|Safe to say that we'll always remember the year 2020 ... no matter what age or how we were affected, EVERYONE was in some way impacted by the pandemic of COVID-19, whether it was in lives lost, the businesses shuttered, or the lifestyle changes that were truly profound. And certainly, the movies were changed in ways that we're still reckoning with and will be for some time. I've always believed that year end film lists are as much a reflection of the critical quality of what made a great movie great, but also of the time they are selected. I've definitely had reconsiderations years later when I learned to appreciate a film in a different way, but I always like to reflect on what I selected and responded to in the moments I experienced them. Undoubtedly, a lot of my choices for the best movies of 2020 will be colored by how movies have changed as a result of the pandemic, and how this past year changed things for me and my outlook on the world. It's not just that we watched movies, for the most part, on a small screen at home. We also watched them with anxiety around most of us, and sometimes with tragedy unfolding just outside our doors. We watched them as a way to unwind after a long day of re-creating our work routines at home, perhaps with the additional stress of caring for (and teaching) kids unable to go to school. Some of us watched them after long days or nights spent outside the home, as necessary workers-in that context, a bright spot of entertainment means even more than it would in a normal year. In all ways, this year was unlike any other. But the one thing I can say is that the movies didn't let us down. And in a lot of ways, the more level playing field allowed movies of all types and qualities to be presented to us, not just the ones big enough to make it to the multiplex. I absolutely miss movie theaters with all my heart, yet there was a strange grace in our de-blockbusterized film culture. Films of real substance were able to be noticed without the noise of the usual blockbusters (and this in my opinion, is for the absolute good). And perhaps 2020 only moved us much more quickly through the changes that were already underway in how movies get distributed and seen, and it will likely be quite a while still before we truly realize how 2020 really changed the movies. But in the end, it all comes down to the movies themselves, and even though how I experienced most of these movies was far different than the usually had been, these are still the ones that most moved me, most excited me, and helped me get away from it all in a year that needed that escape more than others.|
Ultimately, for me, the greatest film of the year was one of the most quiet and simple films that I experienced in this watershed year, a film that paralleled what I think was probably one of the most universal experiences among all of us ... the unexpected reset of so many plans, dreams, and perhaps new directions in our lives. It also represented a truly remarkable masterpiece of a performance by one of our greatest living actresses who had delivered so many of those already ... in a performance that hits closer to home for Frances McDormand than any of her performances ever have. As the Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wrote in his review of the film, "McDormand doesn't disappear into Fern; she's revealed by Fern, and Fern is revealed by her."
Like so many of us starting 2020, Fern called Empire, Nevada, her home. She and her husband, Bo, lived there for decades, working at the local gypsum plant and making a life together. But then Fern's husband died and the plant closed down. The town's entire zip code was discontinued. Home, for Fern, wasn't the same any more. It was barely there at all. So Fern sells her house to buy a van, sells or stores most of her belongings and hits the road, searching for something she doesn't yet know how to recognize. Peace, maybe. Contentment. Freedom. Something different than what she's known for so long. This kind of journey resonated for me in ways that those closest to me will recognize, and I was moved in profound ways unlike any other movie accomplished this year.
Chloe Zhao, 38, a Beijing-born, London-educated filmmaker, had been itching to make a road movie set in the American West, but says, "I wasn't familiar with what the road meant to people of Fern's generation, and that took on a whole different meaning. A whole way of life was disappearing for that generation, and that intrigued me." Zhao's accomplishment in directing with this film cannot be overstated, it's a masterclass. She's able to capture humanity without it ever feeling cheap, sentimental, or maudlin. Zhao does this not through romanticizing poverty or glossing over the death of the American Dream, but by showing that our common humanity is not dictated by the fortunes of our economy, but by the resilience and bravery of our character. It's not about being happy by how much you have, but by the person you are. It's a remarkable message for these troubled times.
Fern and her fellow nomads (and in another brilliant choice, several of the people in the film are actual nomads) have consciously chosen to reject a system that leaves them behind, refusing to play by the rules of a rigged game. That doesn't mean that their lives are easy; a flat tire can be catastrophic and it's not like it's fun to put on a paper hat and work at a restaurant for minimum wage, not to mention the risks of life without health care. But the freedom these people possess is actually alluring. The beautiful score and gorgeous cinematography lure us into the grandeur of the open road, not as an escapist fantasy, but to see the richness of this way of life from the perspective of the characters who are living it. Zhao allows us to see the joy and awe these people witness without rendering them as saints or icons. It is truly a deeply empathetic look at people who have chosen to find a new life away from what society dictates. From a year of such deep division, this film's message of the true bonds of our humanity gives one hope. This is a film that works on you on ways that you can't really explain, but I think it mostly works because it seems to understand loss - material, emotional, and spiritual loss - in a way that few movies do. That may not sound like comfort viewing in these times of heartbreak and uncertainty, but this isn't a despairing film. It suggests that the road less traveled can yield joy as well as sorrow, and that it can fulfill a person's need for both solitude and community. We don't know what lies ahead for Fern by movie's end, but we do know that her journey isn't over. Just like ourselves after 2020 ... we may not know what lies ahead, but we sure know our journey isn't over.
2) ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
These are the facts we know. On the night of February 25, 1964, 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) celebrated a win with three friends: Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL legend Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). All four were at a crossroads at that time, and we know events that happened afterward, but we'll never really know what the full night was really like or what they talked about. But if it was anything like the discussions that populate this vibrant and incredibly thoughtful film by first time director Regina King, it made for one very meaningful and impactful night for everyone involved.
