in Top Ten

As the others have said, 2020 was a tough year for the movies. I guess I’m more like Colin than John, as I didn’t have the discipline to build a ritual around trying to keep up with new releases. That’s partly because I do already have a movie watching tradition – I try to watch something with my dad every Tuesday – and the types of movies we’d watch are the ones that got delayed to 2021 and beyond. Actually, the last time I went to a theater was a dad Tuesday; we saw The Gentlemen at one of those weird dine-in cinemas. That movie wasn’t particularly memorable, but I do remember stocking up on canned goods at the supermarket on the way home per his advice. Last year sucked.

That said, coming up with a theme for this year’s list wasn’t that hard at all. Please enjoy my favorite 2020 movies about overcoming grief!

Honorable Mentions
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The Invisible Man
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

10. The 40-Year-Old Version

Writer-director-producer-star Radha Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself in The 40-Year-Old Version. The movie’s Radha is a struggling playwright and teacher (more on this trope later) who is stressed about turning 40 because she thinks she hasn’t lived up to her potential as a former “30 under 30” award winner. In an act of either desperation or divine inspiration, Radha decides to become a rapper and starts to blow up her status quo. So, look, there are plenty of stories about struggling artists in New York and this one doesn’t necessarily tread a bunch of new territory. That said, the perspective of middle aged African American women is one we don’t get a lot of at the movies. Plus, The 40-Year-Old Version is an hilarious debut that has features a delightful slice of satire that may or may not have destroyed Hamilton‘s chances of being on this list. Also, Radha’s grief about the end of her youth and concerns about her future are extremely relatable at a time when we’re all having to learn how to cope with, in the best case scenario, losing more than a year of our lives to quarantine.

9. Tenet

Aside from it’s extremely cool blank slate of a star, all the main characters of Tenet are struggling with grief in their own way: Andrei (Kenneth Branagh) is obsessed with his grief and allows it to consume him. Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) struggles against her desire for revenge when she knows she has to move on. Neil (Robert Pattinson) has embraced his tragedy and just wants to close the loop. There’s even the possibility that writer-director Christopher Nolan is dealing with his own grief, as he depicts a shooting at a theater. Although I stand by what I said before, I think he just wanted to make sure he worked “opera” into the story. Anyway, 2020 might not have had the Marvel, Mission: Impossible, and Fast & Furious movies we were promised, but I refuse to let that stop me from putting a dumb action flick on my list. Tenet is a ridiculous movie that is best enjoyed at an ironic distance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable!

8. First Cow

In a year when everyone got into baking, it would have been nice to have seen the sloppy biscuits that Cookie (John Magaro) makes sooner. They look insanely simple but quite delicious, which is the kind of encouragement I need to start a hobby. The grief of First Cow is the tragedy of all new starts: the old ways die hard. Cookie may have headed out west for new opportunities, but his gentle nature makes him an outcast among the other gruff frontiersmen. Lu (Orion Lee) is similarly disappointed to find out that racism has followed white people out west. But, for a moment at least, they are able to find camaraderie with each other and make a quick buck while they’re at it. The tragedy is that they couldn’t get more.

7. The Vast of Night

OK, so this one’s a bit of a stretch, but two of the big scenes in The Vast of Night are characters describing in great detail their grief, so I’m counting it. It was funny reading my friends describe this movie as Twilight Zone-inspired and then seeing the movie open up with a knock off of that show’s opening credits. You know, subtlety’s underrated! Sometimes it’s OK to just wear your influences on your sleeve. Anyway, what can I add to the conversation? I loved the style of The Vast of Night, despite the Fifties setting, the filmmaking felt modern with its snappy dialogue and flashy, CGI-assisted transitions between meticulously composed shots. I was reminded of a lot of movies, but one that particularly came to mind was Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special which, while still an indie movie, cost like 25 times as much to make. So a tip of my hat to Andrew Patterson and that whole crew.

