I’ve spent these last few weeks scrambling for all the new releases I could get my hands on. Some dropped on streaming while others were premium rentals, which meant I had to choose. I’m a film dork on a budget, man.
I briefly considered postponing this list since more movies will be available to stream through February. But let’s be real here, 2020 is done. 2021 is well underway, and some of us need to move on with our lives. This means I didn’t get to see Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, or my most anticipated movie, Minari. But this cutoff eases the burden on my bloodshot eyes because I gotta tell ya, I’m all tapped out. Might do some crazy shit and read a book after this idk.
Yes, 2020’s release slate got cut dramatically, but that hardly made it a scarce year for film. Believe it or not, this was yet another tough year-end list to crack. Every movie mentioned below was subject to move, and each of my top 6 made the number one spot for me at some point. (The nightmare this made of my notepad…) Really, I could go on, and this list could keep changing. So to preserve what’s left of my sanity, here they are, finally – my top ten favorite movies of 2020.
Honorable Mentions: Bad Boys for Life, Bill & Ted 3, Freaky, Possessor
BIRDS OF PREY
One of the many, many things I hated about the 2016 Suicide Squad was how Harley Quinn was relegated to a pom-pom cheerleader for Jared Leto’s overhyped Joker. Any comic book fan knows Harley deserves better, so the best thing Birds of Prey does right off the bat is break up Harley Quinn from the clown prince of crime. This vibrant candy-colored fantasy is less “superhero” and more Pulp Fiction, which suit Harley’s self-indulgences just fine. BoP features a Mary Elizabeth Winstead role I’ve been waiting for my whole life, makes a star out of Jurnee Smollet, while Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina are deliciously villainy. The stunts in this movie kick so much ass that the action junkie in me relapsed in the best way. If Avengers: Endgame’s girlpower moment felt cheap, then BoP earns its crowd-pleasing team-up. Warner Bros, give us a Black Canary and Huntress buddy movie STAT.
His House is scary before we even get to the house. Bol and Rial flee the clutches of Sudan’s civil war, losing a child in the process, and are tasked with the harrowing ordeal of assimilating into a new country. As refugees seeking asylum, there’s a hostility they’ll never be able to escape: cops already brandishing their sidearm, locals who don’t want them there, case workers whose job it is to care but can’t be bothered to do a wellness check. AND THEN things go bump in the night, conducted with fiendish precision by debut director Remi Weekes. The scares don’t happen unless Weekes has something bold and true to say about the refugee experience. It’s not just their own demons they have to live with, but the ghosts of those who will never make it out of Sudan. Regarding the subversive and socially conscious brand of horror that Jordan Peele made a trademark with Get Out, there’s a new player in the game.
I don’t know what it is about these Groundhog Day remixes that come out every few years, but it works like a damn charm: Source Code, Happy Death Day, Russian Doll. You can add Palm Springs to the time loop marathon. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (the mother in How I Met Your Mother) are two souls caught in a paradox of reliving the same dreadful day over and over again. This premise takes on a new life courtesy of *gestures to all of 2020*. Samberg and Milioti’s comedic pairing, fortunately, provides a balm to those stay-at-home blues as they ponder the meaning of life while wasting time in glorious fashion. The setup may be a gimmick, but boy does Palm Springs mine a shitload of storytelling throughout its crisp runtime. Samberg is as fucked up as I’ve ever seen him play a character, and Milioti is madly complicated in ways that add depth to her character, not quirks that make her “the perfect catch.” If you’re in need of some catharsis to our current state by way of a hilariously good time, I cannot recommend Palm Springs enough.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Throughout the trial of Stanford rapist Brock Turner, he was often regarded as a “promising young man” in repeated assertion of his collegiate prospects. Never mind the woman he preyed upon, took advantage of, and humiliated. Promising Young Woman, then, pulls absolutely zero punches in its rape-revenge odyssey. Carey Mulligan (damn perfect casting) is the blunt instrument used to expose the brutal double standard. But if the scenes where Cassie humiliates the creeps who prey on her feel like the stuff of fantasy, that’s because it is. Promising Young Woman proceeds to get as real as some may not want it to be. (Admittedly, I wished Cassie was given a Hattori Hanzo sword.) The film’s bluntness is the sore point for some, in which director Emerald Fennell swings us back to the tragic reality of stories like Nina who are doomed to be forgotten in the shadow of a man’s accolades. Counterpoint: take this scene with the fictional Dean Walker and put it side by side with the real-life Judge Persky’s statement and ensuing praise of Brock Turner. Yeah, subtlety has had its day.
DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee completes his one-two fuck you double feature to the Trump era – first with BlackKklansman, now with Da 5 Bloods. (Though I wouldn’t say no to a trilogy 👀) This is as incendiary and unflinching as Lee’s ever been, laying out the inherent racism of the war draft that sent Black lives to die in Vietnam. If MLK’s assassination traumatized an entire generation, then it’s no wonder the “Bloods” themselves are still trapped in the conflict decades later. They return to hallowed sacred ground to recover buried gold, but they’re also there to reclaim the remains of fabled troop leader Stormin’ Norman. It then becomes a question of what to do with said gold: finally get theirs, or give back and soldier on with a war they’ve been fighting their entire lives. Chadwick Boseman’s ghost looms large over the Bloods and the movie itself, adding another layer of sadness to long-awaited victories that will never be experienced by those who died fighting. But as Lee illustrates in his rousing war epic and fist-pumping tribute to Black Lives Matter, there is valor in sacrifice, in brotherhood, in solidarity.