Clay, in addition to becoming the all-time greatest boxer, was preparing to renounce his slave name and announce his conversion to Islam. Cooke was a money-making pop sensation with a suppressed ambition to use his artistry for activism. Jim Brown was increasingly uncomfortable with the position of Black athletes in American culture ("We're all just gladiators, Cass, with our ruler sitting up there in the box"); and Malcolm X, under constant FBI surveillance, was already anticipating his own assassination. Within a year, both he and Cooke would be dead.
Nobody knows what those four public figures discussed in the privacy of that hotel room that night, but this film probably makes an accurate assumption as it captures each man so wonderfully and in four remarkable performances. The dialogue - sometimes brotherly, sometimes barbed, often both - will ring true to anyone who's ever sat up late trying to put the world right. And the topics of conversation - courage, compromise and the social responsibilities of success - remain relevant to the ongoing struggle for what Malcolm X called simply "human rights". Yet another 2020 film that reflected so much of what 2020's struggles were.
In one incredibly memorable scene, after reprimanding Cooke for not writing more political songs, Malcolm X plays Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind": "This is a white boy ... from Minnesota who has nothing to gain from writing a song that speaks more to the struggles of our people, more to the movement, than anything that you have ever penned in your life. Now, I know I'm not the shrewd businessperson you are, my brother, but since you say being vocally in the struggle is bad for business, why has this song gone higher on the pop charts than anything you've got out?" To watch their interplay is to see the very nature of being Black being played out in ways we haven't really seen portrayed before, and by the film's end, when Cooke sings one of the most powerful songs ever written, it's a staggering moment for sure.
Regina King's accomplished direction allows the actors the space to do their best work, even within the confined proportions of a hotel room. It's remarkable the energy this film has even though it's essentially a talking stage play between four actors. It feels like watching history in the making, as both a fresh insight into the interior lives of historical figures and a snapshot of a future filmmaking great just getting started.
One film can't tell all the stories and "One Night In Miami" doesn't try. While historical drama typically deals in epic swathes of time, the focus on a single evening illustrates an equally profound truth: working for change in the world means accepting the likelihood that you won't live to see better days, but still believing that - as Sam Cooke so beautifully sang - a change is gonna come. Oh yes it will.
In David Fincher's delightful ode to the golden age of Hollywood, the main character, Herman Mankiewicz, says "You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one." And as "Mank" only deals with one small portion of the life of the screenwriter's journey in writing the screenplay for one of the greatest movies ever made, "Citizen Kane", it certainly gives us an impression of the man if not delving deeper to truly know him. And I think that speaks to the success of the film, a movie filmed in gorgeous black and white that captures old Hollywood not just in its glamour, but in its ugliness and politics as well. It's true that this movie may only appeal to movie fanatics, but what the hell ... in a year of so much difficulty, especially for the movies, it was a joyous romp through another time in filmmaking crafted expertly by Fincher and his team.
Inspired by Pauline Kael's spicy (and since widely discredited) New Yorker tome "Raising Kane," which argued Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for the "Citizen Kane" script, not Orson Welles, the film is as much about Hollywood's immersion in politics as it is about a writer struggling to finish what would become known as his masterpiece. The story unfolds non-linearly: In 1940, as a bed-ridden Mank settles in to write the script from a rented ranch house, and in flashbacks to various points in his earlier career working within the Hollywood studio system. (In a nice writerly touch, screenplay slug lines like "Ext. Paramount Studios - Day - 1930 (Flashback)," mark time jumps, and we even get brief flashes of the long forgotten cue dots, which would denote upcoming reel changes for the projectionists. It's also gorgeously rendered in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and colorist Eric Weidt while deploying visual techniques (such as deep focus) most heavily associated with "Kane". From a standpoint of craft, it's an impeccable piece of work, which is no surprise coming from a director like Fincher.
Much of the plot concerns bigwigs Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg's open support for the incumbent California governor Frank Merriam's re-election campaign against journalist Upton Sinclair, alongside media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Hearst, of course, is considered the thinly veiled inspiration for the power-hungry Charles Foster Kane, and Mank's attendance at Hearst's lavish dinner party salons, and their eventual falling out, serve as the creative spark he needs to write.
As Mank, Gary Oldman is a crochety but witty alcoholic, who is generally respected but labeled by many to be difficult; the real-life Mankiewicz was notoriously disdainful toward the art of moviemaking, in part because he believed its inherently collaborative nature diluted the input of everyone involved. Oldman's best scenes are with Amanda Seyfried as the actress Marion Davies - Seyfried is outstanding here, infusing Hearst's longtime mistress with pluck and self-awareness that allows her to carry on thoughtful conversations with Mank, the only person who seems to take her seriously. Their scenes are truly beautiful together.
The screenplay is one of the best of the year, with so wonderful lines of dialogue ... one of my favorites was Oldman's Mank talking to Thalberg about his political influence. "You have everything it takes right here. Meaning you can make the world swear King Kong is ten stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40. Yet you can't convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You're barely trying." I could list so many other great lines.
As the film goes on, we start to see how everything in it feeds into "Citizen Kane" - not just Mankiewicz's access to Hearst and Marion, but the politics of the Hollywood image factory, the theme of idealism vs. power, and Mank's own alcoholic cynicism, which culminates in a dinner party in which he drunkenly self-destructs while tossing off what is, in essence, the pitch for "Citizen Kane." Mank has hollowed himself out, yet in a weird way he has to reach the point where he has nothing to lose in order to write a script that's bold enough to undercut the fantasy machinery of Hollywood ... which was precisely he ended up doing.
4) MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM
In a year devastated by a global pandemic, every death felt a little heavier. One of the ones that felt the heaviest was Chadwick Boseman. It's still so shocking to believe he's gone. And his death ended up lending his final performance in this wonderful film an even more somber resonance, particularly in one of the most moving sequences of the year Levee, the younger, restless trumpeter who is tired of playing those same old "jug band" songs and yearns to make "real music" with his own band someday. This is Boseman's final onscreen role following his shocking death earlier this year, and it is impossible to watch him revel in such a layered and exciting performance and not be struck by a profound sense of sadness over what more he could have done. when his character recounts the tragedies in his past.
George C. Wolfe's dynamic film adaptation of August Wilson's award-winning 1982 play is a fictional account of a day in the life of the early 20th century blues singer Ma Rainey, who was known for her bawdy lyricism and bold personality, but it is SO much more than just a film about what unfolds that day in recording a lgendary song. The film is a fascinating reclamation of black music and culture as told through an array of distinct characters, crackling dialogue, and sharp filmmaking.
As Ma, Viola Davis is more than up to the task of portraying this tempestuous, flamboyant figure; the actress inhabits the singer's body fully, carrying the weight of a hard life lived in her proud gait, the creases of her makeup-smeared face and the weariness in her eyes. She's facing pressure from her white manager and white recording studio owner to sign the contracts that will ultimately give them control over her music, and by stalling, she makes it as difficult as possible for them to get it. From her car-crash late arrival to her dogged insistence that the band just keep playing the intro till Sylvester gets it right (and gets paid for his efforts), everything is designed to ensure that she is in charge. It's a battle Rainey has been fighting her whole life, and Davis brilliantly portrays both the vulnerable position and indomitable spirit of this sturdy figure, with fiery eyes shining through the dark shadows and battered rouge of her makeup, proudly standing her ground. Her gruff demeanor is a defense mechanism, a way of resisting the forces of capitalism. She stands in defiance of white supremacy even as she knows she can only delay its effects on her life and career, not eradicate its inevitability.
Meanwhile, her band is mostly confined to a rehearsal room in this stuffy recording studio as they await her entrance, and they banter, wax philosophical, and butt heads over everything from how to play a song to how to deal with white people. Their conversations are such a delight, peppered with the rich flavor of period-specific Black American dialect and punctuated with the natural high, low, and everything-in-between notes of the actors' considered interpretations. One of those band members is Boseman's Levee, the younger, restless trumpeter who is tired of playing those same old "jug band" songs and yearns to make "real music" with his own band someday. It is impossible to watch him revel in such a layered and exciting performance and not be struck by a profound sense of sadness over what more he could have done.
Even though most of the film takes place in a single building, the smallness of the rehearsal room and the tight close-ups within it evoke the necessary intimacy and dramatic force. And small visual details, such as shots displaying the intricate mechanics of sound recording, are effective in communicating the menacing nature of this seemingly neutral product, this machine that will "trap" Ma's voice for mass consumption with little profit to be seen from it for Ma herself.
The history of white exploitation of Black culture is by now well-documented, and Wilson's play is part of a canon of art and criticism that has laid these sins bare. In bringing Wilson's voice to a wider audience, Wolfe and his team have created an indelible composition and striking performances, which are owned by their Black creators and can't be taken away.
5) THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
As I've mentioned before in this list, it was amazing to see just how many of 2020's movies, planned long before this tumultuous year, ended up providing parallels and commentaries on our times in some truly profound ways. And one in particular that spoke to the unrest and protest movements that 2020 brought and reminded us of a previous time where protest was so needed was Aaron Sorkin's incredibly entertaining courtroom drama that told the story of the 1968 protesters outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention who were charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot, and the resulting farce of a trial. They had gathered to voice their opposition to Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic favorite and an apologist for the Vietnam War. The attorney general at the time, Ramsay Clark, had ruled that the Chicago police had initiated the violence that day. His successor, John Mitchell, seemed to determined to prove otherwise.
Sorkin put together an impeccable cast, ultimately creating the rare drama about the 1960s that's powerful and authentic and moving enough to feel as if it were taking place today. Sorkin doesn't just re-stage the infamous trial, but goes outside the trial, cuts back to the demonstrations, and leads us into the combustible clash of personalities that was going on behind the scenes - the way, for instance, that the Yippie ringleader Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), with his constant grin and showbiz-ready revolution-for-the-hell-of-it bravura, and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), the buttoned-down, furrowed-brow cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), neither like nor trust one another, in part because they have a deep rift: Do you work to change the system from within, or jolt the system with shock therapy? I love that the film takes on this theme as it becomes a far deeper examination of the nature of protest and change, and their debates are the real soul of the movie.
As a docudrama, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is layered and enthralling, and it adds up to something that could scarcely be more relevant: a salute to what political freedom in America really means, and a vision of how the forces who line up to squash it tend to be scoundrels who try to look like patriots. Sound kind of familiar, doesn't it? Sorkin has structured the film ingeniously, so that it's never about just one thing. It's about the theatrical insanity of the war in the courtroom, about how the government would stop at nothing (including flagrant attempts at jury tampering), and about the politics, at once planned and spontaneous, of how the Chicago protests unfolded. It's about Abbie doing stand-up riffs to college audiences, about the sneaky prevalence of FBI undercover agents, about how William Kunstler, played with masterful dour puckishness by Mark Rylance, combines the mind of a litigator with the heart of a grizzled rabbi, and about how Abbie and Tom circle each other with resentment, until they're forced to confront each other in a great scene that seems to sketch in the next half century of American politics.
