MY TOP 10 MOVIES FOR 2020

Who could have ever predicted that when Bad Boys for Life debuted back in January that it would remain the biggest box office hit of 2020? That was of course, by default. The cinematic landscape categorically changed in the most disruptive way since the introduction of the medium. Theaters shut down in March and in many parts of the county, they still remain closed. Streaming platforms became the go-to standard for distribution. Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, and others became the way to see original features. What separated a theatrical film from a TV movie got a little murkier to define. Many films that were supposed to come out, had their opening dates shifted several times over. Others were finally given a U.S. release — even though they had already debuted in other countries in the past. Meanwhile, screening opportunities allowed me the opportunity to preview some films that won’t stream to the general public until 2021.

This was the most unpredictable year of my life. Uncertainty became the new normal. When composing my list, I decided that this was a time to highlight the BEST — regardless of whether the movie adhered to some outdated rule of the past. Now that’s enough of an intro. This site is “fast” so I present the top 10 films of 2020.

(Click on any entry to open my more detailed review.)

  1. Hamilton

Directed by Thomas Kail – Starring Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson

A live stage recording of a 2015 Broadway musical may seem like an unexpected choice for my #1. This is not a traditional selection for the best film of the year, but then again 2020 was anything but conventional. Hamilton is partially a document of the Broadway experience, which is an incredible work of art in its own right, but it’s much more than simply a filmed stage play. Director Thomas Kail edited 3 shows (2 with an audience, one without) during June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. This all from the finest seat in the house.

A filmmaker must make many critical decisions when presenting a live performance. Director Kail’s craft elevates the spectacle to maximum effect. Kail knows when to pull back and afford the presentation a broad overview and when to zoom in and be intimate. He utilizes close-ups, Steadicam, crane, and dolly shots to give the viewer the very best perspective possible. It is an impressive achievement and most definitely a perfect manifestation of Lin-Manuel’s artistic vision. This is a view better than any theater patron could have ever imagined. Granted there’s something undeniably special about being physically present in the theater. Nevertheless, this is the only way to experience Hamilton now. It’s a testament to the joy of live theater. Few records of this type have ever felt so immediate, vibrant, and vital and no other film gave me more joy this year. For all these reasons, it is my #1.

2. Palm Springs

Directed by Max Barbakow — Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Peter Gallagher, J. K. Simmons

Nyles (Andy Samberg) has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah. Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother. She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production. Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck. The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis. Another musical vignette involves an impromptu dance by the couple in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background. These endearing displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within. It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much. It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic. I loved it.

  1. Minari

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung — Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Youn Yuh-jung

Minari is a tale about the American dream. A Korean-American family moves to an Arkansas farm in search of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their lives change with the arrival of their sweet but non-traditional grandmother who doesn’t know how to cook and curses frequently. Director Lee Isaac Chung does what Barry Levinson did with Avalon. Take inspiration from his own life. This is a story that elevates assimilation into one’s adoptive country as not necessarily a bad thing. He extracts warm memories of growing up and presents them with honesty and a heart for all the world to appreciate. Sometimes the greatest cinematic moments are not spectacular action setpieces but the intimate interactions within a tight-knit clan.

I tend to pride myself that I stay true to my own personal taste. My year-end list is rather different from the de rigueur choices that end up on most critics’ lists. For example, Da 5 Bloods and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are conspicuously absent from my Top 20. This selection has found its way onto a majority of critics’ lists of the top 10 movies for 2020. I am in total agreement with my fellow peers. Sadly this feature is one of those pictures for which you’ll have to wait: February 12, 2021, to be exact. However, it received a one-week virtual release in early December and so I recognize it as a 2020 movie. Consider my inclusion an invitation to watch the film when it finally becomes available. Minari is a stunningly beautiful comment on humanity.

P.S. The title refers to a throwback to their native country — a peppery crop of Korean watercress that the grandmother brings from their native land.

  1. Promising Young Woman

Directed by Emerald Fennell — Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox

I submit this release as the latest addition to the feminist canon. I’m talking about a wide range of cinematic classics that include His Girl Friday, Alien, 9 to 5, Thelma & Louise, and Erin Brockovich . Promising Young Woman is a film that seizes the cultural zeitgeist. That means the actions of the lead have an underlying social-political subtext that transcends the genre. It is a bold and slightly polemical statement on our current times. Now before you dismiss this film as “not for you,” let me be clear. Those ideas may bubble underneath our protagonist’s behavior, but they’re not explicitly stated. The narrative’s first focus is to simply entertain.

