2020 was a year like no other. A year that brought great tragedy and heartache but through it all, there was also great beauty shown through humanity’s strength and resilience. Some of that beauty also came through my favorite medium in the world, cinema. There was no shortage of extraordinary stories and characters this year despite the delayed release of so many anticipated films. It just makes it all the more exciting to see the sheer number of movies coming our way in 2021, and the promise of having a communal experience again with other like-minded cinemagoers in a dark theater.
My Top Ten Best Films of the Year list has always come out on NYE or New Year’s Day, but due to the Oscars being delayed until April 2021, it was impossible for me to see three key films before the end of 2020 without a film festival badge. Therefore, I made the choice to postpone my list for the first time ever so I could see these films when they were available to stream in Q1 2021. And I’m so happy that I did because all three movies, including my favorite film of the year, made my top ten list.
- PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
An absolutely electrifying and utterly heartbreaking film all at the same time. It’s a genre mash up of cinema perfection with a stunning performance by Carey Mulligan. The film centers around a young woman named Cassie who has taken on a double life as a way to cope with a painful tragedy from her past which resulted in the loss of her best friend. One fateful day, she decides to confront her past head on and concocts a plan to hold the people responsible for the unraveling of her friend’s life accountable. This film picks you up like a tornado, tightens it grips, and shakes you to your very core. And every single candy colored second of it is magnificent. Emerald Fennell’s debut film is flat out brilliant, and the script is a revelation– searing with wit, intelligence, and crackling dialogue. One year into the 2020s, and I don’t think it’s too early to say this modern masterpiece will be in my Best of the Decade list come 2029.
2. PALM SPRINGS
This deliriously charming sci-fi comedy about two people trapped in an infinite time loop was not only so hilarious that it induced full scale belly laughs from me, but I also found it to be incredibly profound at times. It explores the morality of what it would be like to experience the same day over and over yet realize that just because others around you may not remember what happens to them the next day, you will. So, in turn, what you say and do to people is important and it will have an indelible effect on you. There couldn’t have been a more resonant time for a film like this to come along in 2020 when the whole world felt like we were living in our own personal time loop. Like the characters, most of us were forced to slow down, discover the beauty in everyday life, soak in our families, treasure little silly moments, and just appreciate being alive.
3. SOUND OF METAL
A heavy metal drummer experiences deteriorating hearing loss almost overnight. He is forced to grapple with what that means for his career, his relationship with his girlfriend/bandmate, his sobriety, and his life. Riz Ahmed is mesmerizing as a man who realizes he has everything to lose but refuses to descend into despair. This is a moving and poignant story about how sometimes not everything works out the way we want it to but it’s how we learn to adapt to our struggles and thrive anyway, which makes humanity so beautiful and inspiring.
Back in 2015, a fire raged through a Romanian nightclub killing 27 people, but over the next four months, 37 more people also died from the fire that had injuries far less severe. This documentary plunges you into a jaw dropping look at how this tragedy unfolded. We watch as investigative journalists peel back layer after shocking layer of what they uncover to be a healthcare disaster of corruption, deception, and negligence that makes for one of the most riveting documentaries ever made.
5. THE FATHER
Acclaimed playwright, Florian Zeller immerses you into the world of a man plummeting into dementia and it’s so palpable that the viewer feels like they themselves are trapped in The Twilight Zone. We follow Anthony, played exceptionally by Anthony Hopkins, living in his daughter’s flat and every time we think we understand who a character is or their motivation, it’s revealed that we don’t know anything at all. It makes for a mysterious, captivating watch and also achingly give us perspective on what it would be like to experience memory loss, and viscerally feel the pain and confusion that comes with it. This is a stunning piece of work which masterfully encapsulates the power of cinema to elicit true empathy in its audience.
6. FIRST COW
Set in the Oregon territory in the 1820s, First Cow follows an unlikely friendship between a cook and Chinese immigrant. They are both outsiders finding their way and form a business relationship where they use milk stolen from the region’s only cow to bake and sell these donut type biscuits they call “oily cakes” to trappers and traders. One of my clever cinephile friends described this film best as a “milk heist” movie. The director of the film, Kelly Reichardt always has a remarkable way of capturing nature and the human spirit, and this is another gentle, understated movie to add to her wonderful filmography, which washes over you in a way only a film shot by her can.
A Korean American family relocates from California to a remote Arkansas farm for a better life in the 1980s. It seems predictable to assume what sort of challenges this family will face in this rural town, but this film blows apart any expectations you may have. The townspeople openly welcome the family, and each character is so deeply distinctive and well-written that everyone subverts expectations of their family roles. It’s a rich story of the pursuit of the American dream and a family that struggles to understand each other and their motivations. In the end, like all of us, we learn to accept and cherish what’s unique about our relatives because we love one another. This is a quiet but illuminating film that deserves to be celebrated.
8. THE ASSISTANT
Anyone that pursues a career in the movie business and lands an entry level job as a Hollywood assistant often finds it difficult to explain to non-industry people the path they have chosen. Speaking as someone who has been an assistant, and also spent more than two decades in Tinseltown, this film is eerily accurate in its portrayal of the job. It shows the mundane task of answering phones, copying scripts, compiling reports, and ordering lunches. But it also shows the more difficult ones of seeking guidance from your co-workers on the best way to wordsmith an e-mail apology to your toxic boss over something trivial, to realizing that instead of trying to do your best work you’re just trying to get through the day without getting yelled at, to finally eating a muffin for dinner by yourself while you’re in a tailspin questioning why you chose this path. This is one of the few films I got to see in the theater in 2020 before theaters closed in LA, and it was so overwhelming that I sat in the dark through the credits frozen in my seat until the usher came in to clean the theater. This film is not for everyone but for those of us that lived this life or want to see a fascinating character study of someone that has, it’s a breathtaking movie.
Pixar’s latest animated offering chronicles a man, Joe who due to a freak accident is sent to the afterlife right before he is about to embark on making his lifelong dream of becoming a jazz musician a reality. His soul refuses to accept his fate and finds a loophole to return to earth in an attempt to reclaim his body and pursue his dream. Joe believes that all souls are meant to find their one true calling in life to achieve true happiness but in his journey to get his life back, he learns that true happiness is not defined by what we do but by embracing life itself.
The filmmakers of Nomadland are being fairly criticized in the heart of awards season for adapting a book about transient older Americans looking for ways to survive through low cost labor after the Great Recession, into a somewhat inspirational movie about a woman’s spiritual journey through grief. Despite the controversy, I can’t ignore the gorgeous cinematography, the haunting score, and the incredible performance of Frances McDormand. As a story, I recognize its flaws but as piece of technical filmmaking, I can’t help but marvel at it.
Honorable Mentions: SORRY WE MISSED YOU, ON THE ROCKS, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, MANK, BEANPOLE, SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE AND BLUE