in Top Ten

I’ll be honest. I was pretty checked out on new movies for basically all of 2020, though I suppose so was America. It was a bad year for movies, just as it was a bad year for any industry that relied on large groups of people coming together. So looking at my list, I think I saw 80% of these in the last month, though it’s true that most years cram a bunch of their best movies into the end-of-year award cycle period. Still, because all of these are new to me and because I didn’t get to see any of them in a theater, I can’t say I’m all that attached to them. Though that’s not to say that they weren’t worth catching up with, as I’m certainly glad I did.

Honorable Mentions:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Palm Springs
The Trial of the Chicago 7

10. Mank

It’s hard to say if a film could ever turn a screenwriter into a compelling protagonist, but at the very least, Mank turns Herman J. Mankiewicz into a pretty compelling observer of Hollywood’s early days. While Mankiewicz writing Citizen Kane is used as the thread the ties the whole movie together, I found it most interesting when it gets lost in its little detours like Upton Sinclair’s run for governor of California or Louis B. Mayer’s suspect handling of running MGM during the great depression. While the film’s various threads maybe don’t come together in the most satisfying way, it’s all carried along by a restrained style from David Fincher that pays obvious homage to Hollywood’s golden age without ever feeling like a mere exercise in nostalgia.

9. The Assistant

Though I’m not someone who hates working from home by any means, there are still little things about working in an office that can be comforting, though The Assistant is not the place to look for those comforts. In mundane detail, this film tells the ever more uncomfortable story of an assistant at a film production office going about her day while her sleazy, unseen boss appears to be causing more and more trouble for everyone who works under him. It’s clearly a nod to Harvey Weinstein, but it’s nice to see a film that delves into your typical #MeToo themes but in a way that never feels even remotely overbearing. This is also one of the few films I saw earlier in the year, so I was able to actually let it grow on me after my initial viewing left me a little confused that it wasn’t anything like it’s trailer, which for some reason decided to paint it as a razor-sharp thriller (when it’s basically the opposite of that).

8. Soul

It’s a bit odd that the only truly great Pixar movies to come out in the last 10 years or so are Inside Out and this film, since they certainly feel like two sides of the same coin. Or maybe they’re the first two films in a trilogy of films about the inner-workings of what makes a human a human. Either way, I loved getting immersed in Pixar’s more playfully cerebral side and enjoyed Soul‘s ability to remain so visually inventive while also leaving room for plenty of body-swap antics. At this point, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross usually put out a remarkable score each time they decide to do one (like the one they did for Mank!), but the way Soul‘s soundtrack melds their more dissonant sounds with the joy and improvisation of jazz is especially great (so shout-out to Jon Baptiste as well).

7. Sound of Metal

It’s dawning on me that Sound of Metal feels very much like it’s in the same vein of storytelling as The Assistant or the abortion indie drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. They’re all films that focus very narrowly on one character going through an unpleasant experience that a lot of people go through, though it’s an experience that’s a little too unpleasant to ever get made into a movie. Thankfully, Sound of Metal tackles the topic of going deaf in a way that feels sensitive and thoughtful, but is also imbued with the harsh reality that no one is ever really equipped to lose one of the bodily functions that they rely on day in and day out. It also has the added benefit of really putting you in this drummer’s shoes, with sound design that truly puts you in the character’s headspace (or earspace?) which doesn’t even seem like a thing that you should be able to pull off, but somehow it does.

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

I didn’t have the ability to go to any plays this year, but then again, it’s not like I ever go to plays when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reminded me that that’s something I should probably change some day, as it did a great job of bringing August Wilson’s words to life, while also never quite feeling constrained by its source material. Which isn’t to say that basically the whole film takes place in one setting, but the film is able to paint enough of a world outside the recording studio where everything goes down, that you never quite feel like you’re just watching some play adaptation. The confined setting also feels necessary for these characters, as the film slowly illustrates that a recording studio where black entertainers could be themselves without oppression in this time period was a place worth relishing. Also, unsurprisingly, Chadwick Boseman is as electrifying as ever despite the fact that he must have been in the final stages of cancer while filming Ma Rainey.

5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

It’s hard to know where to begin with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a film that’s on its surface just about two people at the end of an ill-fated relationship going to a family dinner and getting lost on the way home. But in between the few actual plot points, there are so many divergences in terms of tone and states of being that it feels as if the film is unraveling while somehow still hanging together by a thread. I can’t pretend that everything in this movie made sense to me, yet at the same time there is an internal logic that felt weirdly cohesive and full of offhand produndities that you might miss if you’re not paying close enough attention. Honestly, it would probably be a little exhausting to sit through another one of Charlie Kaufman’s movies if he released them more frequently. But since we only get to peer into his one of a kind mind every half-decade or so, I’m here for the ride, no matter how strange.

4. Dick Johnson Is Dead

There aren’t many things as universal as watching a beloved grandparent or parent get older and slowly deteriorate to the point where they can no longer function. Though despite that, it’s not really a subject that one wants to confront head-on. Luckily, documentarian Kirsten Johnson found a pretty charming and darkly funny way of dealing with the fact that her father would soon be dying. The scenes where Kirsten Johnson stages her father’s possible death are all amusing, but also display an openness and ready-for-anything attitude that I think helps us see why she has such an affinity for her father. Though what’s most affecting is seeing the way Dick starts to deteriorate mentally while also trying to adapt to the Winter of his life, and of course that ending just about wrecked me.

3. The Vast of Night

I’ve never been a big sci-fi guy, but The Vast of Night taps into the kind of sci-fi I can get behind. Namely, one that focuses more on the mystery and wonder of the unknown, but also one that’s a bit of a late-night hang-out movie in the vein of American Graffiti. The most obvious stylist brethren would be The Twilight Zone, which maybe I should check out more of sometime, not that this movie ever quite gets as surreal as a Twilight Zone episode. There’s also some truly virtuosic long takes and tracking shots (one of which is particularly striking) that are impressive on a technical level, but also embody the stillness of a quiet night in a Southwestern small town. The movie just has a singular vibe that I didn’t know I needed, but now I’m glad I got.

2. David Byrne’s American Utopia

It feels a little weird putting a filmed version of a broadway show/concert on my list (let alone so high on my list), but it just felt right for this year. Live music is obviously a thing that none of us got to experience in 2020, and seeing a film that so thoroughly embodies the joy of playing music with other people in front of an audience was welcome medicine. There’s also something to be said about the way Spike Lee films this show with plenty of overhead angles that show the complexity of the stage movements as well as the way the camera will zero on the minute details of any particular performer. Then carrying us through is the man himself, David Byrne, playing a variety of hits and songs that are less familiar while retaining a stage presence like no other.

1. First Cow

There weren’t really any 2020 movies that “blew me away” so to speak, but there were a few that were still weirdly therapeutic in their own way. First Cow definitely felt that way to me, as the calm at the center of it served as a nice reminder that even if civilization isn’t at our disposal currently, nature will always be there to make us feel insignificant. Yet as much as the film does take advantage of its Northwest setting, it is at the end of the day a very simple human story about friendship. I’m not sure I’d ever quite fallen in love with Kelly Reichardt’s films before, but I also don’t think I had the patience to really sit with them and revel in their modest charms. In a year like 2020, hanging out with a couple of unlikely friends filtered through a zenlike clarity and reflection felt just right, especially when everything else from last year was filled with both a lot of quiet and a lot of noise.