It was a year of turmoil and turbulence, a year where everyone in the country was tested at the same time, and it was the type of test where your teacher made different copies so you couldn’t cheat. The COVID-19 pandemic through a wrench in everyone’s life, as well as everyone’s plans for the year. Vacations, weddings, and parties were swiftly swept under the rug with fast precision. Of course, that didn’t stop everyone from doing the things they wanted to do, we all just had to have patience and also get creative. It also didn’t stop a summer of racial strife from occurring, where many took to the streets, begging for justice. Oh, and also, a bird pulled a shark out of the ocean. Yep, that’s the type of year 2020 was.
It was a good year to sit in front of your TV. With people out of work, there wasn’t too much to do in quarantine, and the studios stepped up to challenge to entertain us, while they also pulled all major releases from the schedules since movie theaters closed and they wanted those films to have a shot getting the “Theater Money.” Gone was the idea of seeing movies like “Dune,” “Coming 2 America” and The Next Big Marvel Movie in a movie theater, many of those films got pushed back to 2021, which will no doubt be a year that breaks records due to the sheer number of new releases. The biggest story was definitely the war for releasing “Tenet” in a theater. How it was going to be the movie that saved movie theaters. And how Christopher Nolan’s film HAD TO BE RELEASED IN A MOVIE THEATER BECAUSE IT’S A CHRISTOPHER NOLAN FILM AND THAT’S THAT. I could easily write an entire piece on Nolan and how 2020 treated him personally, but that will all be for another time.
Streaming services shined bright this year. Some new releases ended up on these services, Video On Demand shined for movies this year. HBO made some of their content free for a month. Pieces of the South By Southwest Film Festival were shown on Amazon Prime for a week and a half. You may have been bummed to not see some Hollywood blockbusters on an Imax screen this year, but the studios definitely gave us things to watch, and new content to soak up. Because the major releases got pushed back a year, 2020 paved the way for several not-so-likely movies to the forefront. It was the year of the indie in a big way. A year where intellectual property didn’t rule every conversation, and honestly, I feel we were richer for it. The modern blockbuster is fun, it certainly has its place in anyone’s cinematic diet, and I’ve definitely put those types of films in my year-end lists. With that said, I think IP has made the industry lazy.
When I published my 100 Best of the Decade List this time last year, I complained about the state of movies by 2019. Last decade was essentially a decade of well-funded fan-fiction. Every studio gathered up every bit of nostalgic IP and tried to make something out of it. At the beginning of 2020, it looked like the year was going to be more of the same. When the pandemic hit, and the big franchise movies were getting taken off the calendar, I figured it would motivate the studios to try other things, to take risks again.
Sadly, that isn’t the case. It’s going to be business as usual circa 2021, whether this pandemic ends or not. Sure, I get excited for new Star Wars. But when Disney announces that they are going release 10 nostalgic-based shows in the Star Wars universe, that’s not as exciting to me. When Sony announces that they are going to look to their Playstation gaming rights for inspiration for franchises, that’s not exciting to me. A “Space Jam 2” that has zero to do with aliens or space, but will feature every character WB owns isn’t exciting to me. Please don’t get me started on a Buzz Lightyear movie “about the character that inspired the action figure.” Come on, that sounds like an inside joke that got out of control.
The year 2020 was interesting to me because so much of it felt fresh. The new, provocative takes were the things that got pushed in our faces. Sure, we got a sequel here, an adaptation there, but it didn’t overwhelm the market this year. As a movie-lover, I’ll give everything a try, but when I will always admire the new. I appreciate stories that feature a beginning, a middle and an end. I crave things I haven’t seen before, even if it doesn’t always work. I can say with honesty that it was exactly what you got in 2020 if you went looking.
Because it has been a weird year, this will be a weird list. I have twenty movies below. I will not rank them; I will not tell you which movie I love most. This is simply a list of the twenty movies that meant the most to me. The twenty movies from 2020 that I think you should see the most. These are the twenty movies from 2020 I will definitely watch the most. They are also the movies in which I will gladly sit down with anyone and watch anywhere, no matter what mood I’m in. That’s what a great movie can do for you, and even though it felt like nothing came out this year, plenty came out. I saw 150+ movies from 2020, so plenty came out, and pretty much all of it was at your fingertips. So, as I list the movies, I will also list the streaming services in which you can find these movies. They deserve your attention.
Alright, I think I’ve kept you waiting long enough. Let’s dive in!
