Well, 2020 fucking sucked, right? We all know the reasons why, and we don’t need to revisit them here.
It was an odd year for movies, with most major film releases of 2020 past February getting pushed to the infinite future. This was the year of the smaller, indie films getting the big releases and awards attention. And maybe that was the way 2020 always should have gone, after the absolute monster that was “Avengers: Endgame” last summer, peak Hollywood blockbuster event cinema. Maybe it was time for Hollywood to take a breath, and let films like “Nomadland” take center stage. James Bond can wait.
As always, this list is my personal Top 10. These are not the “Best Movies of 2020,” I’m not a film critic. I’m a film lover, which means my Top 10 is purely subjective. What movies moved me the most? Transported me? Distracted me? Enlightened or entertained me? That’s what my list is and has always been.
Knowing that this year brought many smaller movies, I’ve included descriptions of where/when and how you can see my favorite movies of 2020. I list movies streaming on certain sites as “currently” to indicate they may not be there after I publish this list, but it’s a start! I think it’s important, especially this year, to have access to these stories. With that in mind, may 2021 be better for everyone, and enjoy the list!
10. First Cow
I’ll be honest; going into this movie, I had low expectations. I only really knew it was about a cow and had been told that it was very slow. And it is! It’s a leisurely paced movie, but very purposefully so. Director Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Night Moves”) is in absolutely no rush to tell the story of a chef, a Chinese immigrant on the run, and a cow in early 19th century Oregon.
The first half hour builds slowly, revealing the grimy world that Cookie (John Magaro) inhabits. When Cookie agrees to help King-Lu (the phenomenal Orion Lee), the two men’s lives intersect with that of the titular cow, owned by the villainous Chief Factor (Toby Jones). From there the story of old-fashioned bakery and deep friendship quickly tumbles downhill towards a deeply moving climax.
What I loved most about the movie, aside from the beautiful relationship between the two men, is the intense commitment to the period setting. Reichardt and production designer Anthony Gasparro create such a rich, realistic world that looks as far away from the classic Western look. Everything and everyone is covered in dirt and mud, their hair matted and greasy, their boots weathered. When the few moments of beauty and joy shine through, the ugliness of the world only works towards the film’s advantage. I never expected a film about bakery and a cow would make my top 10, but “First Cow” is a moving indie about the strength and importance of friendship.
(First Cow is currently streaming on Showtime and available for Rent/Purchase)
9. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm / Nomadland
This may seem like a strange tie for my No. 9 spot, but both movies share a lot in common; it’s the approach to filmmaking and storytelling that is radically different. Chloe Zhao’s third feature “Nomadland,” based on the nonfiction book of the same name, tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman embarking on the nomad life of van living after the death of her husband. The story unfolds through a series of vignettes as we watch Fern surviving in her van and her interaction with various other nomads on the road, and how they shape her experience and views of the life. What makes the movie so wonderfully authentic, besides the masterful direction and unbelievable performance by McDormand, is the casting of real-life nomads to play the supporting characters Fern meets along the way. The nomads are playing fictionalized versions of themselves but are so genuine and authentic that the movie soars.
On the other end of the spectrum is the surprise sequel, “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm”. Taking the reins from Larry Charles, director Jason Woliner and star/writer Sacha Baron Cohen craft a timely and hilarious new film that could only exist in 2020. Borat makes his triumphant return to the states, this time on a quest to deliver his daughter Tutar (the fearless Maria Bakalova) as a gift to Vice President Mike Pence. The film, in contrast to its 2006 predecessor, uses Borat and Tutar’s interactions with the unknowing public to emphasize the inherent goodness that lies within even the most extreme humans. Borat and Tutar put their real-life co-stars through a whole host of absurd and disgusting pranks and circumstances, but where the first film showed how racist and angry Americans are, this film focuses on the moments where the prankees give back and show positivity and empathy.
It’s maybe the most surprising turn of any movie in 2020, and was a welcome watch just weeks before the election. The father-daughter story is funny and heartwarming, and the pranks are just as wild and outrageous, with Bakalova shouldering most of the weight of the pranks. Both “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” and “Nomadland” incorporate real-life people to tell and enhance their stories, and both show how powerful empathy can be.
(Nomadland will premiere on Hulu, in theaters, and IMAX on February 19th, 2021, and Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm is streaming now on Amazon Prime)
8. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee has been on a triumphant roll since 2015’s “Chi-Raq” and 2018’s Academy Award Winning “BlacKkKlansman. 2020’s “Da 5 Bloods” for Netflix is the cherry on top of this hot-streak. In every way, “Da 5 Bloods” blew me away, from it’s top-notch casting, cinematography, music, production design, action scenes, writing, and directing; it’s just a win. Spike takes us on a journey with 4 black veterans returning to Vietnam to pay tribute to their fallen squad leader Norman (the late Chadwick Boseman) and just maybe search for a long lost stash of buried treasure. The plot sounds a little far-fetched, but if there is one thing Spike knows how to do it’s blend the realistic with the mythic.