6. Da 5 Bloods

It’s hard to distinguish between the real grief and the fictional grief in Da 5 Bloods. The four surviving Bloods are all still mourning the death of their leader, Norman, who was played by the absolute legend Chadwick Boseman. That certainly gave some additional weight to this movie that it wouldn’t have had if I’d watched it back when it came out in June. On top of that, Spike Lee continues where he left off in BlacKkKlansman in bluntly mingling real history and current events into his story, which is even more jarring when it’s about fictional characters. I honestly did find that somewhat distasteful, but not in a way that significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the film. It more just stopped me from liking it even more than I do. Anyway, I love all the guys in this and it rules that Delroy Lindo is back, I’ve been saying for years we needed more of that dude.

5. Soul

I was gonna do a whole thing here but it seemed too negative so, hey, Tina Fey should not have been in Soul. Moving on, Soul is about the very real grief of dying right before getting your big break. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is cut from the same cloth as The 40-Year-Old Version‘s Radha: he’s a struggling musician growing increasingly obsessed with getting his chance to shine while paying the bills as a teacher. What caught me off guard is how the plot resolves. So much of Soul makes you think things are going to go in a very Mr. Holland’s Opus direction, and it actually doesn’t do that at all. Honestly, that potential ending was so clearly telegraphed that not doing it was either a stroke of genius or the result of a last-minute rewrite. Either way, it really worked for me and propelled a charming movie into an inspiration to live my life better. Also I think kids will think it’s cute.

4. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is cameraperon Kirsten Johnson’s loving document of her process of trying to figure out how to cope with the still lingering grief of her mother’s death and the brutal reality that her father, the titular Dick Johnson, is headed toward the same inevitable tragedy. How does she do it? By staging elaborate tableaus of potential ways Dick could die. This morbid practice is an amusing way to show us what a wonderful man Dick is and why he means so much to her. But the parts in between, the parts where Johnson shows the early effects of dementia, are the most powerful illustration of what is being lost. It’s an all-too familiar process, one I watched both of my grandparents on my mom’s side go through. And the most brutal aspect of it is being reminded of that feeling of helplessness that comes with a long goodbye. So… yeah, highly recommended but only watch this one if you’re ready for it.

3. Mangrove

Director Steve McQueen changed the anthology series game this year by directing five (FIVE!!) movies about the lives of people of West Indian heritage in London. He put out a new movie every week for more than a month! Of the five, it sounds like two most popular are Mangrove and Lovers Rock, which is the one about a house party in 1980. I prefer Mangrove because I like courtroom drama and this was by far the best of those that I saw last year (sorry Aaron Sorkin). This is the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of activists who were tried for inciting a riot when they protested the police’s targeted harassment of a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. Seriously, the parallels to The Trial of the Chicago 7 are so weirdly striking. At the heart of the film is Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a man who just wants to run a restaurant who has no chose but to become radicalized in the face of institutional racism. You can’t help but feel sorrow and rage for the indignity he and the others are forced to endure. Will we see similar movies made about the protests this last summer? Hopefully when they are, it’ll be in the context of a historical document and not another reminder of how little things have changed.

2. Palm Springs

It seems that time loop stories inevitably lead to grief: when you’ve done everything and realize nothing is going to change, it’s hard not to give into depression. Hey, I think we all can relate to that. It feels like building a comedy movie around Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons is a foolproof recipe, but you still never know with comedy movies these days. So what a pleasant surprise it was that Palm Springs fully lived up to it’s potential and actually was full of laughs. Also, like Ted Lasso, it was a necessary, encouraging reminder about the importance of holding on to optimism in the face of insurmountable odds. Otherwise you’ll end up like a loser nihilist like Nyles. Wait a minute… Nyles… nihilism?! I see what they did there.

1. Sound of Metal

In an era where movies are often way too long, the two-hour Sound of Metal feels too short. It’s hyper focused on Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) grief, and I think it would have benefited from expanding out to show even more of his life. But director Darius Marder’s approach does make experience of a musician going deaf as visceral as cinema allows, at least at home away from D-BOX. As jarring as it is, this style worked really well on me, as I couldn’t help but put myself and Ruben’s shoes and imagine myself going through the five stages in the same way. I’d heard that the deaf community is an insular one, and that many people within it do not consider their deafness a disability. But Sound of Metal was the first time where that concept really clicked for me, especially thanks to stellar performances from Paul Raci and Lauren Ridloff. And, not to beat a dead… drum… there was a catharsis in seeing someone forced into dealing with a major lifestyle change and realizing how to come out the other side better for it.