Forgive me for going off-topic right away, but I feel like mentioning that I recently rewatched the 2006 movie Children of Men and that, were I making a best-of-the-21st-century list, it would certainly place in the top 10. It’s a post-apocalyptic yarn, set in a country where a virus eliminates the most vulnerable citizens at an alarming rate, xenophobic politicians incite violence against minorities and police abuse their power without consequence. Thankfully, nothing that happened in the year of our Lord 2020 even remotely resembles the events of that film, and thus, I don’t need to write a long-winded and somber introduction to my silly year-end list of movies I enjoyed this year. So anywho, here are my 10 favorite films of 2020. Hopefully they’ll bring you as much comfort as they did to me.
First, some honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Bad Education, The Nest, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Palm Springs, The Rental, Small Axe, Sound of Metal, Tenet, The Twentieth Century
10. The Invisible Man
After two derisible attempts by Universal to establish a “Dark Universe” with 2014’s immediately forgotten Dracula Untold and 2017’s disastrous Tom Cruise vehicle The Mummy, the studio wisely stopped trying to squeeze these decades-old monster icons into the mold of a mediocre action blockbuster and remembered that these stories could actually be, well … scary. The Invisible Man delivers more visceral thrills on a $7-million budget than The Mummy managed with $125 million.
That’s because writer-director Leigh Whannell uses stillness and negative space to mine as much suspense as possible from the threat of this literal invisible menace. Every space is filmed to suggest some imperceptible evil is lurking somewhere within the camera’s frame, and when it’s time to pay off that tension, Whannell doesn’t skimp on the reveal. None of this would be half as effective, however, if it wasn’t for Elisabeth Moss’s shell-shocked performance as a woman fleeing her monstrously abusive ex. It just happens that this ex is a mad scientist who may or may not have turned himself invisible. Yes, The Invisible Man gets a bit wonky and ludicrous in its final act; I mean, with a title like that, what would you expect? But it’s also packed with moments of genuine shock and terror, without ever losing focus of Moss’s character.
9. Another Round
With Another Round, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg takes a premise that resembles a Hangover-style romp from its description: Martin (played by the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen) and three of his fellow high-school teachers embark on a social experiment requiring each of them to maintain a blood alcohol level of .05 throughout the day. What ensues is neither a series of inoffensive adventures involving strippers and streaking nor a portentous lecture on the consequences of heavy drinking. Another Round succeeds because it ultimately isn’t about alcoholism at all; it’s about how easy it is for us to distract ourselves when we’re feeling dissatisfied with our current life circumstances instead of working to identify and eradicate the source of our unhappiness.
While Another Round may not offer any pat solutions to the rather terrifying existential question that drives its story, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s anything less than delightful. Mikkelsen is as charismatic here as he’s ever been, and for every moment of anguish his character brings upon himself, the movie offers a sequence of unbridled joy. And that’s before you get to the movie’s final few minutes — an intoxicating (no pun intended) celebration of life and the finest ending of 2020.
8. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Jim Cummings — the writer, director and star of The Wolf of Snow Hollow — specializes in playing disgruntled man-children caught in a downward spiral. His protagonists aren’t so much toxic as they are pathetic — people who respond to loss by crumbling into a ball of self-pity, prone to fits of ugly-crying and acts of self-sabotage. Police officer John Marshall, a single dad struggling to raise his daughter and care for his dad (Robert Forster, in a wonderful final performance), bears more than a passing resemblance to the character Cummings portrayed in his first feature, Thunder Road. This time, though, he’s also faced with stopping a werewolf that’s brutalizing the citizens of a small Utah town.
Think Fargo by way of Eastbound & Down, and you’re in the ballpark, yet Cummings’ voice is distinctly his own. That he manages to balance such a disparate range of tones — cringe humor, familial drama, gruesome police procedural, creature feature — and do each of them justice within an 83-minute package confirms the emergence of a remarkable filmmaking talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by his next feature, he’s gunning for the top spot on my year-end list.
The great Roger Ebert once called movies “empathy machines,” an art form that allows us to have a better understanding of people whose experiences differ from our own. Minari is a pitch-perfect example of cinema’s ability to transcend cultural barriers through storytelling. Set in the 1980s, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest film draws from his own upbringing as the son of Korean immigrants living on a farm in rural Arkansas. That personal touch lends an unmistakable authenticity to Minari, with Steven Yeun playing the hard-nosed patriarch whose determination to achieve the American dream for his family might earn him their resentment instead of their admiration. Every performer, from child actor Alan Kim to Youn Yuh-jung as the grandmother, takes full advantage of Chung’s layered screenplay. These are characters with rich and rounded inner lives, all while embodying a nuanced and heartbreaking representation of the immigrant experience.
It’s been five years since Pixar released their last masterpiece, 2015’s Inside Out, so luckily director Pete Docter decided to return in 2020 with Soul, one of the studio’s most ambitious, trippy and — frankly — existentially horrifying efforts to date. This is the story of a middle-school music teacher who’s literally faced with deciding whether or not his entire life has been a failure and is even worth continuing, which isn’t exactly the amusement park ride one would expect from the same studio that brought you The Good Dinosaur (remember that one?) only a few years ago. Soul may be a little messy compared to the breathless pacing of Docter’s previous Pixar flicks, but it’s just as beautiful as anything he’s made before, visually and thematically.
