What a year. There are about a thousand things from 2020 that are more important to talk about than the state of movies, but that’s what I’m going to write about. I saw a record 81 movies from the 2020 season, thanks to a combination of accessibility, length of the Oscar season (it’s April….), and too much dang time spent at home. Of course, the downside from a movie-going perspective is that all of those movies were seen at home. Of the 13 movies in this article, I saw literally all of them from my couch. So what movies had an emotional impact on me from the comfort of my living room? Here is my [spoiler-free] take on 2020.
The Vast of Night
This is one of a couple of fantastic “midnight movies” of the year, that must be started late at night, lights off, and demand your full attention. In a small New Mexico town during in the 1950s, two teenagers (Fay and Everett) investigate strange audio disturbances while the rest of the town is enraptured by the big game. There’s an argument to be made that the narrative is more conducive to something like an audio play or podcast than to a movie. After all, Fay and Everett uncover the mysteries mostly by interviewing people who may have a piece of the puzzle and listening to their stories. However, I’d argue that what makes this movie so engaging is its use of extended takes to grab the audience’s attention. Every interview is heard through Fay and Everett’s ears, and its their unyielding excitement that turns a Twilight Zone premise into a captivating story that can sustain a 90-minute narrative. (Amazon)
I do not understand the vitriol and/or indifference Mank has received among a lot of film fans. Personally I found this movie to be a delightful throwback to the movies of the 40s, an extremely strong imitation and love letter to cinema history. The craft of the film can’t be overstated; all of the technical bells and whistles to recreate the video and audio of classic cinema are easy to underestimate until you see them done less adeptly as in a movie like Wonderstruck or even The Artist. More than anything though, the criticism about Mank that vexes me is that it’s boring. I didn’t get that at all – I found it fun, funny, and a true romp. (Netflix)
She Dies Tomorrow
This is a movie that didn’t fully grab me in the moment, but much like its premise, it anchored itself in the back of my mind and has stuck around. Amy is a young woman who has just purchased a house, but has come to a startling realization: she dies tomorrow. Naturally, this idea totally consumes her. Not only that, but everyone she explains the situation to gradually comes to the same realization: they all die tomorrow.
She Dies Tomorrow is one of many films that spoke to the emotions of 2020. You’ve got the existential dread of your own inevitable mortality. You’ve got the uncertainty around what exactly is happening, and reassessing what parts of the world are important. And you’ve got the concept of unknowingly spreading ideas much like a virus, dooming friends or family without realizing it. All of the above come together in a memorizing and slow psychological thriller with just enough dark comedy to keep from being overly self-serious. (Neon, Hulu)
10. One Night in Miami
I’m not usually one for stage plays that have been adapted to the silver screen. Frequently I find them stilted and small, not able to fully take advantage of the visual elements that a camera and editing can create. Even a film like this year’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is an acting tour-de-force, didn’t quite click for me personally because it all felt too small. All of this is to say, I cannot believe how confident and effective Regina King was in adapting One Night in Miami.
There are so many things to love about this movie. The acting by all four of its leads is truly magnificent, each bringing a very different energy to the ensemble. If I had to pick a stand-out, I find Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcolm X to be really incredible, understated and quiet in a way that I’ve never seen the man portrayed. The real magic, however, is in Regina King’s direction. The majority of the movie takes place in an unremarkable motel room, which should make for fairly drab cinema. Instead, King places the camera and her actors in a huge variety of positions relative to one another, making each shot visually tell the tale and reinforce the dynamics of the conversation. Not only that, but the moments where the camera leaves the motel room are reserved for the film’s emotional climaxes, building to crescendos that are truly earned. (Amazon)
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy… We are kind of stuck inside [ourselves], and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.” Never has that often-quoted sentiment from Roger Ebert been more true than it is for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a quiet movie about a teenaged girl (Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan) traveling to New York with her friend (Skylar, played by Talia Ryder) in an attempt to get an abortion. The two have no money and no connections, and the trip is fraught with a quiet menace at every turn.