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a likable protagonist that has rationalized her vicious takedown of “nice guys” that act with ill intent. She may outwardly look like a cutie pie but an inferno rages beneath her pretty exterior. She embodies an assertive woman fully in charge of her capabilities. All the while she radiates a femininity that belies the humanity at the heart of her character. She is vulnerable. Deep down she would still like to meet a genuinely sweet guy. The dramatic twists and turns contained within a captivating pleasure I will not spoil. An ideal review should never reveal too many plot details. It should merely stoke your desire to see it. Now go see it.

  1. Sound of Metal

Directed by Darius Marder — Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci,Lauren Ridloff.

Sound of Metal is precisely the kind of human drama I adore. It’s intimate, honest, and ultimately quite moving. I suspect it will inspire many to rethink the way they view the deaf. This emotional saga changed me for the better. Joe’s guidelines are powerful declarations to Ruben. His words once even brought me to tears. The Place Beyond the Pines writer Darius Marder makes an auspicious directorial debut here. He and brother Abraham Marder wrote the screenplay together based on Derek Cianfrance’s unfinished docufiction project “Metalhead.” This is a modest feature, but I am but one of many who have heaped praise upon this work. I love it when a movie completely lives up to all the euphoric buzz.

  1. Beats

Directed by Brian Welsh — Starring Cristian Ortega, Lorn Macdonald, Laura Fraser, Brian Ferguson

A compelling exploration of freedom, social class, the UK dance subculture, and an undying devotion between two close pals. Director Brian Welsh and co-writer Kieran Hurley (who adapted his own play) emphasizes this rapport which affords the movie a poignancy. The fact this 90s set coming of age tale is filmed in black and white gives it a feeling of nostalgia. It all culminates on the dance floor at the rave — an egalitarian event that is an uniter of souls.

The soundtrack features Human Resource, LFO, Inner City, N-Joi, Leftfield, The Prodigy, and other artists. Curated by JD Twitch, it’s a retro setlist that will propel fans of Techno, House, and Trance back in time. Meanwhile, neophytes may discover a new style of music. The glorious monochromatic cinematography is punctuated by bursts of color as the evening progresses. Like Dorothy arriving in the land of Oz, the effect visually underscores an emotionally powerful transformation of the characters. I felt what they experienced and the trip was an absolute joy.

  1. Relic

Directed by Natalie Erika James — Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Steve Rodgers

Relic is shrewdly built around a simple premise. What will happen when our parents age? The story is centered about a concerned woman named Kay (Emily Mortimer). Her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing and so she takes a trip out to the dilapidated old mansion where she lives and brings her own adult daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) along for moral support.

Relic may be a spartan tale but it captivates because of the thoughtful performances. Director James adds all sorts of little touches to give these women a soul. Actress Emily Mortimer is always good. As Kay, she exhibits fragility while still seeming intelligent and capable. The thespian wields her vulnerability like a weapon that compels the audience to care. We begin to question what is mental illness and what are supernatural forces? If you enjoy horror flicks that are creepy without being overly graphic, then I highly recommend this film. I quite enjoyed it.

8. Bad Education

Directed by Cory Finley — Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan

You wouldn’t ’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is. Sometimes style is just as important as content. The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with artistic elan. The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.

This is a true story. Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened. Yet there are amusing details. The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene. He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin. This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside. Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved. The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating. Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

9. Wolfwalkers

Directed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart — Starring Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney

Wolfwalkers is a gorgeous achievement. I cannot emphasize how beautiful these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle.

What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

  1. Summerland

Directed by Jessica Swale — Starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx.

Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing. The screenplay values tenderness for the commendable trait that it is. Summerland is an expressive portrait about a reclusive writer named Alice (Gemma Arterton) during the 1940s. Suddenly she is entrusted with taking care of a 14-year-old evacuee during the London Blitz. This is a deep and moving depiction of a complicated soul. The rapport with charming curly-haired Frank (Lucas Bond) inspires her to open up. There is sort of an otherworldly quality to this hopeful account of the past. This extends not just to emotional details but also in the exquisite cinematography by Laurie Rose that underscores every scene. The picturesque landscapes are bathed in sunlight. They practically beckon the audience to visit these stunning locales. This is really a movie about humanity though. It’s about people first. The gorgeous locations simply amplify the feelings. Incidentally, I’m ready to book a trip to Kent, England right now.