The four leads each bring their own flavor and unique characteristics to the story, but it’s Delroy Lindo who steals the show with a spectacular monologue delivered straight to the audience about his declining health and mental state due to his time in the war. It’s one of the most intense moments in any movie this year, and show’s how powerful Spike’s words can be when given to the right actor. Boseman’s role is small, appearing only in a few flashback scenes, but his tragic passing lends another layer of poignancy to his scenes, playing the idolized fallen leader of Da 5 Bloods. It’s a beautiful performance in a stirring movie about war, men, and the devastation of the past.
(Da 5 Bloods is streaming now on Netflix)
7. The Lodge
It wouldn’t be a list of mine if I didn’t include at least one demented, depressing horror film, and this year’s is “The Lodge.” From director pair Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (“Goodnight Mommy”), this movie freaked me the fuck out when I saw it at an early morning matinee before work last winter.
I crawled in my seat, watching some scenes through my fingers, in anticipation of whatever new twist was waiting around the corner for former cult member Grace (Riley Keough) as she is trapped in a small lodge with her boyfriend’s two children during a blizzard. The story is constantly evolving and twisting that I don’t want to reveal anything else about it as to preserve your first-time viewing experience, but just know it’s nothing like you expect. Keough’s performance is heartbreaking and vulnerable and the two child actors (Jaeden Martel and Lia McHugh) absolutely kill it.
I walked out of the theater feeling as if I had just watched Lars Von Trier’s “The Shining,” which is about as big a compliment as I can give to a horror movie. Woah.
(The Lodge is currently streaming on Hulu and is available to rent/buy)
6. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Watching writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s new courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” felt refreshing in its old-fashioned movie making sensibilities. It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve been completely engrossed by a pretty simple, yet dense adult drama, filled with great performances from a stacked cast, quick theatrical dialogue, and intense historical relevance.
Telling the true story of the seven anti-Vietnam protestors (and Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale) arrested and tried for their supposed organization of the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, the film tells the story of the trial through long courtroom scenes as well as flashbacks to various moments leading up to the riots. The movie features standout performances by John Carrol Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, and Frank Langella as cinema’s most frustrating Judge ever. Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Gordon Levitt give excellent straight-laced performances on either side of the bench, but it’s Sacha Baron Cohen who steals the show as Abbie Hoffman.
Even with his… questionable accent, Cohen shines as both the comedic force and the dramatic center, the philosopher clown. Sorkin’s strengths as a writer enhance his directorial talents. The discourse around this film has been surprisingly divisive, but I loved how urgent and relevant the themes this movie presents are to our current climate. Even if Sorkin takes some dramatic liberties with the historical accuracies of the real event, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a triumph.
(The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming now on Netflix)
5. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Writer, director, and star Jim Cummings creates a wonderfully weird mashup that Brian Tallerico described as “Fargo meets Silver Bullet”, which is a perfect description. The film, set in the snowy titular town, follows Cummings as Officer John Marshall, a small town cop dealing with the struggles of a community demanding safety and answers from a series of seeming werewolf attacks and murders, while succumbing to the crushing weight of his mental health and family life falling apart.
Watching Cummings slowly become unhinged is surprisingly hilarious and perfectly juxtapose the tense, violent murders happening throughout the town. Cummings is backed by a great ensemble of supporting character actors, including Riki Lindhome, Chloe East, and in his last role, the legendary Robert Forster as Sheriff Hadley, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a blast, and shows Cummings as a serious talent to be watched.
(The Wolf of Snow Hollow is available for rent/purchase on all streaming platforms)
4. Sound of Metal
The most moving dramatic experience of 2020 can be found on Amazon Prime, in director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal.” Telling the story of a heavy metal drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed in a career-best performance), going through the struggles of severe hearing loss. I’ve never experienced a film that so viscerally replicates a character’s unique experience quite like “Sound of Metal.” Using innovative sound design to put the hearing loss in your own ears, you relate to how jarring and unsettling the sudden loss and warping of everything you hear can be, and, in turn, understand and empathize with Ruben’s coping.
The movie’s use of sign language and deaf/hard of hearing characters is also unique and moving, only telling us what they’re signing when Ruben himself is comfortable enough to follow along. Riz Ahmed is unbelievably great as Ruben, a transformative performance that reminded me of how I felt watching Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull.” He inhabits everything you need to know about Ruben in his face and body; his sensitivity, his anger, his talent, his troubles, his denial, his horror, and eventually his understanding and acceptance. It’s a deeply moving performance that will stick with me and inspire me forever.
Olivia Cooke is great as Ruben’s partner Lou, and Ruben’s teacher Joe is played with sensitivity and understanding by the amazing Paul Raci. Joe sees a lot of himself in the former junkie Ruben, and Raci is so great at expressing everything with just his eyes. It’s a moving, hopeful performance and character that exemplifies everything that “Sound of Metal” does so beautifully. The very last scene is one of the most memorable of the year, and will guarantee you never forget the experience of “Sound of Metal.”
(Sound of Metal is streaming now on Amazon Prime)
3. Palm Springs
(I will be spoiling the basic premise of Palm Springs, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I recommend going in blind like I did, it’s a really fun rewarding experience! That said, here we go!)
“Suck my dick, Officer Bitch!”