The trial, as Sorkin presents it, is really about the soul of America - the ability to protest, to question the most fundamental actions of the government. The overlap between the 1968 Chicago protests and the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in 2020 is all too obvious. Yet the true parallel, I think, is that "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is really about what it looks like when a society starts to treat people speaking freely as if they were doing something dangerous. The movie reminds you, quite stirringly, that the Chicago 7 weren't attacking America. They were upholding it.
6) SOUND OF METAL
It's been said before that casting is about 90% of the success of your movie. And there was no better example of that in 2020 than Riz Ahmed's astonishing performance in one of the most moving and surprising films of the year.
Early on in "Sound of Metal", Ahmed's character, Ruben, a small-time punk metal drummer, discovers he's losing his hearing. It comes on suddenly - the sound drops out from his surroundings, and voices become muffled. Ruben reaches for his ears, his eyes dart around, and we see abject terror on his face. And just like that, we are completely locked into this man's gathering existential panic. Ahmed makes the moment, and the next moment, and the moment after that, about more than just hearing loss. The brilliance of his performance and first time feature director Darius Marder is that what might have been a typical kind of over sensationalized handicapped movie becomes something SO much stronger.
His bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), convinces him to visit a rural community for deaf people struggling with addictions - he's a recovering heroin user, and although he's been clean for four years, it's clear that his current situation could prompt a relapse. Ruben is reluctant to stay in this place at first, but then Lou forces his hand and leaves him there, in the hands of Joe (Paul Raci), a kind but strict recovering alcoholic who runs the community, and who lost his own hearing in a bomb explosion in Vietnam decades ago.
Writer-director Darius Marder's achievement lies in his ability to build drama, tension, and emotion through the changing visual and sonic textures of the film, for which the director and his sound designer Nicolas Becker have built a rich, complex soundtrack that dips in and out of the world of the hearing and what Ruben is experiencing. It helps us to truly experience Ruben's life in ways that only cinema can do. This film's universe feels lived-in and authentic; most of the excellent supporting cast are deaf themselves.
7) DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee continues to remain one of our most important and accomplished film directors, and his latest effort stood tall with some of the best in his canon. "Da 5 Bloods" takes the filmmaker's familiar obsessions to an extreme, douses them in wartime grief and bloody jungle showdowns, all without one bit of compromise. The core plot of the film, an unapologetic riff on "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" by way of "Apocalypse Now", finds four elderly vets venturing back to Vietnam to locate both the remains of their superior officer (Chadwick Boseman in a fiery extended cameo) and buried treasure that has remained hidden since the war, is merely a structure for what Lee truly accomplishes with this film.
The core of this two and a half hour epic is the conversations between its four leads (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) as they discuss the glorification of the Vietnam war through a white heroic lens and the irony of these soldiers being viewed with suspicion by the generations left behind after the war even as they themselves came home to little in the way of social progress. How they find out about MLK's murder is a grim highlight. That Delroy Lindo's character is a confessed Donald Trump voter, complete with a "Make America great" hat, is treated not with scorn or mockery but with disgruntled sympathy. "Da 5 Bloods" is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative for the soldiers who, despite making up 11% of the population, comprised 1/3 of the soldiers. Beyond its broader contextual place in the cinematic (and political) canon, it's also a terrific heist drama, as Lee continues to demonstrate his gifts as a storyteller. The core plot reaches a natural conclusion at the halfway point, meaning that the last half of the film can go in any number of directions.
In one of the very best choices, Lee chose not to have younger actors portray the older men when the film reflects back on their time in Vietnam, but instead shows us how memory often works ... where we age but we reflect back on people who we knew who are no longer living and remember them since they never got old, but we reflect on our memories with the added age of our lives since then, and it's a remarkable choice for this film. These flashbacks are not "memories" with the benefit of retrospect or distance, but living history, inseparable from the Bloods' present-day selves.
While all of the performances are absolutely stellar, it's Delroy Lindo in one of his greatest performances ever who truly leaves a haunting impression. What a face. What anger. He has always been a remarkable actor, but this film gives him more room. It offers moments in which, going increasingly mad, he addresses the camera straight on, in pursuit of something that from the way it's filmed feels like us. Just look at the vocabulary of his anger: the slyness, the wryness, the perma-resistance to our pity that winds up inciting exactly that. It's a career-high in a career full of them.
This was yet another example of when Pixar comes up with an original idea for a film, they very rarely ever miss. And I am continually in awe of how they take ordinary elements of our world, whether they be our toys, the monsters in our closets, our inner emotions, and now even life and death to come up with truly fascinating and enjoyable films that have been some of the greatest animated films ever made.
Pixar's latest was a whimsical, musical, boldly metaphysical dramedy about what makes each of us tick, featuring a cast of characters who don't have bodies at all. "Soul" opens with the death of its down-on-his-luck hero, middle school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated pianist who aces a jazz band audition, then steps out into the street, where he narrowly avoids being smushed by construction workers and crushed by an oncoming car, only to fall through a manhole to his untimely end. Joe's death isn't scary, but it asks young audiences to acknowledge the issue of mortality in a way that few films dare. And then, it proceeds to bend - although "shape" might be a more accurate word - their understanding of what happens before and after people's lives on Earth.
