and unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve – much to its ultimate benefit.

(View our full review here.)

Faith Based

There’s something to be said for cinematic surprises.

It isn’t often that you get a film that not only exceeds your expectations with regard to overall quality, but also in terms of the spirit of the thing. These are the movies that manage to deliver something … more. Movies that somehow give you what you want while also giving you something you didn’t know you wanted until you got it.

That’s where I landed with the new film “Faith Based,” now available through assorted VOD services. Directed by Vincent Masciale from a script by Luke Barnett (who also stars), it’s a comedy about a pair of slacker buddies who come up with a get-rich-quick scheme revolving around making a Christian movie.

Now, you’d be forgiven for expecting a film with this kind of premise to be mean-spirited and/or cynical. But “Faith Based” couldn’t be further from that – the satire here is very much punching upward, taking shots at the greed and opportunism of the world rather than the well-meaning and good-hearted among us. It is also a first-rate and quite funny buddy comedy, as well as a smart look at the spit-and-baling-wire world of independent filmmaking – charming and offbeat and very good.

“Faith Based” is relatively rare in that it clearly respects the targets at which it aims while still managing some entertaining hits. It is clever without being glib and never condescends even as it is making fun – a movie unafraid to offer up laughs both smart and silly. In an entertainment world packed with options, you might not feel like taking a chance. But sometimes, well … you might want to have a little faith.

(View our full review here.)

The Half of It

One of my favorite romantic comedy techniques is the adaptation of and/or inspiration by a classic work. This is particularly prolific in the teen-targeted sector, because let’s be honest, love stories tend to be a young person’s game. Granted, quality source material is hardly a guarantee of a quality film, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

The latest example of the literary classic-turned-YA rom-com “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu. It definitely lands on the inspired by side of things, but it wears that particular influence – namely, Edmund Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” – loudly and proudly.

Granted, it takes the classic secret correspondence-driven love triangle and gives it a decidedly original flair, gender-flipping our erstwhile epistle-writer and lending the entire proceedings a cloak of LGBTQ+ friendliness that serves to make the story feel both of the moment and widely accessible.

It doesn’t hurt that Wu is a gifted filmmaker with a particular talent for language; she’s got a real ear for witty and romantic dialogue. And she has an outstanding trio of young actors at the film’s center. All the pieces are there for a lovely little movie – and “The Half of It” delivers.

“The Half of It” is sweet without being saccharine and heartfelt without sacrificing humor. It is a charming film that has no qualms with wearing its sincerity on its sleeve. It is a feel-good love story driven by outstanding performances. These teenagers feel real, and so their relationships do as well. You don’t often get that feeling of verisimilitude from a teen romance, but hey – you don’t often get movies like “The Half of It.”

(View our full review here.)

His House

There’s a turn of phrase that has been floating around out there in the zeitgeist for a few years about which I have conflicted feelings. “Elevated horror” is a term that is being used to describe movies that incorporate horror elements and tropes while ostensibly being above the genre itself.

Honestly – I don’t care for it.

Those films and filmmakers – the Ari Asters and Jordan Peeles and Robert Eggers – don’t need any qualifiers; the notion that a horror movie is somehow unable to also be an artistically impactful film is foolish on its face. I respect the desire for a shorthand, but great horror is great art, full stop.

This brings us to “His House.” Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker Remi Weekes, it’s a movie that invites that sort of cinephile labeling, bringing together exceptionally executed scares with engaging ideas and social commentary. It invites it, but it doesn’t need it.

It doesn’t need it because “His House” succeeds on its merits. It is a taut, tense haunted house horror thriller, packed with unsettling images and some incredible scares. It is also a sharp and incisive deconstructive commentary on the dehumanizing nature of the refugee experience. And it is wildly effective from both perspectives. This is a bordering-on-brilliant work of horror filmmaking, marrying the trappings of the genre with nuanced messaging regarding a very complex issue.

You can consume this movie solely as a pure haunted house thriller and really dig it. You can consume it primarily as an allegory for refugees and the pains of assimilation and really dig it. The fact that it works both ways tells you everything you need to know about just how good it is. This is a very scary, very smart movie – one that will linger long after the credits have rolled.

(View our full review here.)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Charlie Kaufman project. Well … that’s not ENTIRELY true. You know that you’re going to get something unconventional and bizarre and challenging, but you don’t know what specific flavor of unconventional/bizarre/challenging you’re going to get.

Kaufman both directed and wrote the screenplay for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” adapted from the Iain Reid novel of the same name. It is typically atypical, a difficult-to-define work of psychological not-quite-horror that is unsettling to watch even while requiring the viewer’s close attention.

