ST. LOUIS — 2020 may have been a terrible year overall, but that didn't affect the quality in film. In fact, this was a wonderful year at the movies. Contenders, not a lot of pretenders, and a healthy amount of strong movies.
My top ten movies list started at 35, shrunk to 20, 15, and refused to budge past thirteen. I thought back about the other flicks staring me down, trying to figure out what about them made me tick extra faster. I was Peter Falk without his trench coat and barely there stogie, losing a battle with a group of fictional stories.
And then my wonderful friend, and very good film critic herself, Lynn Venhaus, messaged me about "honorable mentions." It turns out her list was overgrown too, needing a secondary small medal gathering. Finally, I was at ease with my list. Ten golden prizes followed by four to six almost legendary films. All good, right? Nope. I then struggled to narrow the previously small list, because other discarded T10 wannabes started breaking down the doors, wanting in. After another 15 minutes and a small pint of chocolate ice cream, I found ten precious puppies and six pretty fine kittens.
Here they are, in no particular order, except the big one #1. It's like a guy named Christopher once said, "there can only be one."
This film made me an Andy Samberg fan. His maniac brand of humor with a dash of Will Ferrell and a hint of Jimmy Fallon synced perfectly with Cristin Milioti's cynical yet adventurous loner. It all clicked in this highly original time loop setup. Equally heartfelt and wild, this was a genuinely hilarious experience. Four watches and I still crack up at the same parts. A little J.K. Simmons never hurts either. What Max Barbakow's film did differently is it threw multiple people into a time warp, which set up some interesting scenarios. Out of all ten films listed here, I will end up watching this one the most.
I didn't expect Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's sci-fi time travel drama to hit as hard as it did, but credit a dark sense of humor with a pair of phenomenal lead performances with taking this visceral indie to another level. What if you could go back in time to experience old events, but you only got seven minutes? But you could end up getting trapped there forever, lost in another dimension. A new experimental drug, carrying the film title name, hits the streets, and Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan are the two troubled yet noble paramedics who take extreme measures to control its spread. Both actors are highly capable and natural here, and the New Orleans setting adds character. The final scene of the year is one of the best of 2020. It left me in tears.
"The Trial of the Chicago 7"
Aaron Sorkin doesn't always write and direct his projects--but when it does, it's tremendous. "Molly's Game" was among my favorite films of 2017, and it still deals a royal flush on every watch. Here, Sorkin tackles one of the biggest game-changing moments in American history, when democracy got to sling a rock at the mighty United States Government. Arguably one of the best ensembles of the year, headed up by Sacha Baron Cohen's Abbie Hoffman and Mark Rylance's William Kunstler. But Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a camouflaged Michael Keaton, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Jeremy Strong are also tremendous. John Carroll Lynch. The material sings, but the actors here make it all shine. I could fill my entire Best Supporting Actor roster with members of this cast.
Friendships can be the best. They can also be the worst. For Michael Angelo Covino (so good going against Tom Hanks in "News of the World") and Kyle Marvin, it's a space that blends art and reality. The two men expanded their 2017 short into this endlessly funny and heartbreaking comedy with just enough organic drama. It starts fast and doesn't let up. Just wait for the inadvertent bachelor party kidnapping, or the big argument on fish pond with weakening ice. It all moves and has flavor attached, because so many of us can relate to finding someone who looks just enough like family to adopt them as a best friend. There's at least 3-4 Best Scene candidates in this film.
"Promising Young Woman"
Emerald Fennell made a revenge film that really wasn't about revenge. But that was the colorful gift wrapping that pulled your cinema noses over to the table. Once there, the writer-director turned Carey Mulligan's avenging loner loose on the audience--and breakneck pacing, along with a killer soundtrack and ingenious supporting cast, made this one a stunner. I am still pulling myself off the ground after watching this film's powerful and quite legendary ending. Legendary as in people will be talking about its gut shot motive, impeccable timing, and all-together tour de force finale. If "Game of Thrones" had ended like "Promising Young Woman" did, it would be the greatest television series of all time.
Fennell's film will be a topic of discussion for years and here's why: every person who watches her film will have an extreme reaction to it, one way or another. The ones who avoid it at first will only be hit even harder. That's a legacy film for you. Also, the movies need more Alison Brie. That's it.
"Sound of Metal"
The first line of my review stated that this compassionate yet honest portrayal of a man-whose life is smashed to pieces and glued back together-started loud and ended quietly. The best part of this movie was the final scene, because it solidified all the raw emotion (especially between him and his girlfriend, beautifully portrayed by Olivia Cooke) and vivid detail of recovery (aided by an Oscar-worthy Paul Raci) in an instant. The final image is so captivating and earned due to the work of the cast, with nobody shining brighter than Ahmed. He's dazzled us before, but not quite like this. It's a virtuoso piece of work.
Music fans, beware that there isn't endless footage of concerts and studios. The biggest portion of the film takes place at Raci's community center for the deaf. The ingredients include punk rock and the life of a musician (I will find an RV just like that one day), but this is a personal journey unlike anything before. A big chunk of that praise goes to the director, Darius Marder, and the cutting edge sound work from Nicholas Becker and Abraham Marder.