Most people would be at least a little curious upon finding themselves in this situation, but Joe is so single minded that he can only think about getting back for the gig that might be his long-awaited break. He retreats from the light and somehow makes his way to a part of the film's hereafter, where new souls are readied to go off and live lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he's paired up with a troublemaker named 22 (Tina Fey) who has no interest in being sent down to Earth. The two make a deal to what they hope will be their mutual advantage, though instead it leads to the talking cat. The definitely resists easy summaries and all guesses as to where it's going as you watch it, which is not usual for animated films.
The animation during the scenes of regular life looks about as good as it ever has in Pixar's history, courtesy of a balance in which the characters are allowed to remain slightly stylized while the autumnal backdrops are warmly lit and rich with near-tangible detail and longing. It's their vibrancy that allows a late montage of memories, recent and distant, to be as beautifully poignant as it is, a summary of a life that, despite its owner's doubts, absolutely had meaning. It may not summon the expected Pixar deluge of tears, but it is, in its own quiet way, devastating.
9) NEWS OF THE WORLD
Having been used to timely urgent movies filled with anxiety and action from director Paul Greengrass, I wasn't quite prepared for how relaxed and accomplished his first attempt at a western would be, but what a remarkable achievement it ended up being. In a year where we had enough anxiety to pack multiple years, Greengrass delivered a film which assuredly allowed us to escape to another time while still managing to remain timely in unexpected ways.
Set in the dreariest end of the Texas Panhandle after the Civil War, the story centers on a despondent survivor named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), who travels the West from town to town to read the news of the day to people with no access to newspapers, spreading the word about every topic from meningitis epidemics to the anti-slavery plans of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Shortly into the film, he comes across a young girl he calls Johanna (played with vivid but understated realism by newcomer Helena Zengel). He assumes the task of getting her safely home to what's left of her immigrant family. Slowly he learns that they've been massacred by Indians and she has no place to go. Reluctantly, he risks his own life, forces himself to protect her from flesh merchants and rapists, teaches her how to eat chili with something other than her bare hands, and to trust a stranger who only wants to get her to some kind of safety.
At a time when the law of the land was every man for himself, the news reader's nobility is sometimes questionable, but thanks to the polish of the always reliable Tom Hanks and his young co-star, plus a sympathetic supporting cast that includes Mare Winningham and Elizabeth Marvel, the film's bravery and humanity are never less than sincere. The measured decency of Captain Kidd shines Hanks's performance as he cautiously builds his character into something beyond the basic outline in the scripts. Like the memorable character John Ford created for Natalie Wood in "The Searchers", nothing much is learned about the girl or the horrors she endured during her days under Indian enslavement, but the sordid details are instead left up to the imagination.
"Minari" is a quintessentially American story but seen through new eyes - the eyes of David, a 5-year-old son of immigrant parents searching for their own American dream. And the result is, quite frankly, a thing of beauty. It's a film deeply rooted in the earth, a wellspring of both hope and pain, of boundless promise and terrifying disaster.
It's the fifth film from Lee Isaac Chung, using his own childhood as inspiration, telling a story specific in detail and universal in emotion. It's the early 1980s and Korean parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) have decided to move their American-born children out of the city to live in rural Arkansas. Jacob has a plan to turn a large chunk of remote land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell to other immigrant families. But Monica is unsure about his lofty ambitions and concerned for what it might mean for their family. Their son David (Alan S Kim) has a heart murmur but is too preoccupied with causing mischief to care, while their daughter Anne (Noel Cho) is restless, with little to do in their country setting.
It's a delicately told tale, quietly engaging us with the day-to-day minutiae of the family without coercing them into a more traditionally dramatic structure. It's remarkable to watch these moments unfold and how they build into a dramatic structure of its own that is truly stunning. It's the kind of film that sends the viewer into their own childhood memories. The film's ability to evoke such a reaction underscores the basic humanity driving this story, regardless of culture or background. It offers an encouraging and engaging view of the immigrant experience while also portraying the hardships that go alongside it. Chung's nuanced portrait of a family figuring out their place in the world is both small and somehow rather grand, an element that a few filmmakers managed to do so remarkably in a year where the smallness of our personal experiences was something we truly needed in the movies.
And the next ten:
For years, I had heard all the reviews. Friends who sang the songs from it. Saw it win so many Tony Awards. But I was never able to see the production itself. FINALLY in 2020, I was able to see it and see what all the acclaim was about, and it thankfully did not disappoint. And Disney's film of the production goes far beyond the usual filmed play to really bring us up close to the performers that truly allows us to experience the play unlike any of the original Broadway audiences who saw it. It was hailed as revolutionary theater back in 2015 and it still feels so today, in fact feeling even more important to having come out around a time where a lot of thoughts began to change about inclusion, where a historical musical could have any variety of actors playing actual people from history, even though they may not look the same as their counterparts. It spoke to the moment then, and it speaks to us now, say director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, in their short, socially distanced preamble. "We are all thinking about what it means to be American," they add. Even if these words are not in direct reference to the America of the past year, with its upsurge of anti-racist protest, their story of the Caribbean-born immigrant hero and founding father of the US, Alexander Hamilton, speaks to us of all that remains neglected in America's history while shifting the parameters at the same time. It keeps all the power of a live performance while simultaneously adding a variety of cinematic enhancement including some breathtaking aerial shots. There is extraordinary direction - again under Kail - so that the cameras capture the mise en scene of theatre without losing any of the closeup intimacy of film.