What I found so captivating about Never Rarely Sometimes Always is that it never puts all of its cards on the table, and in doing so, it removes the politics of abortion and focuses on the too-often forgotten human element. There’s never a question as to whether Autumn wants the procedure, but there are many questions as to the emotional impact the ordeal has had on her. The audience is mostly closed off from Autumn’s inner life, and experiences the girls’ plight from the outside. That is, until the film finally reveals that we’ve only scratched the surface of who Autumn is and what she has been through in one of the most powerful scenes of the year. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is frequently a difficult film to watch, but one that demonstrates the power of watching another person’s life and struggles. (Focus, HBO Max)
8. Palm Springs
For a lot of people, 2020 was a lot like Groundhog’s Day, stuck in their houses, living what felt like the same day over and over again. If you have kids, you likely spent all day every day with them from March through December. If you have a partner, then the two spent a lot of time at home together, largely isolated from the rest of the world. Well, Palm Springs is also a lot like Groundhog’s Day, and it’s somehow fitting that we were treated to the best comedy of the year within our own houses while living an experience so thematically relevant.
It helps of course that Palm Springs is very, very funny, with a tight script that consistently gets laughs. The two leads (Andy Sandberg and Cristin Milioti) have phenomenal chemistry, and are able to find every comedic aspect the premise of reliving someone else’s wedding has to offer. It’s not enough to just be funny, though; Palm Springs has a lot of heart as well. Palm Springs is all about getting over the fear of change and taking the plunge into marrying another person, a premise that is especially poignant as we’re literally stuck inside with our significant others 24/7. (Neon, Hulu)
Minari is about the American Dream, and all of the promise and heartbreak that can come with it. The Yi family, a family of Korean immigrants, moves to Arkansas in the 1980s in pursuit of running a successful Korean vegetable farm. The dream is just short of an obsession for the patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen), and is a difficult transition for the rest of the family (particularly as the farm struggles). Minari is filled with affection for its characters, borne of the real life experiences of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung.
One thing that spoke to me about this film is its dialogue between reason and faith. Throughout the film, Jacob claims to be approaching farming from a place of reason – he wants a better life for his family, and believes that his knowledge of agriculture and problem-solving skills will make the family successful. But what’s actually happening is an act of faith, the belief in the American Dream of the self-made man. Meanwhile his wife Monica takes a much more practical approach to the family, and recognizes the very real risk of losing everything. The tension between these viewpoints is what drives the movie, and ultimately it is their love for each other and their family that steers them through adversity. (A24, VOD)
2020 was also a year of racial justice, protests, and a reckoning with over-policing in the United States. While The Trial of the Chicago 7 is probably the more watched film to broach those subjects, Mangrove is the one that packed a full emotional punch for me personally. Mangrove tells the true story of a Trinidadian restaurant that opens in Notting Hill, becoming a pillar of the Caribbean immigrant community there. A racially-charged raid from the police leads to protests in the street, which escalates into arrests and an unjust trial of the community’s leaders. The narrative itself is riveting, but more than anything, I found the film to be radiating with empathy for its characters and community. I have found Steve McQueen to be a bit cold and distant as a director in the past, but Mangrove is anything but – it is one of the warmest, most understanding movies of 2020.
Mangrove is a part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, a five-film series about West Indian immigrants in London between the 1960s and 1980s. While the series is a phenomenal achievement of its own, I actually think the individual films (specifically Mangrove and Lover’s Rock) are done a bit of a disservice in cultural conversation by being just one of five. There’s an argument that if Steve McQueen released just one of these films in 2020, it may have had a larger cultural impact rather than being released all at once as an anthology. All this is to say, the entries in Small Axe that I have seen absolutely function as stand-alone movies, and Mangrove in particular really impressed me as such. (Amazon)
5. His House
While there were a lot of great movies in 2020, one thing that was lacking was balance. A lot of movies on this list are great dramas or thrillers, but high-quality genre movies like action, sci-fi, and horror were somewhat few and far between. One exception that stood out to me as a highlight of the year was His House, a horror film about a refugee couple from South Sudan who find asylum in an English town. Once there, they discover that the house they are assigned may be more of a curse than a blessing.
Horror is always as its best when it serves as a metaphor for real-life terror, and His House is no exception. It is a film all about the hidden traumas of those seeking asylum, and how assimilating to a new, safer life can be extremely difficult. It’s also a story of survivor’s guilt, told with a surreal visual inventiveness that is truly ambitious. It’s also very effective as a horror film, serving up true scares, particularly in the first half. This is director Remi Weekes’s first feature, and I cannot wait to see what he does next. (Netflix)
4. Boys State
Once a year, one thousand teenaged boys in Texas are brought together for a week-long political summer camp. There, they are divided into two political parties, each of which develops a platform and primaries representatives for a general election. Sound like a nightmare? Well, having personally participated in the Illinois equivalent almost 20 years ago…. it kind of is. But watching the social experiment play out from the comfort of your living room? Well, that is another prospect entirely.