Before she undertook the launching of Marvel's next phase, "The Eternal," Chloe Zhao grabbed Frances McDormand and took to the road to tell a poetic sale of survival. Carrying shades of "Wild" and working in McDormand's "Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri" edgy comfort zone, the writer/director really takes the audience on a trip. It's a glimpse into the other side of the world. Where people live their lives on the road, traveling from place to place, meeting fellow nomad passengers along the way.
McDormand is at her best playing the fierce yet spirited Fern, a woman who lost her husband and town before hardening up her soul and going to the road. It's Fern's interactions with folks like David Strathairn's Dave and the vibrant Swankie. Most of the cast aren't real actors, but that only enriches Zhao's film. This one carries a sadness and form of joy, which is what I consider to be the sweet spot of this medium that we call the movies. Fern isn't trying to find herself out there on the endless journey; she merely wants to create her own form of joy, not someone else's grief-filled remains. Due to this film, Marvel's next group of avengers interests me even more.
"Da 5 Bloods"
I said it then and will repeat it now. Right when we thought Spike Lee had shown us every speed he had in his arsenal-think about "BlackKklansman"-he came up with this pulverizing Vietnam tale that couldn't have been more timely. Delroy Lindo, in the performance of the year, joins fellow war veterans (Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis) in their return to the scene of the crime-the Vietnam jungle-to search for buried gold. Is it there? How much trouble will they get in while searching and collecting the goods? Can they resist killing each other in the process? Lee's film is introspective yet fast-moving, relentless yet powerful, and will get you talking.
Chadwick Boseman offers soulful support and Jonathan Majors has a nice supporting role, but this was a showcase for a few actors who rarely get the spotlight in a project like this. The main cast here-the four weary analog players in a digital and dangerous world-are typically supporting types in their career. Lindo has never been better, even when playing Satchel Paige. Peters, so resonant in HBO's "The Wire," shines here as the calm in this old school storm cloud-even if his character is weathering a secret. Jean Reno, Melanie Thierry, and Paul Walter Hauser round out one of the best ensemble casts of the year. On Netflix. It's Spike Lee's best film. Said it then. Confirming it now.
This is the best film in ages that celebrates both the joys and hazards of drinking. Thomas Vinterberg's ode to friendship, aging, family, and the unbeatable task of living life to the fullest is everything a film lover needs and more. There's the honest and hilarious script, the brilliant ensemble consisting of many actors the casual film won't even recognize, and the classic-defining dance sequence at the very end. Mads Mikkelsen, who performs that dance number like a maestro with hidden talents, anchors said ensemble with a heartbreaking and layered performance. Playing a man who worries that people think of him as boring or that life has passed him by, the Danish actor gives the part just enough verve and effortless persuasion. It's career-defining work, and NOT showy at all.
This is yet another gem that mixes drama and comedy with nuance, creating relative experiences, sometimes ones that even hit a little too close to home. But it has a big heart and that powers Vinterberg's film. In the end, it's about the promises and bonds that friends share over decades. What makes it to the end?
AND MY #1 MOVIE OF 2020 IS ... drum roll please ...
"The Way Back"
Gavin O'Connor rarely misses because he makes an independent film that is disguised as a studio film. This isn't about budgets and genres, more about the meat and potatoes of a film. The things that bind it, bringing all the ideas and work together. "Miracle" wasn't just about beating the Soviets; it was about a group of young men coming together behind a stern head coach under improbable conditions. "Warrior" wasn't just about Mixed Martial Arts; it was about two brothers finding their way back to each other. "Pride and Glory" wasn't just another inner city crime drama; Edward Norton, Jon Voight, and Colin Farrell made the punches land harder. "The Accountant" wasn't just another solo hitman thriller; O'Connor's film was the first to take a hard look at autism onscreen, and package that in an adventure thriller.
"The Way Back" just kept that streak going, extending the filmmaker's ability to project a human story inside a sports-themed film. If the Small Films with Big Hearts corporation had a CEO, he'd be it. It took courage to cast Ben Affleck in this role, because it would seem a little too much on the nose at initial glance. But the actor, who was in rehab while this film was shot, went all in, and matched the director's level of dedication. It was a masterful performance. Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankark, Glen Turman, and Jeremy Raden were all terrific in supporting roles.
Once again, the basketball subplot was merely a thread in a bigger concoction that tackled addiction, grief, and regret here. Affleck dug deep down in uncomfortable areas playing Jack, and it powered the final 30 minutes of the film, an area that followed the big game and shot. I watched O'Connor's film four times in the first ten months of its life. Each time, I found a new layer of quiet genius and genuine nobility. It wasn't always an easiest watch, but sometimes the most powerful films shouldn't be easy trips.
Before I go, here are some other films of note from the past year.
"One Night in Miami"
"Maybe Next Year"
"How to Build a Girl"
"Wonder Woman 1984"
That's my list, and I'm sticking to it.