Well, 2020 certainly was a horrible year. Oddly, despite theater closings due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was also an incredibly great year for movies. We may not have had as many of the big, exciting blockbusters as normal, but there was no dearth of quality films. Some landed in theaters, others on streaming services. A few went to both places simultaneously. Even if the last twelve months were unconventional, making a Ten Best list was a piece of cake. There were still titles I had to leave off, and one lucky director has two films here.
As always, keep in mind that rankings shouldn't be taken too seriously. Also, my #1 and #2 films are essentially tied in my mind. I chose one over the other for reasons I'll explain momentarily.
Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2020:
10. Come Play - There were only two 2020 movies I saw twice: Birds of Prey and this one. Jacob Chase's feature debut marries ingeniously conceived scares with a poignant theme of a mother's love for her autistic son. Not many horror movies can get you emotionally choked up at the end. Come Play does.
9. Totally Under Control - Oscar winner Alex Gibney and co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger show how the Trump administration bungled its response to the Covid-19 virus during the early days of the pandemic – and they bring receipts to prove it. Even if you think you already know everything there is to know, the documentary will provide new information. Sadly, the people who most need to see this film won't. (Please wear a mask in public.)
8. The Vast of Night - An Amazon Prime release, this UFO tale relies more on mood, tone, and eerie atmosphere than on special effects or action. A radio DJ and a young telephone operator discover an unusual sound emanating from the sky right above their small town. The pursuant investigation is mesmerizing, thanks to the perpetual aura of mystery director Andrew Patterson invests it with.
7. Minari - Steven Yuen stars in this beautiful, touching story about a Korean family that moves to Arkansas in the 1980s in order to start a farm. There are lots of stranger-in-a-strange-land stories, but since director Lee Isaac Chung based the movie on his own life experiences, Minari's observations possess a sense of authenticity that draws you right in. The film had a brief qualifying run in 2020 and will get a proper release in February. I'll have a full review at that time.
6. The Invisible Man - Writer/director Leigh Wannell's modern take on the classic concept is an A+ horror movie with several genuine shocks. (I'm still recuperating from that restaurant scene.) Together with lead actress Elisabeth Moss, though, he also turns it into a harrowing tale of domestic abuse and the cycle that accompanies it.
5. Pieces of a Woman - Vanessa Kirby is devastating in this tale of a woman grappling with the death of her baby moments after its birth, potentially because of the midwife's negligence. The movie is tough to watch at times, but Kirby's work is so raw and real that you can't take your eyes off her. Shia LaBeouf (as her husband) and Ellen Burstyn (as her mother) provide first-rate backup. Following a limited theatrical run, you can catch it on Netflix starting January 7.
4. Let Him Go - Diane Lane and Kevin Costner do some of the best work of their careers in this tension-filled story about a couple trying to rescue their beloved grandson from an abusive jerk and the backwoods criminal clan he comes from. I held my breath in suspense more than once.
3. Da 5 Bloods - A Spike Lee drama about the Vietnam War is unlike what any other director could deliver, and that's a very good thing. Delroy Lindo, in the male performance of the year, heads up a group of Black vets who return to 'Nam to bring home the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin' Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman in flashback sequences). They also want to retrieve some U.S. gold they buried back in the day. Da 5 Bloods has strong action scenes, but at heart, the movie honors the often-minimized contributions of Black soldiers throughout American combat history.
2. Nomadland - Frances McDormand already has two Oscars. She might need to make room on a shelf for a third. In Chloe Zhao's drama, which puts her in real locations with non-professional actors, she plays a woman who joins a community of nomads, wandering around the country in vans or RVs, taking seasonal work. It's a stunning portrait of a lost soul trying to find herself by venturing off the grid.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2020 is:
1. David Byrne's American Utopia - Spike Lee's adaptation of the hit Broadway show starring the former Talking Heads frontman may not seem like much of a film on the surface. After all, he just recorded a stage performance, right? Wrong. Like Jonathan Demme – who directed the brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense – Lee knows just where to put the camera to capture the energy and maximize the impact. He becomes part of the storytelling, even including a few of his own distinct stylistic touches, especially during a commanding rendition of Janelle Monae's Black Lives Matter protest song "Hell You Talmbout." Backed on a minimalist stage by eleven musicians with wireless instruments, Byrne combines songs from throughout his career with creative choreography to examine how people connect to each other and the world around them. Even more specifically, he says that there's no reason to be despondent about the state of things, since we collectively have the power to change anything we deem in need of fixing. As we're all aware, 2020 was a dumpster fire. Like everyone, I struggled with continual fear of Covid, as well as the general disruption of normal life. David Byrne's American Utopia is the one film I saw that filled me with joy, hope, and optimism again. In this particular year, I can't think of a better quality to celebrate. The movie is available on HBO Max.