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Monday, December 21, 2020

10 Best Movies of 2020

2020 was obviously a weird year for movies. Thanks to the pandemic, movies theaters were shut down most of the year and a good chunk of releases major studios were planning on releasing throughout the year were pushed back to 2021 or beyond. However, what this year did was allow smaller movies and Netflix movies to shine. While we didn't have a Fast and Furious or a new Marvel movie or a James Bond flick to enjoy this year, we did have a lot of small and independent movies that were able to peak through the crowded field. The pandemic also highlighted the trend of top tier filmmakers using streaming services to get their films made. Netflix released new films from David Fincher, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin, and Ron Howard. Apple TV+ released a new film from Sophia Coppola, HBOMax released new films from Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy, and Hulu released a new Andy Samberg film. Even pre-pandemic, at-home movie watching was supplanting going to a movie theater, but the pandemic amplified the trajectory to the point where Warner Bros studios announced this year that all of their 2021 new releases will be released simultaneously on HBOMax and in theaters. But watching movies at-home and movies shown through streaming services is not inherently a bad thing as reflected by the quality of films I was able to select for my Top 10. I think this year's Oscar nominations will be just as strong as previous years and best of end-of-year lists will be just as good as previous years. The make-up of it all will just be different. So without further ado, here is my list of the 10 Best Movies of 2020.

10) Class Action Park
Written & Co-Directed By:
 Seth Porges
Co-Directed By: Chris Charles Scott III
Featuring: Chris Gethard, Alison Becker, & Gene Mulvihill

Why It's Great: Action Park was an amusement park/water park in north New Jersey run by an unscrupulous business man named Gene Mulvihill. It was in its heyday in the late 70's, early 80's and known for being the most dangerous amusement park in the country. The stories about the lawlessness and dangerousness of the park in this documentary is told through talking heads of many of the lifeguards and teenage supervisors that worked at the park as well as some of the park's patrons, mainly comedians Chris Gethard and Alison Becker. It's hard to believe rides this treacherous could have and did exist in an American amusement park, and fairly recently, and a lot of the joy of the film comes from the stories of explaining these rides and attractions - Gethard's talking heads in particular make this movie for me. Yet underneath the backdrop of "kids being kids" and "back in my day" is the story of American greed. Action Park creator and CEO Gene Mulvihill made his money off of selling penny stocks a la Jordan Belfort (as portrayed by Leo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street) and Mulvihill was just as ruthless and greedy as Belfort was portrayed. The lightness and nostalgia of looking back at what the park was for so many young kids is contrasted with the darkness that was Gene Mulvihill. Class Action Park is just like one of its attractions- it's a fun roller coaster ride, but it will leave you with a scar to remember. 

Class Action Park is available to stream on HBOMax

9) Another Round

Co-Written & Directed By: Thomas Vinterberg
Co-Written By: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Mads Mikkelson, Magnus Millang, & Thomas Bo Larsen

Why It's Great: Druk (literally translated to English means "binge drinking" but Another Round works so much better) is a Danish film about four friends and teachers who are having a midlife crisis, so they start day-drinking. The film stars all-time movie Bad Guy hall of famer Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale, Dr. Strange) who is allowed to play a normal human being. As such, it's one of Mikkelson's best performances. His character Martin begins the film as a sad sack. He's messing up teaching so badly that his students stage an intervention. His wife works nights and he barely sees her. He asks her if he's gotten "boring" and she's more than happy to assure him of what he already knows. So he and his friends start day-drinking as an "experiment" to see if their lives will improve. Another Round is a character driven vehicle to allow its 4 main protagonists, though mainly Martin, to explore the nature of how alcohol affects their lives and what they must do to be happier. The film is surprisingly propulsive and always keeps you entertained, even though you know when things start to go sideways, and has one of the most memorable endings to a film in 2020

Another Round is available to rent wherever you rent movies

8) The Invisible Man
Written & Directed By: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, & Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Why It's Great: I am not a big horror movie guy and I am not particularly fond of being scared when watching a film. It's not the type of anxiety I am generally looking for in a movie going experience. Yet, there's a certain genre of light jump scares mixed with an interesting drama movie that tickles my fancy. My favorite version of this are the first three Paranormal Activity films. You know the jump scare is coming, yet it still works anyways. My personal favorite is actually the third one where a camera is mounted on a fan which oscillates back and forth, making effective use of the empty space in the frame to make me shiver under my blanket. I saw The Invisible Man by myself in my living room at night with all of the lights turned off, and I got that same feeling as I did when I was watching a Paranormal Activity movie. Leigh Whannell's effective use of negative space combined with his stylish use of action which he showed off in his excellent sophomore effort Upgrade and Elizabeth Moss making the case to be one of the best actresses ever is a recipe for an excellent modern horror classic. 

