[Editors Note: This intro was written in January of 2021. I thought about updating it a few different times, but I kind of like how close I still was to COVID at that time - any edits now would just be softening the reactions I had then; this is good for the time capsule.]
Yikes, what a year. After all that 2020 was, it feels strange posting about movies. But movies were one of the few outlets that provided some entertainment through such a tough time; and I just can't pass up sharing one of the only posts we're still contributing to this site. I'm almost thankful that I feel confined to movies here, because I'm not even sure where I'd begin if I were writing more broadly about the year that was (but here's a nice recap from James Corden if you want to relive any of it). It sure seemed like everything that could go wrong in 2020 did. Either the simulation glitched, or it's testing just how much we can take. Thankfully, I'm writing this segment in January of 2021, and I can see light at the end of the tunnel. We swore in a new president, and I'm scheduled to get my COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks. I'm not sure if the world will ever get back to a pre-COVID "normal", but I'm definitely starting to feel some normalcy on the horizon.
As for the film industry in 2020, it was hit as hard by the pandemic as was just about every other industry. Studios shut down, actors opted out of contracts, production and release dates were postponed or cancelled, and without movie theaters for almost all of the year, almost none of the movies we actually did see were shown in ways they were intended. I'm thankful the streaming platforms are as strong as they are; if this would have happened a decade or so earlier, we might not have had any new movies in 2020. Still, the overall catalogue for 2020 was extremely limited. I did my best to rank these titles, there just wasn't a lot I truly cared about. And I'm not sure if that's more because of the quality of films available, or the broad depression we all experienced over the last year. But because I want to stay positive about the year that 2021
could be will be is, right now I want to focus on the positives as much as I can. Each of these titles had something to offer, and in 2020, anything that provided the slightest amount of entertainment deserves its accolades.
Oh, and even though for many parts of the year I was stuck at home with nothing to do, strangely, there were still movies I never got around to watching. Of them, titles like Nomadland, One Night in Miami, and Sound of Metal are the most prominent. I don't like that I haven't already seen all of those. Plus, there were myriad great horror movies to release that I also missed. Not sure I'll ever update this post, but there's a lot out there that could make for a much stronger list than this.
Without further ado, my favorite films of 2020:
I wish I could remember where I saw this - maybe HBO? - but it was early in the pandemic. I wasn't even searching for a movie to watch at the time, but this just happened to be just starting, and the idea of a documentary about competitive foosballing intrigued me. As is the case with so many underground things, you'd be amazed at the competition and rivalries around this "sport". It was kind of neat learning about different tournaments and players in that world - I had no idea foosball was such a big deal. It wasn't anything above your standard talking head documentary, but if you're interested not only in competition, but in weird underground sporting events, then this could be an interesting film to check out. Definitely made me want to get a foosball table and start training!
14. Wonder Woman 1984
Set in the prime of the 1980's, I really wanted to like this movie more than I did. I really enjoyed the first Wonder Woman movie, and with a bigger cast, a bigger budget, and grander ideas, I hoped for this to be the first great DC movie in quite a while. Tragically, I also understand that my expectations might have led to some of my disappointment. Still, fashions were on point, I really liked Kristin Wiig's character, and the commentary on power and commercialization wasn't lost. Surely the biggest disappoint had to be a tremendous lack of 80's jams - the film relied almost entirely on its score and featured almost no pop hits from the decade. Maybe Jenkins (film's director) thought it would be too cliché to have a bunch of 80's songs in the film, but for my money, I want to see every scene highlighted by such music. I wanted more, though part of the problem was the film had too much stuff going on (something common in blockbuster franchises like this). I'm also not sure the film ever found its ending, as it dragged on for a bit too long.
13. Eurovision Song Contest
This movie was ridiculous. It's one of those projects that you know Will Ferrell saw and just thought the idea was so absurd he had to do it. An Icelandic brother/sister singing duo with dreams of winning Eurovision (one of the most prestigious pop music competitions in the world), who overcome obstacles (of not being good) to actually get into the competition. This was another film I saw early in the pandemic (whenever it was released on Netflix), and mostly I remember just enjoying it throughout. It wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't bad either. Ferrell loves being so weird and silly, and Rachel McAdams is one of my favorite actresses - especially when she can also be completely silly. The format is a pretty straightforward underdog redemption story, but it's fun, has heartwarming moments, and some of the songs - though ridiculous - aren't half bad. There are much worse ways to spend two hours than watching this.