The film is marked by the fluidity and flexibility we’ve come to expect from Kaufman; even while watching, one can never be quite sure what they are watching. Reality and fantasy blur together, reveling in the active and deliberate narrative inconsistency while also painting a compelling portrait of a relationship that is not at all what it seems to be. It is smart and well-crafted and unrelentingly weird – classic Kaufman.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is precisely the sort of movie we’ve come to expect from Charlie Kaufman – particularly when he’s the guy steering the ship. It is a confounding and challenging piece of work, a film that steadfastly refuses to be anything other than itself. Anchored by some exceptional performances and driven by its smooth embrace of the surreal, this exciting and idiosyncratic movie isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll almost certainly love it.

(View our full review here.)

Insert Coin

For a lot of us, our tastes crystallize somewhat in our youth. The stuff we were into when we were 12, 13, 14 years old is cemented into us. Think about it. The music you loved, the TV shows, the movies, the video games – you still have feelings for it all. The songs you can’t help but sing along to when they come on. Your favorite cast on “SNL.” The movies you can still quote by heart. The Nintendo or Sega games you could still beat in your sleep. It’s all still in there.

Now, this is all a long-winded way of saying that “Insert Coin,” the documentary written and directed by Joshua Tsui, has captured a moment in time to which I personally am still very much connected. The film tells the story of the arcade renaissance of the early/mid-1990s through the lens of the legendary game-maker Midway (creators of “Mortal Kombat” and “NBA Jam,” among others), delving into a world that will look very familiar to my fellow late Gen X/early millennial peeps.

“Insert Coin” celebrates those heady days by speaking to the people who made it happen, the people who found a way to move with the times; instead of trying to push back against the blossoming world of console gaming, they found ways to turn the arcade experience into something that consoles of the time simply could not match.

If you’re someone who spent part of their lives wanting nothing more than to hear that electronic shout of “Fatality!” or “Boomshakalaka!” – you will dig this movie.

You might say that “Insert Coin” is 100% my jam – my NBA Jam.

(View our full review here.)

The Invisible Man

It’s one of the most traditional truisms in horror cinema: sometimes the biggest scares come from what you don’t see.

“The Invisible Man” – written and directed by Leigh Whannell – takes that notion to heart both literally and figuratively. It is a daring and inspired take on the classic tale, one that captures the unsettling energy of the classic character while also viewing it through a different lens. That shift in perspective – from the terrorizer to the terrorized – results in a thought-provoking and compelling experience. It is a film guided by an auteur’s singular vision and headlined by an absolutely dynamite lead performer. It is smart and evocative and scary as hell.

“The Invisible Man” is horror filmmaking of the finest kind, striking that balance between social commentary and scares that marks the very best examples of the form. It is a smart, self-aware work that is both frightening and provocative, an of-the-moment work of art that exquisitely updates a genre classic.

(View our full review here.)

Mank

“Mank” is a film that is unafraid to delve into the dark side of movie magic, exploring the bleak underside of the rapid rise of early Hollywood. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, “Mank” is ostensibly the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the writer (or co-writer, depending on how much stock you put into early-70s Pauline Kael) of the iconic “Citizen Kane,” but in many ways, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

“Mank” is an ode to old Hollywood, but not the sort of self-celebration we so often see from stories set in that time and place. Instead, we get a glimpse into the unseemly sleaziness that was so thoroughly shot through the industry at that time, with tyrannical studio heads and other assorted titans freely and unrelentingly taking advantage of those with even a modicum less power than they possessed. It is a story of one man’s journey from respectability to sellout to burnout to oddly noble flameout, all set against the backdrop of a time that has been cynically romanticized by an industry that loves nothing more than patting itself on the back.

Most of the time, films telling stories of this period treat the era as a Golden Age of sorts. This is definitely not that. One could argue that “Mank” does in fact serve as a love letter to Hollywood – just not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing. It offers up a look at a far more toxic sort of love, the kind of unhealthy, obsessive romance that too often ends in tears and pain – just as this one does.

(View our full review here.)

The Old Guard

It takes a special kind of performer to headline an action franchise. Gone are the days when all it took was a willingness to bulk up, shoot guns and spout catchphrases; today’s action offerings trend toward the high-concept, particularly when looking to create or continue a series. And a different sort of action requires a different sort of actor.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have pegged someone like Charlize Theron as a likely action star, but following recent turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” it is abundantly clear that she has all the requisite chops to handle her business.

Her latest entry into that realm is “The Old Guard.” It’s a sharp and sometimes surprising sci-fi action offering, one clearly intended to kick off a franchise for the streamer. There’s a thoughtfulness to the film that you don’t always see in this sort of offering, along with a willingness to allow breathing room for character development (although the action set pieces are high in both quality and quantity).

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a screenplay that Greg Rucka adapted from his own graphic novel series of the same name, “The Old Guard” is a film whose strengths are consistently complementary, finding the perfect blend of action-packed excitement and character engagement – one left wide open for future installments.

(View our full review here.)