As of the writing of this post, The Invisible Man is available to stream on HBOMax

7b) Soul
Written & Directed By: Kemp Powers & Pete Docter
Co-Written By: Mike Jones
Voices Of: Jamie Foxx & Tina Fey

Why It's Great: Pixar famously has a set of rules that all of its stories must follow, and for a children's film that explores the existential nature of the afterlife and what it means to be human, the rules and plot mechanics of storytelling were painfully obvious. I'm not one to guess to story beats, but I found myself doing it throughout my viewing of Soul. That being said, the deep themes the film explored and the immensely creative visuals more than made up for any of the obvious story mechanics. The added layer of knowing Soul was 45 year old Kemp Powers' first produced script made the story and Joe's (voiced by Foxx) journey and mid-life crisis that much more special.

7a) Onward
Co-Written & Directed By: Dan Scanlon
Co-Written By: Jason Headley & Keith Bunin
Voices Of: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, & Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Why It's Great: Being able to guess the obvious plot beats pushed Soul behind Onward for me, but don't get it twisted, both are excellent and both are Top 10 Pixar. The animation company has been spending its past few years churning out sequels to its beloved IP such as Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 to varying degrees of success. 2020 brought two original Pixar films into our lives, and it's not a coincidence that both films leaped to the top of the Pixar quality pile. Pixar is able to churn out heady, complex films like Soul, Wall-E, and Inside Out, but it's also able to tell children's stories that appeal to literally everyone of all ages and does so at the highest level. At it's core, Onward is a very traditional buddy cop esque animation film (most Pixar movies starting with Toy Story follow this trope) but the emotional connection the audience has with the two main characters as they journey to reconnect with their father left me devastated by film's end. 

Soul and Onward are available to stream on Disney+

6) The Hunt

Directed By: Craig Zobel
Written By: Damon Lindelof & Nick Cuse
Starring: Betty Gilpin, Ethan Suplee, & Hilary Swank

Why It's Great: If I saw any movies at the theaters in 2020, The Hunt would be the most fun I had in the theaters. The film is a satirical romp that centers around a group of elite liberals who kidnap a handful of rednecks, right wingers, and conspiracy theorists in order to hunt them down for sport. It's an insane premise that works because it skewers both political sides equally. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously which allows the viewer to enjoy the delightfully twisted violence that ensues. The notion that there was ever any controversary surrounding The Hunt because of its gun violence is absurd. The titular character in John Wick spends the franchise shooting dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the head, so I don't see how The Hunt is any different just because the "victims" happen to have political beliefs. Ultimately, the film takes the non-political approach as our main protagonist, Crystal (in a star making turn for Betty Gilpin) is the only apolitical character in the film and is ultimately the hero we root for. I apologize for ruining the set up of the film in advance (but also, see poster), but the eventual reveal that Gilpin's character is the protagonist is further proof of what a great script Lindeloff and Cuse, the duo behind Lost, wrote, and Crystal deserves to go down in movie history alongside Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and The Bride as an all-time bad-ass heroine. 

The Hunt is available to rent wherever you rent movies

5) I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Written & Directed By: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jesse Plemons & Jessie Buckley

Why It's Great: Adapted from the Iain Reed novel of the same name, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is probably going to be the most divisive movie on my list. With every list you make, there are always going to be recommendations that people do not care for, but with Charlie Kaufman's latest, people who do not like this movie absolutely loathe this movie. And I get it. It's a seemingly pretentious film about a young couple who drive to and from the young man's parents house and ends with an artistic dance number and an amateur production of Oklahoma in a high school gym. But when you take the time to look deeper into what Charlie Kaufman is trying to say, you're treated to his dark, bleak, and depressing thoughts about life, art, and masculinity. The film is about an old man filled with regret looking back on what might have been had he just had the courage to ask out a cute girl he saw at a trivia night once at a bar. I understand, in theory, the criticism that Charlie Kaufman The Writer needs the levity of a director like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, but I'm Thinking of Ending Things is Charlie Kaufman expressing his innermost insecurities. It's not meant to be light or jovial. It's a film about a man artistically barring his soul, and for that I appreciate it. Plus, if you want humor, what's funnier than this great Robert Zemeckis joke

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix

4) Sound of Metal
Co-Written & Directed By: Darius Marder
Co-Written By: Abraham Marder
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, & Paul Raci

Why It's Great: I first saw Riz Ahmed in 2014 as the nervous sidekick to Jake Gyllenhaal's scarily confident news chaser Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. That year, despite Jake Gyllenhaal easily giving the best performance of the year, he was snubbed of an Academy Award nomination. In 2020, Riz Ahmed easily gives the best performance of the year as the drummer of an experimental rock band and recovering drug addict who immediately goes deaf and struggles to handle the new situation he finds himself in. And just like his Nightcrawler co-star, I fear Ahmed will also best snubbed for a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. You never see Ahmed's Ruben take drugs or see him have that impassioned Oscar reel moment where he talks about his addiction or screams about his deafness to know exactly what this struggling addict is going through. The brilliance of Sound of Metal is its ability to avoid the melodramatic tropes you would expect from a film like this on paper. Like the performance of its lead actor, the greatness is in the subtlety. 