Boy, was this thing a mess. If you aren't committed to really following every detail of this film, you're going to be lost before it even gets going. I've never had problems with intricate films, the problem is when the movie continues to trip over itself with exposition, it makes the viewing experience more tedious than anything. Tenet presented some really cool concepts and ways to think about time travel that I hadn't thought about before - and for that alone, it gets inclusion on this list - but it also got so into the weeds with what it wanted to share, with so many details that had to be laid out for the concepts to make sense, that even for me it became difficult to keep up with at times. The action sequences were pretty neat (current-time people fighting against inverted-time people), and as is often the case with Nolan, there were some really cool set pieces; but the film was dense, and I didn't get much emotional intensity from any of the characters. Maybe that was purposeful, but it made the whole experience feel flat. I'll appreciate anything that is in the time travel/futuristic/sci-fi realm, so it at least provided some fascinating concepts to explore; but the execution wasn't as clear as I believe was intended.
11. Bill & Ted Face the Music
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter dust off the outfits for one more Bill & Ted installment. A theme we saw a bit of in 2020 - coming together, and how unity can make the world better - was also prominent in this film. It was fun watching Bill and Ted ramble through time again, this time mostly interacting with different versions of themselves. I would have loved to see more callbacks to the previous films - where was Station?! - but at least the Reaper was in there, and both characters were up to their usual always looking for the dumbest shortcut ways. Assuming this is the final chapter of the franchise, I have no problems with how it ended. It was unifying in a year where the world was so divided. Bill & Ted is completely absurd, but it's never meanspirited; and I do like that about it.
10. News of the World
Here's the thing: this film was well made, and Hanks, as usual, gives a great performance; but there's a lot about this film I simply can't remember. I remember pieces that made it strong, but I also think this was a pretty unmemorable film. The movie generally revolves around a solider (Hanks) who is tasked with transporting a child to her family after being kidnapped raised by a Native American tribe. From that concept, a father/daughter type relationship is formed, where both people learn about themselves as much as they learn about each other. It's a solid western concept, with the backdrop of a just-concluded Civil War, and the cinematography does stand out as being quite strong. But for me, the selling point on this film was that Hanks' character was a traveling news man, reading newspapers in small towns where many citizens couldn't do that themselves. Kind of cool learning about the first iterations of newsmen, and the influence that can have over a population - I would have liked to see a story more focused on that profession than what was made up as the plot of this film.
9. The Invisible Man
This isn't the Invisible Man that you grew up with, but it was fun to watch. The film didn't really hold much back, and it got much more intense than I expected, but all for the good. The drama and tension (and scares) were high, and you could feel the stakes in the characters' every moves. Elisabeth Moss, as has become typical, delivered an emotionally powerful performance that showed both her strength and vulnerability in the same breath. This movie probably isn't the same without her. The movie did a really nice job of providing commentary on and being a metaphor for abuse - especially when it can't be seen. This movie definitely was a horror movie in the traditional sense - and if you want nothing more than the surface scares, this movie will still deliver - but as an ally to the #MeToo movement, it was as powerful as anything else on screen this past year.
8. Save Yourselves!
I wish I'd wrote about this film after I first saw it, because I had some really good ideas for what different parts meant. I'll try to cobble a few together here, but mostly know that this was a fun hipster/millennial alien invasion movie that wants to be serious but also silly. Let's start with the basics. A 30-something couple decides to leave the city for the weekend and stay in a cabin - and in doing this, make a point to shut off all their electronic devices and unplug from the world. Things are going great - even though these hipsters aren't really equipped to handle the outdoors - until weird balls of fluff start overtaking the world. They mostly discover this when they turn their phones back on, and between a few different times when devices are turned on and off throughout the film, there's definitely commentary on the good/bad of social connection and reliance on electronic devices. The rest of the movie is mostly about them running for their lives, though the ending makes for some cool theories to debate as to its meaning. Overall, a fun indie alien movie that has stakes but doesn't take itself too seriously. An interesting little film.
7. Promising Young Woman
Speaking earlier about the #MeToo movement, maybe I stand corrected in stating The Invisible Man was the strongest entry last year for a film showcasing those concepts. PYW was in your face and direct in its approach. It's lead character - the always charming Carey Mulligan - was literally getting revenge for all women who have been abused or harassed but couldn't speak up or get their justice. Her character comes up with some great ideas on how to get revenge and give these monstrous guys a taste of their own medicine. It was actually enjoyable to see these kinds of guys get humbled and freaked out when the tables were turned; and by the bits we learn about this character before her current superhero status, she went through plenty of pain before getting to this point. Even when she's in the "wrong", you absolutely can't help but root for her. If anything, I would have loved to see the movie make her a full antihero, killing these predators on the daily. Instead, she is simply satisfied with scaring them and reforming them; but the reality is those guys will probably never change. She should have killed them all.
There was some debate as to whether this counts as a "movie", but I watched it as a movie, so I'm counting it. Just because there were people in the audience when it was filmed, the performances were no different than if they were doing it for an audience or a camera. I never got around to seeing this musical when it was at the apex of pop culture, but because you couldn't help but hear from everyone how amazing it was, my dumb personality was predisposed to dislike it when it finally did become available on Disney+. Yet, here we are. It charms from the start, and each song is just as enjoyable as the last. What a cool concept to retell history; I'm glad everyone now has access to it, and I hope they watch it. Powerful and important for our time. Amazing performances, star makers out of so many cast members, and a fun pace that makes it easy to fly through its two-hour runtime.