I was amazed at how captivating Boys State was, and how invested I was in the fate of a government that has zero power and would be completely dissolved only days later. I was especially impressed with the filmmaking chops of the documentary, and how through patience and planning they were able to capture some truly cinematic moments plucked from real life. The four boys that the crew selected (Ben, Steven, Robert, and René) each have such strong personalities and perspectives, and make for fantastic characters in a Shakespearean drama. Boys State had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish, and is an extremely cynical, yet surprisingly hopeful look into the present and future of American politics. (Apple TV+)
3. Sound of Metal
Another director’s feature film debut, Sound of Metal is a beautiful and emotional piece of independent cinema. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), both of whom have pulled themselves out of addiction. Lou is his life, drumming is his life… and suddenly it all starts to fall apart as he begins to lose his hearing. Suddenly Ruben must fight the urge to relapse, and is checked in to a rehab organization specifically for the deaf.
You feel for Ruben, understand his addictions and why he makes the decisions that he does – even when they’re so obviously self-destructive. You feel his rage at the cruelty of the world, yet want him to listen to all of the people trying desperately to help him. And ultimately, you hope he will come to terms with life such as it is, and find his own inner peace. (Amazon)
2. Da 5 Bloods
For the most part, I think the Academy Award lineup is pretty good this year. All the top contenders are good if not great movies, which is a compliment I can’t always give. However, I think they made one huge oversight in completely ignoring Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
Da 5 Bloods is a bit of a mess, telling a sprawling story of four Black Vietnam vets returning to reclaim treasure that they buried 50 years ago. It’s a film that spans a variety of genres and two time periods, and is packed full of ideas and symbolism related to race, class disparity, and war-profiteering. It will make massive shifts in tone, going from funny in one moment, to celebratory, to extremely tense in the span of just a few minutes. It’s one of the few films that benefits from being unfocused, lending a more epic air to the story and themes.
Perhaps the strongest element in Da 5 Bloods is its performances. The entire cast is great, punctuated by one of the final performances of Chadwick Boseman, whose death lends a metatextual layer of meaning that could not have been foreseen. The true standout, however, has to be Delroy Lindo, who delivers such a passionate character filled with hurt, defiance, and pure rage. It is easily one of the best performances of the year, and is the reason the film works. (Netflix)
1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Throughout the year, I’ve been secretly hoping that some film would come along and dethrone this one from the top. There are so many movies that invoke to the “2020 experience,” and so many that have a hopeful tone or speak to the moment that we’re living. My top film is a movie that is bleak and unsettling, and one that I have to spend a full paragraph spelling out caveats before even giving it a recommendation. And yet, I can’t deny that the most arresting film experience I had all year was Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The best way I can describe the tone of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is akin to a surreal fever dream. It harkens back to the works of David Lynch or early Cronenberg, with a dash of the aesthetics of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Half of what makes the film so engaging is not really understanding what is going on, and trying to puzzle through what psychological nightmare is unfolding. The film has plenty of pitch-black humor to it, all steeped in the existential dread that there’s something horrible lurking under the surface. And once the mysteries have been untangled in the end, what remains is a meaningful (if bleak) exploration of relationships and the human condition.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a disturbing and fairly depressing ride, but one that is also deeply captivating and thoughtful. If you like surreal cinema or psychological horror, don’t miss it. And if you don’t…. maybe skip this one and watch any of the other films on this list instead. (Netflix)
That’s the list! As I wrote above, 2020 was a surprisingly strong (if uneven) year for films, especially given the circumstances. With vaccinations on the rise and movie theaters opening again, I’m hoping we get the return of the “megabudget” tier in 2021, and last year has clearly shown that it’s impossible to replicate seeing an impactful film in a room full of people. That said, 2020 proved that effective films can still work on the small screen, and that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are willing to bankroll some of the most interesting projects in the medium. The moviemaking industry is very much in a state of transition and uncertainty, but so long as artistic choices are valued, there will always be films that will mean more than just “more content” for the distributors.