5. Promising Young Woman
You may recall when, several years ago, a 19-year-old Stanford student named Brock Turner was convicted on three counts of sexual assault after raping an unconscious female student outside a frat party. Many in the media labeled Turner as a “promising young man” whose future was now in jeopardy all over a measly little rape charge. What you might not recall, however, is the name of his victim, Chanel Miller, who was treated as an afterthought in the public eye. Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a scathing treatise on society’s eagerness to forgive male abusers and ignore their victims.
Heavy stuff, even if the messaging is essential. However, Fennell’s filmmaking debut is still a total hoot, largely due to Carey Mulligan’s lead turn as a woman on the warpath for revenge after a traumatic incident at her medical school ends in devastation for her and a slap on the wrist for a group of male students. Mulligan, so often cast as doe-eyed damsels, is straight-up vicious here — a woman whose righteous mission has nonetheless transformed her into a calculating sociopath. While Fennell’s script takes some huge risks in a final act that is sure to divide audiences, the rage permeating throughout Promising Young Woman is palpable. Movies this bold are rare, and regardless of whether the final product leaves you repulsed or enraptured, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it.
The word “extreme” comes to mind. Possessor is a nasty piece of cyberpunk exploitation that delivers meaty sci-fi world-building and deeply upsetting violence. Like those of his father David, the plots of director Brandon Cronenberg’s movies revolve around bizarre fields of pseudoscience, aloof bureaucrats, extreme acts of debauchery and unspeakable body horror. Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin who possesses other people’s bodies to take out high-ranking corporate figures, and Possessor follows one particular assignment that goes terribly, terribly wrong. If Christopher Nolan envisioned Inception as a low-budget splatter flick instead of a mega-budget spectacle, and then right before filming snorted a large amount of PCP, he still wouldn’t have been able to produce something as fucked up as Possessor. This is the type of movie for which the phrase “your mileage may vary” was invented. But for those willing to take the plunge, it’s the best kind of bad trip.
3. Da 5 Bloods
No one will ever accuse Spike Lee of being too subtle. Hell, that’s part of his charm. His tendency to break the fourth wall, have characters deliver fiery monologues and incorporate real-life footage of atrocities from American history are as prominent as ever in Da 5 Bloods. In fact, at two-and-a-half hours, one could claim this is among the most self-indulgent efforts from a director whose career has been characterized by his lack of restraint. And honestly? Thank goodness. This tale of four African-American war veterans returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade as well as some buried treasure is a fire-and-brimstone Spike Lee sermon for the ages. Watching Da 5 Bloods is like going to church: Lee can’t help but shout his messages about the horrific toll the Vietnam took on not only our country’s Black veterans but the collective psyches of both nations involved.
All the same, having your heart in the right place doesn’t always make for good entertainment, and thankfully, Da 5 Bloods is a reminder of why Lee ranks among America’s finest filmmakers. This is a damn suspenseful thriller, belonging in the same vein of nerve-racking “best laid plans” capers as A Simple Plan or No Country For Old Men, where our heroes are gradually undone by their own greed. Holding everything together is Delroy Lindo, giving the year’s best male performance as a MAGA-loving vet battling deep-seated guilt and PTSD. Like the war itself, Lindo’s character is caught in a cycle of violence begetting trauma begetting more violence.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
God bless him, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Anomalisa) just keeps making these surreal, sad movies about pathetic men and whenever a new one hits, it rarely gets the attention it deserves. Kaufman’s latest turn as a director begins as an adaptation of Iain Reid’s horror novel of the same name, and then turns into … something else. A nameless young woman (Jessie Buckley) considers ending a relationship with her new-ish boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), during a long, snowy drive to visit his parents. Early on, Kaufman gives several faint hints that the reality of this scenario is a tad skewed, yet very little will prepare you for when the movie’s second half swan dives into absolutely bonkers territory. What could have been a small-scale chiller about in-laws from hell is actually a metaphysical showdown between one person’s memories and mental illnesses. Or maybe not. Those willing to surrender their desire for conventional storytelling will find endless ways to interpret the truth behind the central couple’s unnerving road trip. And if assiduous analysis isn’t your version of fun, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is packed with enough startling imagery and slippery editing to warrant taking the journey.
1. First Cow
Director Kelly Reichardt is one of America’s unsung masters. Her movies are remarkably devoid of incident, and the conflicts in them often take a back seat to quiet character moments. The characters in this case are Cookie (John Magaro), King Lu (Orion Lee) and (of course) a cow. Fresh arrivals to Oregon during the 19th century, Cookie and Lu form a tenuous business relationship when they begin stealing the milk from a wealthy landowner’s cow to bake and sell “oily cakes” that quickly grow popular with the townsfolk. Yep, that’s about all that happens in First Cow, and thanks to Reichardt’s serene pacing and the quiet beauty of the cinematography and sound design, that’s all the story needs to become a powerful allegory for the ruthless nature of capitalism. First Cow is most reminiscent of the great short stories of Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov; almost nothing happens on a plot level and yet their themes are massive, ranging from colonialism to masculinity. Get on Reichardt’s wavelength, and not only will your patience be rewarded, your ideas on how stories can be told will change as well.