Even though Pixar hasn't shied away from such themes in the past, this is probably the most "adult" entry I've seen from the company. What a bold move to tackle afterlife/beyond and questions like what is the meaning of life and what happens after life in a kids movie! But it was all done in a really cool way, and made sure to do so without referencing or hinting at religion (which is important to me). I loved the visuals of the "Great Beyond", and the clever ways in which they explained so many unexplainable things. From there the plot kind of focuses on (like Superintelligence) what makes us human - or, what it means to be human. It has some good messages, is delivered in a really beautiful package, and the music/soundtrack is great. I hope every kid (and adult) gets a chance to watch this movie, because it talks about some subjects in ways we're not often exposed other than with religious implications. This is a better way to talk about life and death with your family.
I think you probably have to be a dedicated film fan to get as much entertainment out of this one as I did. I hope that doesn't sound pretentious, I just mean that there are contributing factors that could make it less entertaining to the average moviegoer (i.e. the film is long, it moves at a slower pace, and it's filmed in black & white). If you're wanting to passively enjoy a film, this isn't the one for you. BUT, if you enjoy movie history, then there's plenty of great content in here about the story behind the making of Citizen Kane. The film kind of chronicles the production of the screenplay - written originally by Herman Mankiewicz - and how troublesome and controversial the concept was back in 1940 (it hinted at similarities between William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful people in the world; and was formatted in a non-linear fashion that was unheard of at the time). We get to see some of the chaos that ensues throughout the process, and if nothing else, I enjoyed it for the information it provided on one of the most famous and important movies ever made. Directed by David Fincher, the filming was tight and purposeful, with elegant cinematography throughout; and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was another homerun. The film is great, as long as you know what to expect going in.
3. The King of Staten Island
This is my favorite tone of movie, and really one of my favorite themes: coming-of-age, figuring out the world around you and your place within it. Pete Davidson stars here in a semi-autobiographical role about a guy floating through life since childhood after the death of his father, a firefighter (Davidson's real father was a NYC firefighter who died in service during the 9/11 attacks). From there the film kind of just chronicles life events that happen as we go through our 20's (moving out of home, getting jobs, searching for our purpose, etc.). Davidson is actually pretty charming in the role, and plays it exceptionally well. The soundtrack is great, and as is the trademark of most Judd Apatow movies, the balance of drama and comedy is pretty spot on. Even though the movie clocks in at just over two-hours, it never felt belaboring. I enjoyed watching the family drama unfold, and I think everyone can pull some bit of reality and understanding from the stories Apatow tells.
2. Palm Springs
I thought this was going to be my favorite movie of the year. Very rare that comedies hold onto a top spot for me, but this one checked a lot of boxes. Without spoiling anything, the film is generally about a guy (Andy Samberg) stuck in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over. Eventually joining him is a woman, played by Cristin Milioti, and it chronicles some of the situations they experience. It features the type of humor you'd expect from Sandberg, and it was definitely fun to see Milioti join in on the antics at times (though for sure she's ultimately the more grounded character). The comedy of Groundhog Day-esque hijinks is entertaining enough in its own right, but there's also a pretty vulnerable layer about meaning, purpose, and love that's also sweet. But for me, what really puts this film over the top is its fascination with alternate timelines and realities. I'm always fascinated by concepts like that, and when you can put it in a package that's also humorous and thought-provoking? It doesn't get much better than that.
1. Trial of the Chicago 7
And, of course. There are some elements here that shouldn't make it a surprise that this was my favorite film of the year. For one, let's get out of the way that this was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, easily my favorite writer today. He writes dialogue and interactions in such a way that I always want to listen to anything his characters are saying. It doesn't matter the film's length, I always want more. I really love movies that are based in history, especially about subjects which I know little but know I should know more. Here, it's about a group of protestors at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 who are arrested and charged for trying to incite a riot (they're protesting the Vietnam War), and the trial that took place after. Of course, much of the story parallels a lot of what we've seen in this country over the last few years, and it makes no efforts to try and avoid those comparisons - we see multiple times how close we might have come to an all-out civil war actually breaking out. Form there, the movie is basically a courtroom drama (of which Sorkin especially excels), and the gamesmanship between both sides trying to find an edge to get the verdict they want. It's expertly crafted, features plenty of amazing acting performances, and provides some information about history that is one part hopeful, and one part disparaging (maybe as much as things change, they also stay the same). But this was a great movie that everyone should watch.
Thanks for checking out my list this year. I know it was late, but the film world was just so different than it's ever been before. Thankfully I see plenty of great options already on the horizon for 2021, so I expect a return to (somewhat) normalcy next year!