Sound of Metal is available to stream on Amazon Prime

3) Shithouse
Written & Directed By: Cooper Raiff
Starring: Cooper Raiff & Dylan Gelula

Why It's Great: The technical winner of 2020's SXSW movie festival was produced, written, directed by, and stars 23 year old Cooper Raiff who plays Alex, a freshman struggling to acclimate to college life without his Mom and sister. It's a coming-of-age story as Alex slowly comes out of his shell thanks to a memorable night hanging out with his R.A. Maggie (Gelula). It's a small story in the vein of Lost in Translation or Before Sunrise, but one that speaks volumes in the wake of the pandemic. Ultimately, the story is about finding connection in a lonely place - a story that many of us can relate to at this moment. But on a granular level, it's one of the most honest depictions of college life that I can recall viewing. The dorm rooms are small and cramped, the parties suck and yet are awesome, and the sex is very bad. 

Shithouse is available to rent wherever you rent movies

2) Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Written & Directed By: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, & Theodore Pellerin

Why It's Great: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a small Indie about a high school girl named Autumn (Flanigan) from a small Pennsylvania town who takes the bus to New York City with her cousin Skylar (Ryder) to get an abortion. It is not the most entertaining or thrilling Elevator Pitch, but the film is a masterclass in intimacy that will still leave you engrossed in the story. You care about what happens to these girls. Outside of the ultimate goal to get an abortion, Autumn and Skylar are on the receiving end of many microaggressions (plus a gut-wrenching sacrifice Skylar makes at the climax of the film), and because of the cinema verite and visceral style of Hittman's filmmaking, you feel these microaggressions like a knife piecing your heart. The film is certainly not a walk in the park or a day at the amusement park, but if movies are empathy machines like the late, great Roger Ebert used to say, then Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the perfect vehicle. 

As of the writing of this post, Never Rarely Something Always is available to stream on HBOMax

1) The Trial of the Chicago 7
Written & Directed By: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, & Mark Rylance

Why It's Great: Aaron Sorkin is 59 years old. He is a borderline Baby Boomer/Gen Xer, technically falling into the camp of the former. For as political as an artist as he is, he has a certain idealized, utopic viewpoint on the way politics should be run in America, as notably memorialized by President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, that feels outdated in 2020. When asked how he would script President Trump leaving office, Sorkin stated to Variety, "For the first time, his Republican enablers march up to the White House and say Donald it’s time to go. I would write the ending where everyone does the right thing." Now in Sorkin's defense, he did also state in that same breath that Trump in actuality would not concede and claim the election is rigged, will claim the Democrats cheated, and that Trump will not do the right thing (all of which is correct), but I think the larger point about Sorkin's idealist viewpoint of politics still stands.

This viewpoint is prevalent throughout The Trial of the Chicago 7. While Sorkin intentionally made a movie about a major 1960's protest movement through the lens of modern times (which became even more relevant in 2020 after the protests sprung up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd), it still has that "Dad Movie" sensibility to it. Maybe it's for that reason that Chicago 7 wasn't as widely beloved by everyone else as it clearly was by me. We don't often associate something that sort-of feels this, for lack of a better word and solely in terms of the filmmaking, safe, with auteurism, but in the classic Film Twitter sense of the word, it absolutely is. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is very much Aaron Sorkin's auteurist vision, and after seeing the film twice, I am absolutely enthralled, riveted, and entertained by it all. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix


The Old Guard: If you were missing superhero stories in your life in 2020, then The Old Guard is right up your alley. Badass Charlize Theron leads a group of immortals as they discover a new immortal amongst themselves while also fighting off a Pharma Bro trying to steal their "powers". A traditional comic book story is elevated by Greg Rucka's script which deepens these characters by showing the sacrifices they make for being immortal. 

Palm Springs: I thoroughly enjoyed this film's take on Groundhog's Day and would recommend it to everyone, but I just didn't love it as much as everyone else did and I would feel disingenuous putting it in my Top 10. 

The Assistant: The performances are excellent in this film about the day in the life of a young assistant working for a Harvey Weinstein-esque movie producer and the complicity of our actions in working for a monster, but it feels like it's in the same vein as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and I found NRSA to be the better and more effective film. 

Mank: It took me two viewings, but I eventually enjoyed watching David Fincher's ode to Old Hollywood. You can read my full review of the film here, but ultimately, it felt like Fincher directed this movie out of respect for his father (who wrote the script before he passed) versus actually having a passion for the subject matter, and that disconnect for Fincher left me with one as well. 

Blow The Man Down: It's a modern day neo-noir, mystery set in a small New England fishing town about two sisters covering up an accidental murder of a would-be attacker while also dealing with the death of their mother and the power vacuum her death causes. The story may sounds convoluted, but you're never confused and always engaged. A thrilling joyride from start to finish with some excellent performances. 

The King of Staten Island/Big Time Adolescence: It may seem like decades ago, but Pete Davidson starred in two movies in 2020 that were delightful and satisfying. The former was written by Davidson and directed by Judd Apatow, so the film is too long for its own good, but full of heart and easily worth your time. The latter is a generic high school coming-of-age story that's elevated by the charisma of Davidson and the film's lead Griffin Gluck.