12) AGENTS OF CHAOS
In a year in which I viewed a great number of wonderful documentaries, I feel that the best one and the one that most haunted me and moved me was by one of our best documentary filmmakers, Alex Gibney. After so much controversy and mystery surrounding Russian connections to the 2016 US election, Gibney does a masterful job of breaking down the Russian interference from its earliest beginnings, well before the election even. Across a sprawling four hours, "Agents of Chaos" confirms some of the most damning findings of various Senate reports - for one, extensive contacts between the Trump campaign, particularly former manager Paul Manafort, and "a cadre of individuals ostensibly operating outside of the Russian government but who nonetheless implement Kremlin-directed influence operations." But the documentary also visualizes, with first-person interviews from some of the major figures, what the rare bipartisan consensus (on facts, not narrative) cannot: the quantifiable efforts by the Russian government - sometimes tightly organized, sometimes slapdash - to sow chaos in Ukraine and then America, the profit motives which compelled bumbling Trump figures into a "collusion" of mutual interest, and the head-spinning vertigo for average American consumers over what even happened in the 2016 election. The brilliance of the documentary is laying out just how easily they were able to do it, showing how much cyber war has become the new frontier of warfare. It finds no single story, operation, locus of blame, or clear measure of impact by the Russian government. Instead, it explores a common purpose employed by both Russia and pro-Trump players in the US, sometimes in tandem and sometimes covertly. "Using chaos to amass power," said Gibney. It was as brilliant as it was absolutely frightening in its implications, particularly with the larger issue of disinformation and how quickly it can spread by willing people not even aware they are spreading it.
13) THE SOCIAL DILEMMA
Most documentaries that shed light on something that we come to realize is horribly bad for us (thinking of a lot of food documentaries here) can sometimes convince many to no longer eat that particular food or it certainly gives us pause to ever continue using a service again. But what about social media? Something that we've grown SO accustomed to to be what clearly could be described as an addiction for a lot of people? One of the first things I did after watching the film was get on social media to tell people about the film. Clearly, I learned nothing, lol. But therein lies the "Dilemma" of the title ... how do we grapple with something that has benefitted us in so many ways but is also allowing us to become products for some very large corporations? What the film tells us isn't any kind of breaking news (we've been discussing these issues as a collective whole for quite a while), but its value lies in pulling together some alarming if abstract concepts into a genuinely scary whole. Jeff Orlowski's documentary looks at the various ways our minds are twisted and twirled by social media platforms. Most of the strategies were worked out intentionally, though their extreme efficiency may have been unforeseen. One unintended consequence has flowed from the invention of the Like button-yes, it needed to be invented, just like the period or the exclamation point-and speaks with special eloquence to the broader nature of the problem. While the button was under development, recalls Justin Rosenstein, who led the effort at Facebook as an engineering manager, the team's only motivation was to "spread positivity and love in the world." No one could have imagined that teens would become deeply depressed for lack of Likes. Seduced by technology, we are all at the mercy of dimly perceived forces. While the fictionalized family sections can be a bit cheesy at times, I thought it helped to break down these concepts even more, plus I loved the "behind the technology" sequences of these social media platforms acting like people compiling all of this information on us and delivering what they think we want. The most effective sequences in the film are straightforward interviews devoted to matters of deeper concern. "Surveillance capitalism" is a vivid phrase used to describe a non-regulated global marketplace that has gathered greater amounts of personal information than ever before in history. (The film is rich in vivid phrases-the "attention-extraction model" of software design; "fake, brittle popularity" as a description of the precarious state of mind that leads lonely kids to crave ever more Likes.)
14) APOCALYPSE '45
The World War II years have always been fascinating to me, and even as we think we may have seen every film or documentary on that time period covering it in enough detail, a new documentary like this past year's "Apocalypse '45" reminds us that there are still so many things to examine and new perspectives to show, particularly when never before seen footage is unearthed and presented, like was done here. Although the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki functions as as the essential center of Erik Nelson's documentary, the film itself does not adopt a definitive stance on the issue (which remains controversial to this day). Rather, the film documents the final year of World War II from the perspective of veterans who fought in the Pacific War and explores the ever present shadow that lingers over those affected by its violence. Specifically, alongside its rumination on the influential effects of violence and dehumanization, cultural manipulation - figures of power exploiting those in lower social standing -serves as a notable tenet of the documentary, a theme that needs to be presented over and over again as continual reminders of how the poorest among us are the ones that usually suffer the most as they fight to protect our freedoms. Structurally, "Apocalypse '45" avoids the cliched format associated with traditional documentaries. Instead, Nelson centralizes the film's focus on digitally restored war footage filmed by frontline combat photographers, a creative choice that roots the experience in facing the harsh realities of war without any reprieve. As the collection of 24 U.S. veterans reminisce on their combat experiences, we're greeted with horrific images of hellish landscapes, mangled corpses, and shell-shocked infants. By presenting World War II at its least polished and most brutal, "Apocalypse '45" lives up to its title - it's a nightmare of destruction and heartbreak. The restored footage alone makes this documentary truly remarkable. The documentary images, including footage of the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack shot by John Ford, were originally silent, but now they're accompanied by sounds: explosions mixed to just the right exacting levels of intensity, the roar of airplanes, the hum of an aircraft carrier, the crackle of lingering bomb fire, the din of machine-gun fire, the scary whir of missiles. The musical score, by Mark Leggett, flows in and out of these sounds. It's engulfing and organic; it enhances the footage and makes it truly feel real without falsifying it.