SOUND OF METAL
Sound of Metal posed an existential question that I wasn’t ready for: what if you could no longer do the thing you love doing? Ruben is a heavy metal drummer doomed to lose his hearing, which to him is like losing a heartbeat. Ask any musician, hearing IS living. Sound colors the world in ways we’re not aware of until we lose it. Ruben doesn’t see a point in living any other way and he’ll risk it all trying to get back what’s lost. I know in my heart I’d do exactly what Ruben does in the movie, because his impulse to create is inseparable from his whole mode of existence. It’s something I’ve been wondering every day since the pandemic halted my career. Am I inspired to keep going, or am I self-destructing? I wasn’t ready to reckon with myself no more than I was ready to be immersed in the distorted loneliness of Ruben’s journey. Sound of Metal is one of the most heartbreaking portraits I’ve seen about the creative struggle, and I don’t think I have it in me to see this movie twice.
Tenet was the only movie I saw in theaters last year and I basically had the same complaints as everybody: couldn’t hear the dialogue, couldn’t discern the plot or a linear timeline, etc. It wasn’t until I picked it up on 4K that I began to understand – no, feel – the awesome might of Tenet’s ambition. I gave up trying to piece this thing together (or comprehend the dialogue, because it’s pompous rubbish anyhow) and embraced the sensory overload of Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning visuals and Ludwig Goransson’s pulverizing score. Logic-wise, Tenet will scramble your brain. But as an immersive audio-visual experience, Tenet is unmatched. The only thing I can compare this to is The Matrix, a similar fusion of mesmerizing stunts and mind-bending visual effects that demands the biggest screen and the best sound system possible to properly relay the spectacle. Tenet has since become my most watched 4K in my collection. I don’t know that a home viewing “solves” the movie so much as multiple viewings has made Tenet a more pleasurable experience each time. My advice: just let go.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
The restraint, the subtlety, and precision of this reimagined horror icon is so sublimely orchestrated that it catapults director Leigh Whannell into auteur status. This is a monster movie first and foremost. It’s the invisible man we’re talking; Adrian (😬) is hiding in plain sight. But his control over Cecilia looms larger. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, how the empty spaces surrounding a character could feel so threatening in each frame, and all the more confining. The Invisible Man is a harrowing parable on abuse that frankly should come with a trigger warning. How the movie upends the very concept of safe spaces is its most devilish trick of all, and comes loaded with the terrifying knowledge (and eventual saving grace) that Cecilia cannot escape the torment without first overcoming her captor. Elizabeth Moss delivers a flat-out fucking powerhouse of a performance as she prevails over the greatest evil of the human condition: the emotionally available man. That should’ve been the title.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Every year there’s one movie that wrecks me. 2018, it was Roma. 2019 was Marriage Story. 2020, it’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. We follow Autumn and her cousin Skylar as they venture to New York to terminate a pregnancy. This alone has led to the mischaracterization of the film as an “abortion drama.” Forget politics; Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about what it means to grow up as a woman.
Both Autumn and Skylar’s age makes them a fetish AND target for leering men. These perceptions aren’t up to them. They’re forced to deal with things (things us boys will never endure) for no reason other than the fact that they’re young girls in a world that robs them of any meaningful say in their lives. There’s a deeper sadness to Autumn and Skylar’s unspoken bond—that privacy in this cruel and invasive existence is all they have. Without a community or support structure, they find comfort where they can. In the reassuring words of a counselor, in the fleeting wonder of being in New York for the wrong reasons, or in each other.
You don’t have to agree with what Autumn does to understand that this may be the only thing that gives her agency in a life predetermined to break her a thousand times. She’s still in high school, after all. And though the movie never names who the father is, there are devastating implications as to who it might be. Never Rarely Sometimes Always was the hardest I’ve cried all year. Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are the best performers in what is – as far as this writer of this little blog deems – the best picture of 2020.
Soul was the one movie in 2020 that my, uh, soul… needed. It was reassurance, a reminder that I’m here on this Earth no matter how many times this year knocked me down. Despite everything, I lived. Selfishly, foolishly, I LIVED.
We are all Joe Gardner, pigeonholing life down to one shot at happiness, fame, or recognition. Only then will our true lives begin. But one moment cannot encompass a life worth living. When Joe secures the career gig he’s been chasing all this time, it lands with a thud. Would he feel differently if he wasn’t on the verge of death?
My life post-college has been all about the pursuit, so the stillness brought on by the pandemic has felt like freefall. It would be so easy (and preferable) to write off 2020. Thing is, I had a year regardless of the pandemic halting everything I knew how to do. Life by and large kept moving, however slowly and painfully. And I kept on trying—I keep on trying every single day. What’s the point of living if you don’t?
Soul gave voice to something I couldn’t quite articulate these last few months as I’ve been getting back on my feet. When 22 (in Joe’s body) savors each bite of pizza, soaks up every mundane interaction, or is visibly overjoyed by the mere act of walking; Joe (in a cat) looks on in wonder like an out of body experience for him to appreciate the moments we miss in-between, the thing he calls “regular old living.” The truth is that Joe’s BEEN living. He just needed to see that outside of the lens of himself. Soul was that out of body experience for me.
Is Pixar beckoning us to “live every day like it’s your last”? That mantra may make for a good caption, but it comes loaded with the fear of death at every turn. Soul, in a simpler and wholly magical way, reminds us that we’re alive on this tiny blue planet hovering in space. Stubbornly, inexplicably alive.
Yeah, I needed that.