The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Netflix)
When a movie packs several A-Listers and recognizable actors, sometimes it can feel more like an actor runway show instead of an actual movie. Looking at the cast of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” you will surely recognize Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, and Frank Langella. Pretty strong cast so far, huh? Well, Michael Keaton cameos. Then we also have Jeremy Strong (Hey, isn’t he that one guy from “Succession?!”) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Hey, wasn’t that guy in that one episode of “Black Mirror?!”) John Carroll Lynch (Hey, wasn’t he the husband in “Fargo?”) and J.C. MacKenzie (Hey, I know I know him from somewhere!) Sometimes that much star power can be a distraction. Sometimes throwing a bunch of stars at a movie doesn’t help, in fact it can mean danger in some instances (We all remember “Rat Race,” right?) Maybe that’s why so many studios have turned to brands, because actors themselves maybe don’t sell like they use to. No matter who you do or don’t cast in your movie, one thing is paramount. You have GOT to have a story worth telling.
The story of the Chicago Seven is not only a story worth telling, its something that is shockingly relevant by today’s standards. According to the film, there is no way you could call that trial “fair” at all. The law system failed these men by stacking the deck against what could and could not be heard by the jury. Kind of like what media in general does. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, Americans have a bad habit of listening to people because they think what they say sounds good. Or maybe we listen to people who like the same politics we do or some other superficial level. Instead of questioning everything and doubling back on sources. Even though many claims to be “woke” or “in the know,” we don’t tend to question things as much as we probably should. Which is why “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” is so important. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, it’s extremely well-acted.
Da Five Bloods (Netflix)
When someone like Spike Lee has been making movies for as long as he has, and is as acclaimed as he is, can it truly be possible to have Best Film? Personally, its hard for me to determine. With auteurs like Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino…thinking about their filmographies as a whole, I don’t know what I’d give top honors to. It’s easier to point at a Best Film by a director when their career is a little rockier, but when someone who has been on their game for as long as Spike Lee has? The question of coming up with their Best Film is hard for me. Especially when Lee just recently blew me away with “BlackKklansman,” which was only 2018. Some have already said that “Da Five Bloods” is Spike Lee’s best film. That’s certainly their prerogative.
I honestly don’t know if “Da Five Bloods” is Spike Lee’s best film personally, but I can tell why people are so smitten with it. For the first time in his career, he’s very subtle about how critique of America in this new movie. Usually, Spike Lee holds no punches when doing his dissection of our country. But how he still makes his points in such a subtle way may feel rather sophisticated for Lee. He still packs a massively incredible ensemble of actors. I would hope Delroy Lindo gets nominated for his work in this movie for this years’ Oscars. I never hold my breath because The Academy makes mistakes on an annual basis, but I hope he gets nominated. He’s phenomenal here. Not only does Lindo shine here, but the film features one of the last, great performances by Chadwick Boseman, an actor I know I am going to miss terribly as the years roll on. But the neatest stuff is how Lee does more here than just his regular dissection of our fine country. He explores themes of friendship and setting old wrongs right that I just had to get up and applaud. I will have to re-watch the rest of his library before I crown this the greatest of Spike Lee’s joints, but it will certainly rank high on my list and he’s proven once again why he’s such an important voice in our film culture.
The King of Staten Island (VOD)
I’ve begun to wonder if there is some kind of science to when an actor levels up as a performer. I know just as many people who hate Pete Davidson as people who love him. Me? I guess I’ve been a fan. There’s actually a list of actors I downright don’t find talented at all, it’s a surprisingly small list. He’s fine, but I don’t watch SNL nearly as often as I did growing up. I saw “Big Time Adolescence” earlier this year which was good. But I’ve waiting for Pete Davidson to blow me away now for a bit. Perhaps it was the always reliable direction by Judd Apatow. Maybe it was knowing in the back of my mind that there was a little truth to the story being told. Maybe it was a combination of different things that rolled into the magic trick of bringing any movie to life. Who knows? The big takeaway here is that Pete Davidson shines in a way here that I had simply never seen before.
Not only is “The King of Staten Island entertaining and funny, but actually very revealing. While Pete Davidson’s character Scott lost his firefighter father to a hotel fire, Davidson’s real father was also a firefighter who lost his life on 9/11. Davidson has also had his own battles with mental illness. Not only is Davidson performing here, he’s baring his soul in this film. Anytime an actor is that willing to get that personal with you, it’s an act of shear art. If you don’t need to know the behind-the-scenes facts of all your movies, that’s okay too. “The King of Staten Island” is filled with big laughs and meaningful moments and a brilliant performance by an actor who has officially leveled up as a performer.
The Hunt (VOD)
After Decision 2020, I feel like “The Hunt” just got a tad more relevant. Right now, we are in the middle of a second American Civil War. Sure, nobody is shooting and nobody is dying. It isn’t a hot Civil War, but I’d argue that its definitely a cold Civil War. We are battling it out for the soul of our nation right now. The funny thing is, if everyone stopped arguing, took a deep breath, listened to each other, and stopped trying to be right all the time, we’d be able to sort through our problems with a massive amount of ease. But it’s better to trust our gut then to trust other people. That’s the American way, isn’t it?
“The Hunt” was originally slated to be a 2019 release. But President Donald Trump heard a supposed synopsis. He took what he heard “The Hunt” was about and he ran with it. His base believed him, because of course they did. A “controversy” was formed out of nothing. The studio panicked, and it was shelved for a year. I don’t remember Trump’s exact words, and I am not going to waste time looking them up right now, but essentially, he boiled “The Hunt” down to being a movie about a group of rich, snobbish Liberals who kidnapped Conservatives to kill them. Funny, how you can have an entire movie figured out after a short, vague trailer. What’s extra comical is how Trump’s behavior that led to “The Hunt” being shelved for a year is the exact thing director Craig Zobel is making fun of in his film. So many Americans in this country, despite political affiliations, are reactionary dummies. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s the truth. We take “truth” from people simply because we like them, or they think like us, and doesn’t matter at the end of the day what the truth is. “The Hunt” is a prank. It’s a movie that’s fucking with you. It is very much the 2020 update of “Team America: World Police.” We are nuts when it comes to our politics, and Zobel simply held a mirror to us when we are at our worst, which we’ve been since 2016.
You may not like the joke, but it is indeed, a joke.
One of my favorite things I did this year was take a chance on the streaming service Shudder. It’s simply a wonderful service and a must-have for any and all horror fans out there. A streaming app that specializes in horror and thrillers, for an annual price which equates to under $5 a month, what kind of horror fan could resist. The thing is, they’ve made some pretty good Shudder Originals of their own. “Cursed Films” was a great docu-series that explored the making of some of the best horror films, movies that may or may not be really haunted while being made. Then there was “Host,” the first film which tackled COVID-19 anxiety dead-on. Even thought he recent “Songbird,” is being advertised as the first COVID movie, that’s a load of malarky. “Host” was first and “Host” was amazing, while “Songbird” was dumb on arrival.
A group of girlfriends all get together on a Zoom call, since they are in the midst of the pandemic and they literally have nothing better to do. This isn’t an ordinary Zoom call of course, because one of the friends has invited a Medium in order to perform a séance so the friends can talk to the dead. Like horror movies usually go, things don’t go so well. Primarily, because one of the friends doesn’t take the séance seriously. “Host” at first glance, may feel like a horror film simply cashing in on a momentary gimmick (yep, the vaccines are going to our great heroes right now, this is a momentary gimmick). But as I’ve enjoyed repeat viewings of the film, it’s also a striking commentary on how individuals have treated the COVID-19 pandemic. Who knew it really had so much to say? It’s just under an hour, so it’s a tight little movie. But any film that has THREE shocking jump scares that get me EVERY TIME I WATCH IT is definitely a horror film worth a look.
Do you know why I fell in love with Pixar? Growing up, even at such a young age (I was five when I saw “Toy Story” in theaters with my mom and brother) I had fallen in love with my first studio. As the years wore on, I enjoyed every movie Pixar made. They made actual family films. When we think of a family film today, we think of any animated movie that is actually designed for kids while the adults kill some time in the theater after a hard day at the office. Movie theaters are nervous about their futures due to COVID-19, and one of their excuses for their demise is supposedly “kids.” The actual problem is that studios have now decided to think inside the box when coming up with family films, and that sadly includes Pixar. (Up until I saw Soul, of course!) Remember when Pixar movies had provocative stories that weren’t so on-the-nose simply because they were animated? Remember when they used to sneak a little adult humor here and there in their movies? Pixar used to feel like a studio that was constantly trying to outdo itself. Until they got lazy and started playing the sequel game, and in recent years it became just any other film studio.
With all that said, “Soul” feels like a miracle. It’s the best Pixar movie in years, simply because it feels like classic Pixar. This is a movie that is made for every member of the family. This is a piece of visual wonder mixed with a story that is moving, surprising, entertaining and very, very funny. This is probably my vote for one the funniest of the Pixar films because I don’t remember laughing this often at the other movies from this studio. It may follow the typical Pixar template, two complete opposites going on an adventure together, the look of the visuals is breathtaking. It creates a strange yet lived in world. Most of all, Pixar has returned to form in a big way, and I couldn’t be happier. Here’s to them sticking to this plan for many years to come.
“Possessor” was everything I was hoping “Tenet” would be. Sure, Christopher Nolan never makes boring movies. I’ve loved plenty of movies from him in the past and I’m sure I will again. There’s even plenty to love about “Tenet.” The thing is, “Tenet” felt like a bunch of ideas without a movie to actually support them. For the first time in Christopher Nolan’s career, it seemed like he finally made the movie his dissenters claim he makes each time he’s got a new film in release. “Possessor” is the brilliant, bizarre cerebral thriller of 2020. A movie that pretty much sums up the year nicely. “Possessor” is a movie that revolves around an organization of assassins who possess other people’s bodies in order to get close to targets, also without jeopardizing their freedom. Using the technology necessary to complete these tasks begins to take a toll on one assassin in particular. Not just physically but mentally.
“Possessor” was directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the son of acclaimed filmmaker David Cronenberg. You’ve probably seen a David Cronenberg movie even if you don’t recognize the name. They are pretty unforgettable and probably make you feel a certain way about your body and/or humanity, sometimes even both. I mean the remake of “The Fly?” “Scanners?” “Naked Lunch?” “Videodrome?” These aren’t experiences you forget even if you tried. Looking at “Possessor,” its clear that Brandon is definitely his father’s son. But “Possessor” is also a piece of art that stands on its own. Brandon clearly has his own unique voice, and he’s curating his own brand of talent. I hope it’s a voice and a talent that I can enjoy for many years to come.
Beastie Boys Story (AppleTV+)
Even if you don’t like rap, even if you’ve never heard a single piece of their music, there is no denying the raw power when people sit down and give you a complete defense about their lives. Musical biopics are easy. At least, Hollywood makes it seem like they are very easy. I wouldn’t claim that the people behind and in front of the camera work very hard to make movies like “Ray” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but they all seem so alike that musical biopics feel like they are built from a kit. While “Rocketman” from 2019 felt like a breath of fresh air, it still doesn’t change the fact that it kind of feels like a fluke when you look at all the ocean of musical biopics in the world. They all seem the same.
So it feels really flesh, and almost like punk rock to have Ad-Rock and Mike D sit down and go over their entire career in front of a live audience. While a big screen in the back showcases their music, their videos, their interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the band. Even as far as documentaries go, its pretty unconventional in terms of direction and feel. “Beastie Boys Story” feels like one of the comedy specials on your favorite streaming service. But the truth is, again, I have to use that R word. The movie is such a raw and real portrait of a band that its hard to shake off after you’ve watched it. Maybe Ad-Rock and Mike D are just great storytellers, but movies are just a form of storytelling. How you tell your story absolutely matters and for these guys to give such an unhinged portrait of themselves is probably some of the most brutal honesty of the entire year.
Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime)
I don’t know how many of you watch award shows like I do. Some of you probably don’t understand while there are so many awards are “silly categories.” It seems like all the awards most people really care about are the those for actors, those for directors and Best Picture. Maybe a few nerds out there care about costumes or visuals or writing. I find value in awarding it all. Movies are magic tricks, it’s a miracle if any movie, any year really comes together. A director has to surround himself with people they trust, because a director sometimes isn’t in charge of every little thing. The actors usually shoot scenes out of order. You got to have the right costumes, the right locations, the right lighting. If you are dealing with a movie with special effects, that becomes even more of chore. That’s why the credits at the end of a movie are so long. It takes a whole village of people, each bringing their own skill and their task to the table in order to get the thing right.
If you ever needed a great reason as to why we give awards to people who do the sound design for the movies, look no further than “Sound of Metal.” I haven’t looked up the team behind the sound for “Sound of Metal,” but I am confident that they should win all the awards this year for their work on this movie. It’s a film about a drummer (Riz Ahmed) for a metal band who slowly begins to lose his hearing, which puts his entire job in limbo. He goes on a personal odyssey in order to help himself to hear again and the whole movie feels like what it must be like being deaf. Sure, part of the charm of the movie is in the way its directed and Ahmed gives a great performance. But the sound effects kind of drive the whole thing home. It’s definitely not the only reason to see the movie, but a detail that I found quite profound.
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm (Amazon Prime)
2020 was definitely a year full of surprises and there was no surprise more delightful than how much I enjoyed the triumphant return of Borat. This might shock some of you, but the first Borat from 2006 was just okay? I wasn’t always the biggest Sacha Baron Cohen fan, he definitely has a style that I had to get used to over the years. Or maybe he refined his voice in recent years that I finally get what he was trying for all these years. I thought his Showtime series “Who Is America?” was a wicked bit of dark humor and I wish badly we got more than a season of Cohen’s questionable American madness.
Or maybe Borat just works better in 2020? Who knows! I do know that Cohen slandered our culture to the point that I was laughing so hard I hurt. Maybe Cohen helped himself by giving his movie more of a wrap around story this time. How the whole movie ties into Borat being a better father to his daughter, played by Maria Bakalova, its something that I felt very hard this year. It’s easy to make a cultural, social or political screed. It’s easy to throw them all together. But what makes the sequel to Borat stick out so much is how it tells a riveting story about family while also hitting the rest of its targets. No easy feat that, which is why I will commend Cohen for his work.
Here’s the first half of the list, the second is coming right up!