This is my favorite romantic comedy of the past three years (hey “The Big Sick,” I see you!) and one of my most rewatched movies of the year. “Palm Springs,” starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, is a pure jolt of smiles, tears, and joy set in the titular sunny desert vacation destination. As I mentioned earlier, I went into this completely blind, having watched no trailers nor read any plot descriptions. The cast and the festival hype were enough to warrant an instant watch the day it premiered on Hulu.
I expected a fun, silly romantic comedy set during a wedding with some silly set-pieces and a cute love story. What I didn’t expect was Samberg’s character to get shot in the back with a crossbow 15 minutes into the movie, only to be sucked into a time vortex in a hidden desert cave, and for the movie to reveal itself as a high concept Groundhog’s Day style story. Milioti follows Samberg, who has seemingly been trapped in the time loop for an unknowable amount of time, and after getting over the initial shock and anger of it all, the two begin to fall in love. The movie has some of the most joyous moments of the year caught on film, especially the endless day montages with Milioti and Samberg killing themselves over and over again and falling for each other.
The movie is surprising, absolutely lovely, perfectly acted and crafted. It’s the year’s most unexpected, joyful romp and a movie I will watch for comfort for the rest of my life!
(Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu, they have also included a great on-screen commentary with Samberg, Milioti, writer Andy Siara, and director Max Barbakow that I recommend for anyone who’s seen the movie more than once!)
2. Possessor (Uncut)
What do you get when you cross David Cronenberg’s cult hit Videodrome with modern indie sci-fi aesthetics and French New Extremity levels of onscreen gore? You get the singular “Possessor (Uncut). From the mind of Brandon Cronenberg (son of David), “Possessor (Uncut)” is a brutal, mind-melting sci-fi horror film about the intersection of technology and identity.
Assassin Tasya (Mandy’s Andrea Riseborough) inhabits the body of her targets and executes assassinations staged to look like murder suicides. When she possesses the body of Colin (Christopher Abbott), his consciousness begins to fight back, and things get bloody. “Possessor (Uncut)” features the years most striking visuals with the kind of genre storytelling that makes me so deeply happy. It’s a brutal experience from start to finish, but one that I find rewarding. It’s a visually striking experience as well, cinematographer Karim Hussain crafts colorful, nearly psychedelic images that contrast starkly against the horrific acts of violence on screen.
Few movies have rocked me as hard as “Possessor (Uncut).” The movie comments on how violence and violent acts shape a person, and perhaps can ruin them. It’s a well-worn concept, but the visceral, personal nature of Tasya’s actions force you as the viewer to imagine how you would handle having to commit these acts. For this reason alone I list specifically the separately released Uncut version of the film, as the point of the film is made more effective by the extremity of the onscreen violence. It’s a dark road that Cronenberg takes us down, and one I haven’t been able to shake.
(Possessor (sadly not the uncut version) is streaming currently on Hulu. The Uncut edition is available for rent/purchase)
1. The Hunt
I know I’ve mentioned a few times in this list already how certain movies have surprised me, which is something I absolutely love as someone who watches as many movies as I do. No movie has surprised me like Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt.”
Infamous before it was even released thanks to Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s fundamental and ironic misunderstanding of the movie’s plot and themes, “The Hunt” was scheduled for release in September 2019, but was canceled and later opened in March of 2020. My second viewing of “The Hunt” was the last movie I saw in theaters before the COVID-19 shutdown (as a fun fact, one of the very few other people in the theater with me was actor Michael Shannon, so that’s cool) and a movie I’ve watched three times since then.
The secret to what makes “The Hunt” work so well lies in its secrets, so I won’t reveal too much. It’s essentially a politically relevant telling of “The Most Dangerous Game,” where liberal elites capture and hunt right-leaning “deplorables” in an elaborately designed fight to the death. If this sounds off-putting to you, it should, because nothing about “The Hunt” is what it seems.
The story starts as everything Fox News bitched about, but slowly morphs into a commentary about political ideology, fundamental misunderstandings, conspiracy culture, and the inherent hypocrisy on all sides of the political spectrum. At its center is an awe inspiring performance from Glow’s Betty Gilpin, a stacked supporting cast including Hillary Swank, Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, and Ethan Suplee, and a genius script from writer Nick Cuse and Lost creator Damon Lindelof.
The Hunt has proven to be divisive, but if you watch it all the way to the end and remove all preconceptions, I know you’ll be blown away by what it has to say.
(The Hunt is currently streaming on Cinemax and is available to rent/purchase)
Honorable Mentions: Bacurau, Soul, Kajillionaire, The High Note, The Invisible Man, VFW, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Devil All the Time, One Night in Miami, Minari, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Hamilton, Miss Americana, Dick Johnson is Dead, Tread, Color Out of Space, Boys State, His House, Host
Favorite Performances: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Maria Bakalova (Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm), Riley Keough (The Lodge) Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods)Bill Murray (On the Rocks), Julia Garner (The Assistant), Carrie Coon/Jude Law (The Nest), Cristin Milioti (Palm Springs), Betty Gilpin (The Hunt), Letitia Wright (Small Axe: Mangrove)