15) FIRST COW
In one of two westerns that 2020 delivered that I found so deceptively simple in their execution and story, this one was even more of a surprise for how much more lies under the surface and how much more meaningful it ended up making the film. As Kelly Reichardt's film opens, a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in present-day Oregon comes across something unexpected: a skull underneath the foliage. Further digging reveals two full skeletons lying side by side, hand in hand. The image suggests tragedy, and likely violence, but it's gentle, too. However these people died, whoever they were, they shared a connection. What a truly powerful yet simple opening to immediately pull you into this film. From that beginning, the film rewinds to 1820 and introduces Cookie (John Magaro), a cook who aspires to one day open a bakery or hotel, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a would-be entrepreneur on the run. The two men team up, stealing milk so Cookie can make "oily cakes" to sell to traders and travelers. The milk comes from the first (and presently, only) cow in the territory, a beautiful cow owned by Fort Tillicum's governor Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Their story is a micro version of the American Dream, of supply and demand, of the arrival of so-called civilization to the American West. The conversations the two men have about what they're doing - the balance between risk and reward, and how long they'll have a monopoly - are applicable throughout history. Every enterprise must deal with the inescapable reach of capitalism and larger structures of power, as well as, on a less cynical note, the simple human desire for more than just the bare necessities. But more important than what their story represents, it's their human connection that is the real hallmark of this film. They're both out of the norm in Fort Tillicum, where the ability to throw a punch and get rowdy is a dominant force in securing social status. King-Lu is more of a dreamer, while Cookie is more practical, but they're kindred spirits, in spite of their occasional arguments.
16) PALM SPRINGS
I admit that the romantic comedy is not a genre I've really loved in recent times, but thankfully 2020 delivered one that was so cleverly written, so wonderfully performed, and seemed SO timely to come from a year where we all felt we were reliving a lot of the same dreary day over and over again. "Palm Springs" follows Nyles (Andy Samberg), a man trapped in a time loop on the day of his girlfriend's best friend's wedding. But on one of these repeating days, Nyles gets together with sister-of-the-bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti), and when they're interrupted by Roy (J.K. Simmons) shooting Nyles with an arrow, Sarah follows him into a mysterious cave and gets sucked into the time loop herself. Although the pair use the time loop to have some fun and get to know each other, their situation is far more complicated than either Nyles or Sarah care to admit. Things are made even more difficult by both of them developing feelings for each other. However, it remains to be seen if they'll be able to escape the time loop - and, if they do, whether they'll be able to make it work in a relationship. It takes the wonderful formula from "Groundhog Day" and adds a sci-fi twist and some other bizarre twists which truly make it original. While the human drama of "Palm Springs" sticks closely to the rom-com formula, the premise of the story is where the script gets inventive. Typically, only one character in a story is stuck in a time loop and it's used as a device to teach the character a lesson; it's rare that two or more characters are trapped in a loop and even rarer (if it's ever been done before) that the time loop is a backdrop for two characters falling in love. But the predictability of the film works in tandem with its entirely original premise to create a film experience that feels both familiar and entirely new.
17) THE ASSISTANT
I can never forget the haunting imprint of this film, mostly in how subtly its story is told, an example of minimalist filmmaking that so many other filmmakers could learn from. Instead of portraying one of the many real tragic stories of how so many women have been treated in Hollywood that finally led to the #MeToo movement a couple of years ago, director Kitty Green aimed for a fictional examination of one day in the life of a Hollywood business office, and one woman's experience that speaks for so many. Julia Garner plays Jane, a new assistant in the Tribeca offices of a high-powered movie studio executive. The film follows Jane through one long workday, which begins before dawn and ends late at night. Jane makes coffee and copies, takes calls and endures light ribbing from her colleagues. She also witnesses, to her slowly growing horror, what she thinks might be her powerful boss's inappropriate behavior toward a young woman who shows up unexpectedly, saying she's been promised a job in the office. The genius of this film is that we don't see the "Harvey Weinstein" like character directly. Instead, we hear his voice and see his back from a distance; we also see the fear he provokes in his subordinates. He isn't the point of the story, though. The point, as "The Assistant" makes blindingly clear, is that the movie executive gets away with his behavior because of the people around him. It's one of the best, most gripping, and truly smartest films of 2020. It's more like the story of why it took so long-how people averted their eyes because there was money to be made and too much risk in taking a stand. It's remarkable to think that this was the work of a debut dramatic feature, given how confident the filmmaking is. Through it all, Julia Garner commands your attention and pierces your heart. The distinction of her performance here lies in its quiet and focus. Jane doesn't allow herself to explode. She listens, watches and judges in silence, simmers until her anger can't be contained. A feminist in spite of herself, she becomes a whistle-blower who, for all her concern over her boss's current victim, can't summon up the breath to blow her whistle full-blast. The centerpiece scene of the movie is when Jane finally goes to HR. Jane's conversation with HR is not just fruitless but demoralizing, and in Garner's long pauses and terse replies, you can hear the seething frustration of a woman being condescended to and ignored. It is staggeringly powerful and hearbreaking. But it's the rigorous understatement of this film that makes it so powerful in its vision of how easily the Harvey Weinsteins of the world could exploit their absolute authority for years with little fear of consequence. Moment by moment, it pulls us into a world where predatory behavior is concealed behind closed doors, and the silence of a hushed workplace becomes its own kind of complicity.
18) THE MYSTERY OF D.B. COOPER
It's a case that has always fascinated me. In November 1971, a man who identified himself as D.B. Cooper hijacked a flight leaving Portland, Oregon. He said he had a bomb and would only release the passengers in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes. After he had received his ransom, he wanted to fly to Mexico, but as the plane made it way to Reno, Nevada to refuel, Cooper parachuted out over the Washington State wilderness. He was never heard from again, and the FBI never solved the case. John Dower's documentary "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" begins by going through the particulars of the case, but then it gains strength when it begins trying to "solve" the case by focusing on the stories surrounding four potential suspects and the impact they made on those who are certain that their guy is the real D.B. Cooper. Dower wisely made the choice to not make a documentary that tries to solve the case, but instead broadens his perspective into what the Cooper case means to people and why this unsolved mystery has such enduring power. As the viewer, you find yourself buying into one of those stories that seems to fit the case, particularly as the people who claim to have known them seem so convincing. But then through clever editing, we delve into another story that seems to supplant the other as being possibly more believable. In that way, it shows just how impossible it can be to solve some mysteries, and just how maddening that can be. There's Duane Weber who gave a deathbed confession to his wife in Pensacola, Florida; transgender woman Barbara Dayton who told friends Pat and Ron Forman that she was the real D.B. Cooper; Marla Cooper in Seattle, Washingotn who's certain that her uncle L.D. Cooper was the culprit; and then there's Ben Anjewierden, who believes his roommate Richard Floyd McCoy committed the skyjacking. All four of these suspects are now deceased, so it's up to the survivors to make the case as to whether or not the person they knew was the true Cooper. The facts of the case are largely undisputed, but what makes the story so compelling is that it was both audacious and remains unsolved. That leaves a massive hole where people can fill in their theories, and what Dower sees is that Cooper has moved from fugitive to folklore and his theft provides a bizarre kind of validation. By the end, the case feels more like a victimless crime turned into a parlor game where people try to make the case for why they know the real D.B. Cooper. There's also the fifth option that Cooper didn't survive the jump out of the plane, which can just as easily be argued, and may actually be the most likely scenario. Rather than make the case for one argument over another, Dower keeps the focus on why people are bothering to debate it in the first place, and even though we don't get any closer to finding the truth, the case remains forever fascinating.
It was the year without a traditional summer movie season, but one director did stand strong to make sure his movie did get released in theaters (and kept postponing until theaters could try to accomodate him), and it's the closest thing we got to an event type picture in 2020. I've long been a fan of Christopher Nolan's work, and have admired him for so long for his originality on a large scale when we so often get movies that are just more of the same. Although "Tenet" is certainly not as great as Nolan's other films, his missteps are often still greater than other filmmaker's successes. And I think on a certain level, this film does succeed, although I still can't tell you exactly what I experienced, especially from the standpoint of the story. But what I do remember the most is the experience ... being in a theater for the first time since the pandemic closed them down, the loud booming score that completely enraptured the audience, production design and visual effects on a grand scale, and a fascinating story that played out even while you had to do your best to keep up with what was happening. That I think is to the movie's detriment, and it does require multiple viewings to be able to follow it, but still I can't deny that I was entertained and intrigued throughout. The spy movie themes indeed feel fresh in a new bizarre science fiction kind of warp, and I think it gives just enough to follow it to keep interest, and at the end of the day, I'd much rather have a film that engages my mind constantly than one that puts it to sleep. Nolan definitely has an attraction to movies that play with the ideas of time, and he's helped by all the usual mechanics we've come to expect from Nolan, and a first rate cast, particularly John David Washington, proving that he is definitely leading man material. Nolan knows how to do spectacle, and I truly hope he continues to do so ... no matter how his future movies end up being presented.
20) INHERIT THE VIPER
I don't suppose it can be considered bad form to say that one of the better films of the year was one I worked on for only a week, would it? But at least unlike the John Travolta film "The Fanatic" where I worked a lot longer on and the film turned out to be a horrible embarrassment, when I finally saw "Inherit the Viper" as the first movie I actually saw of 2020, I was actually proud to say that I worked on the film. My most favorite memories of working on the film during the one week of re-shoots was probably the couple of days where I drove cast and crew to and from the set, and getting a few moments to actually talk to fellow Minnesota native and star of the film Josh Hartnett. But enough about the memories. The film itself is a dark moody atmospheric film (that made great use of some of the more rundown areas of Birmingham, AL) that tells the story of a group of adult siblings who live in Appalachia and deal opioids to the residents of their small community. And the three actors playing the siblings deliver really solid performances, including the aforementioned Josh Hartnett, but particularly Margarita Levieva as Josie, and the youngest brother Boots, played by Owen Teague. Hartnett's Kip and Josie are at odds through much of the film as Kip struggles with his family's involvement in drugs, and particularly how the younger Boots may be negatively impacted, whereas Josie seems to be the hardest member of the family, even though she continues to see death around her from the product they are selling. And it begins from the harrowing opening scene, where a female customer buys the drugs and then immediately overdoses and dies in a dirty restroom. Although the script doesn't really break any new ground when it comes to the themes of family betrayal and even in the stories of family drug dealers, it's the performances and the atmosphere that truly kept me engaged throughout. I was particularly impressed by Hartnett, who lately hasn't given a strong performance in quite some time, as he remains pretty restrained throughout, giving a much unexpected air of mystery and tragedy to Kip.