___________________________________________________________________________

Just Barely Missed the Top 10

  1. Soul
  2. The Wolf House
  3. The Invisible Man
  4. The Rental
  5. Emma
  6. The Personal History of David Copperfield
  7. Nomadland
  8. First Cow
  9. Rent-A-Pal
  10. Hillbilly Elegy

___________________________________________________________________________

Worst of the Year

I saw a lot of bad movies in 2020. I don’t usually choose to “honor” as many as 10 in this category but there were so many worthwhile candidates. Ones that advocate a particularly repugnant worldview are the best way to end up on this list. Others were more of a laborious chore to watch than a piece of entertainment. You can click on the title to find out why it qualified.

Upon looking at what made the cut, I am amused at how many (well over half) can be found on critics’ “Best Of” lists.

The least objectionable is at #1. Pure dreck is at the bottom.

  1. Shirley
  2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  3. True History of the Kelly Gang
  4. The Devil All the Time
  5. Brahms: The Boy II
  6. Project Power
  7. She Dies Tomorrow
  8. Artemis Fowl
  9. Birds of Prey
  10. Possessor

22 Responses to “MY TOP 10 MOVIES FOR 2020”

  1. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    your 1-3 worst of made my runners-up…your #1 is my #2…my #1 gets a mention about not being on your list (though I believe you liked it well enough) and the tie for my #1 isn’t on your list… that said I have so much catching up to do and this list seems like as good a place as any to start 🙂 thanks mark! happy new year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is an inspired list. It’s a list of fairly intimate dramas. Avengers movies are all well and good, but I really love it when cinema is quieter, kept to the rhythms of more “ordinary” life. I find the inclusion of the likes of Minari and Beats really cool; I’ve read very little about either one but I love the sound of both. Hamilton is a fascinating choice at #1 but it also goes back to my point about intimacy. That is a great example of making the best of a bad situation. The audiences relationship with the story in that movie is really unique, and one might say only made possible by the pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy New Year. it’s so complicated to see movies nowadays. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to half of the movies on your list. but it was enjoyable to read the variety of your top 20

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like movies are more accessible than ever before. Before we had to find a theater that was actually playing the film. Now everything is coneventiently available via streaming in our own home. Any streaming service you don’t currently subscribe to can be purchased for $10 or less and then canceled right after you watch the film. Still cheaper than a $15 movie ticket. 😊

      Like

      • thank you for the thought. it’s something to consider. however the process of subscribing and cancelling to a handful of service providers is not yet appealing. I can understand your reasons though since you intend to review a wide range of films from blockbstrs to independents( which are not easy to find at theaters).
        but on a related topic, can i please ask, is there a single website that highlights all the upcoming, potentially good films for both independent and mainstream? (I usually decide to see a movie based on its trailer, like most people I guess).

        Like

      • I use Metacritic. I feel like you already know about that site but here is the page that lists the upcoming films: https://www.metacritic.com/browse/movies/release-date/coming-soon/date

        Like

      • much appreciated. i will be referring to this list. ive glanced through the metacritic site only a few times before because it didn’t seem to focus on movies. but the link you provided shows a wide ranging list.

        Like

  4. Hamilton was amazing – the soundtrack just slaps so hard.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mark, I got an email from you about your Top 10 films, it caught my eye as I have been working on my own for the last month. I remember we interacted last year at about this time. Nice list. Thanks for flagging up Beats. I remember that coming out at the start of the year, but it escaped me. There are a few on your list that are yet to come out where I am. Yes indeed, this has been the most difficult year imaginable for cinema. My story is a little different as I’m a British person living in Taiwan. They handled the virus very well here so cinemas stayed open, albeit on reduced capacity. I was lucky enough to see films all year in theaters. I also love doing that, but I appreciated it even more knowing that people in the West no longer had this luxury. Despite it being the toughest year for cinema in memory, great films came out all year. Good to see Wolfwalkers on your list. I have that in my top 20 too. I do a top 10 myself. And then I also do a separate list counting from 26-11, as there are just too many good films out each year to cram in a 10. Well done sir, and check out my top 10 when you get the chance. https://darrenmoverley81.wordpress.com/2021/01/03/the-top-ten-films-of-2020/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do miss theaters and look forward to a time when the vaccine has potentially made it possible for everyone to attend them again. Thankful for your thoughtful and informative comment. I will check out your list.

      Like

  6. Great list! Here are my Top 10
    1. Summerland
    2. Hamilton
    3. Minari
    4. Miracle in Cell block no. 7
    5. Palm Springs
    6. Beats
    7. Sound of Metal
    8. His House
    9. Promising Young Woman
    10. Wolfwalkers

    Just missed….
    11. Invisible Man
    12. Soul
    13. The Wolf House

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Palm Springs also made it on my top movies list! Such an interesting and creative movie!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: