Due to studios having until late February to release their Oscar contenders, I finally caught up on all the major films of 2020. Here is a list of the best films I saw from January 2020 until March 2021. Only a handful of films made it into the theaters. This is based on a mixture of films I saw in theaters, streaming, and on demand. So the pricing and screen and sound were drastically different, which I’m fully aware may make me biased. With that said, 2020 had a lot a real gems. With no big blockbusters outside of Tenet, this year the independent film reigned supreme with a lot of wonderful stories dealing with issues like sexuality, poverty, race, political ambition, and other topics that deserve to be addressed. Below are the top ten I saw.
1. Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s true story of the protestors in front of the DNC convention of 1968 is a powerful and wildly entertaining drama that challenges our ideas of freedom of speech and justice. Filled with great performances, Sasha Baron Cohen stands out as hippie Abbie Hoffman, the pot smoking freethinker who leads this eclectic band of liberal misfits against a conflicted prosecutor and strict judge.
2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson’s play about a famous black female singer named Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and the rebellious trumpet player played by Chadwick Boseman is another four star masterpiece after Fences. The film takes place during one day in a 1920’s recording studio, following a multitude of characters, including the band, the music producers, and Ma’s secret lover and nephew tag alongs. Dealing with hard systemic racism as well as musical integrity, the film is a glorious showcase for two of the finest performances of the year.
3. Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is a sharp, dark, perspective look at rape cultural across the campus and corporate world. Carey Mulligan’s performance is a literal tour de force, as she caries out a variety of methods in making “nice guys” reveal their more sexually depraved nature by pretending to be drunk, being driven by men to their place, and her turning the tables of power on them. With sharp writing and an excellent supporting turn by Bo Burnham, the film looks at the female revenge thriller from a psychological point of view more than a violence dominated point of view.
Leave it to Pixar to be the film dealing with existential meaning through jazz music in a year where we all asked questions about who we are. When Joe, a frustrated substitute teacher, slips and falls into a pot hole, he ends up in the after life heading toward the light. But with his big break as a musician finally coming through on earth, he fights his own death to return home to give himself the shot he never had. But to complicate the story, soul 22 needs a mentor to figure out her place in the universe. With a rich and beautiful score, Soul tackles the issues of life and death most great films never would or could, but also reminds us that life is what we make of it.
5. The Father
A heartbreaking and deeply moving film about Anthony Hopkins’ Alzheimer’s induced father, battling the figments of his imagination and places of his mind, as they begin to blur, causing much confusion and desperation. Olivia Coleman plays his daughter trying to take care of him, but we grow weary with her as Hopkins goes deeper and deeper into his unawareness of the world around him. The film is a Masterclass in acting, editing, set design and score.
The beautiful story of a Korean family moving to the deep South to pursue the American Dream, this film took the festivals and critics by storm, becoming the winner in multiple foreign language categories, and earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, and Screenplay. With a beautiful score and intimate cinematography, director Lee Isaac Chung looks at his own life through the eyes of a five year old Alan Kim and the father played by Steve Yuen, to find the joy of family and cruelness of nature.
7. Sound of Metal
This hard hitting slice of life film looks deeply into the deaf community through the eyes of Riz Ahmed’s newly deaf drummer about to lose everything unless he can get an operation he believes will save his career and relationship. Paul Racci gives the performance of his life as the rough but loving leader of a deaf commune, and the film uses silence in a way unused in film before. A rare film not afraid to tell a difficult story without trying to tie a happy Hollywood ending to its tail.
8. News of the World
Paul Greengrass’s brilliant episodic western staring national treasure Tom Hanks as a man who goes from town to town reading the news in a post Civil War Texas. Along the way he finds an abandoned girl (Helena Zengel) raised by Native Americans and speaks no English. The film abandons cliches and becomes a showcase, showing a world not too different from our own with mass sickness, political opportunists, and child traffickers. But at the heart of this methodical western are two lonely people who build a family and life together.
9. Judas and the Black Messiah
The true story of how Black Panther Fred Thompson was brought down by the CIA and a black informant played by LaKeith Stanfield, in an amazing performance highlighting his shame and guilt. Daniel Kaluuya gives the performance of his career as Thompson. The film takes a real intimate look at how America wrongly tried to paint the freedom fighter as a terrorist and fills the screen with many fascinating and complex characters.
Chloe Zhao directs, produces, writes, and edits this quiet poetic film staring Francis McDormand as a nomad who states, “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless” to define her new minimalist lifestyle. Beautifully acted, the film uses real life nomads inspired by the book of the same name. The film challenges the way we think capitalism and materialism will make us happy by showing another world beyond our rat race mentality.
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