Palm Springs

It’s rare for a movie to present an idea with such complete success as to essentially take ownership of said concept, to come up with a hook that becomes the model upon which future movies are based.

“Groundhog Day” is one of those rarities. How many times have you heard a film referred to as “‘Groundhog Day’ but X”? It has become an easy shorthand for the sort of recursive time loop story that has proven to work across all genres. Comedy, yes, but also horror, thriller, sci-fi … we’ve seen examples that run the gamut.

The latest entry into the time loop oeuvre is “Palm Springs.” Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (and produced in part by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), the quick pitch is “‘Groundhog Day,’ but at a wedding” – and it is excellent.

It’s an engaging take on the trope, one that pushes the logistics of the premise to absurd extremes while also finding ways to explore the inevitable emotional ramifications of an eternity of repetition. It asks questions about love and the human condition, yes, but it also features great jokes and slapstick moments. All of it structured around genuine insight regarding life and its meaning.

(View our full review here.)

Shithouse

Full disclosure: I love coming of age movies. I loved them when I was a kid. I loved them as a young man. And I love them still as I wander into middle age.

There’s a universality to the crossing of that particular Rubicon that I find appealing, a recognition of shared experience wherein the specifics might not be the same, but the big picture more or less is. A look at what it means to grow up, to start becoming the person we’re ultimately meant to be. I particularly enjoy those stories set in academic settings – the parallel educations that take place in those places.

Which brings us to … “Shithouse.” Yep – that’s the name.

But here’s the thing – the movie is as good as that name is terrible. This is a movie that won the top Jury Prize in the Narrative Feature section of SXSW this year. That’s a big deal. It is a heartfelt and biting look at what it means to be a young person lost in a world they don’t fully understand and trying to figure out what happens next. Smart and sad and honest in the way of all top-tier indie filmmaking. It also happens to be the realization of an auteur’s vision – the film is written, directed and edited by Cooper Raiff, a first-time feature director at the ripe old age of 23. Oh – and he stars in it too.

There’s something immensely and intimately relatable about “Shithouse,” a smart, heartfelt film that expertly captures the mindset of a certain type of young person. It is funny and cringey, with moments of passion and pathos alike. It is a phenomenal feat by a filmmaker whose name we probably should get used to hearing. Honestly, the only thing about this movie that doesn’t work wonderfully is its title.

(View our full review here.)

Sound of Metal

What happens to us when circumstances leave us unable to do the thing that we believe defines us? How can we recover from such a loss – particularly when that loss seemingly destroys the foundation on which the rest of our identity is built?

That question serves as the central concept in “Sound of Metal.” Written and directed by Darius Marder, it’s the story of a heavy metal drummer who must deal with an unexpected and rapid deterioration of his hearing, a devastating blow that pushes the former addict toward a potential relapse.

It’s a powerful exploration of what it means to lose what defines us, as well as what we might do to regain that definition and ultimately achieve a redefinition. It also looks at what it means to not only need help, but to be willing to accept that help. Anchored by a transcendent lead performance and an immersive and innovative sound design, “Sound of Metal” hits hard.

This isn’t a feel-good film by any stretch; it is at times incredibly bleak and can be a tough watch. However, between the compelling story, the outstanding lead performance and the unforgettably innovative sound work, it is certainly touched by greatness.

(View our full review here.)

The Trial of the Chicago 7

As someone fascinated by both mid-20th century American history and the work of Aaron Sorkin, you can imagine my excitement upon learning that those two fascinations were being brought together by the folks at Netflix. It’s rare that a film comes along that is so squarely in the center of a Venn diagram formed by such incongruous interests, so rest assured – I was pumped.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” – written and directed by Sorkin – largely lived up to my admittedly lofty expectations. It tells the story of a tumultuous time in American history through a specific event – the trial of a group of counterculture figures indicted for conspiracy to allegedly incite violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a trial that has come to be viewed by history as a travesty of justice, an effort to make an example of those who would protest the actions of their government.

It also features a stellar cast, an ensemble running deep with top-tier talent. It’s an opportunity for Sorkin to flash his own particular brand of progressive politics, all while utilizing every trick and trope in his bag to construct a compelling story. As he often does when venturing into the real world, Sorkin takes liberties, but for the most part, the larger picture remains connected to the larger truth.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is fictionalized, to be sure, but the truth still shines through. This film feels very timely – for any number of reasons – and is an engaging and entertaining representation of a moment in our history that we should all take pains to remember. And thanks to a typically great script and a staggeringly deep ensemble packed with phenomenal performances, a new generation will learn about this particularly tumultuous time.

(View our full review here.)

The Vast of Night

When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

(View our full review here.)

(Honorable mention: Blow the Man Down; Borat 2; Hamilton; Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey; The Mystery of DB Cooper; On the Rocks; Rent-A-Pal; Save Yourselves!; Shirley; Sometimes Always Never; Tenet)

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2020 13:23

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