2020 Movies in Review
For a year that was so disrupted by the pandemic, the move to streaming and pushed release dates, overall, it wasn't that bad of a year in movies. There was a bit of delay in the year before distributers knew how they would pivot their releases where there just weren't especially good movies or they were very strange movies that benefitted from getting a weekend to themselves for their streaming release. I didn't feel like there were any five-star movies in 2020, but I did enjoy a whole lot of 4-4.5 star movies. The Oscar winning movie Nomadland is a five-star movie in my book, however I count it as a 2021 movie based on its availability in the US, and the Academy's expansion of eligibility to some early 2021 released movies for this year's show.
1. Palm Springs
A comedy made pre-pandemic that came out with perfect timing for people to relate to living the same day over and over again. It's a lovely plot in the style of Groundhog Day with a lot of laughs throughout.
This Tom Hanks World War II naval film went a bit unnoticed as it only released on AppleTV+. This would have been great on the big screen, it's one of the best war movies of the last few years.
Filled with some very surprising misdirection, it feels like a gimmick of a plot until the final act. Ultimately, this is much like a Quentin Tarantino revenge movie except from the eye of a female storyteller.
I'm a fan of Citizen Kane, I've watched it several times since I was a teenager, the Roger Ebert commentary on the DVD is one of the best ever, and there are a slew of documentaries about the making of the movie. Not only that, there was a decent feature film about the making of Kane that came out in the '90's, and this still touched on very different territory than all of those. This might be the least Fincher-y Fincher movie, but it's still quite good in a distinctive way than his style.
I grew up hearing about the Chicago protests in '68 and this captures everything so well. This is stuffed with great performances who get a great story to work with. It's a much more lively courtroom story than a typical drama.
I'm not sure if it's just that I'm a fan of Steven Soderberg or that I have a lot of fond memories from Semester At Sea in college, but this story of an author on a transatlantic cruise with some old friends is a lot of fun. Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges have incredible chemistry on screen as aunt/nephew travel companions. The story takes a turn away from the expected in a way that very much subverts typical character types and story beats.
I think I smiled through the whole documentary. It shouldn't work as well as it does, the two surviving members of the band aren't the greatest presenters to an audience, but that rawness leads itself to some humor in the flaws. Those guys sure have had unbelievable lives.
Speaking of movies with compounding strangeness, Tenet doubles down on its own questionable concept in a way that is impressive to watch. I'm not sure the villain's plan or the reversing of time work at all, but the way that it was shot with stunts being performed in reverse and a camera operator running around with a massive handheld IMAX camera makes this a cinematic experience.
9. Uncle Frank
Such a touching movie. I feel like a lot of movies and TV shows try to tell this kind of story but this does it so well to show the split life of Uncle Frank who is "out" in his life in New York City and in the closet back home in his rural hometown.
10. Lovers Rock (Small Axe)
I guess this is the closest thing to "pure cinema" of all of these movies, the story of a house party is told through movement and music and the dialogue may not even tell as much as the body language of the characters. One of the installments from Steve McQueen's series of five thematically related movies that were released in five straight weeks.
I'm not really sure how to describe this. It's strange and it's not quite what it appears to be. The first impressions are that something supernatural or extraterrestrial is happening in a small town in Brazil. As the movie reveals itself more and more, it is more ominous and more deadly than anticipated.
12. The Last Dance
This managed to be an early pandemic sanity-saver for so many people. It really plays out to be longer story documentary rather than a series much in the way that the OJ documentary did a few years ago. Some felt this showed Jordan to be a mean person, it really showed how a real person could will them self to seemingly super-human achievements.
13. Red, White and Blue (Small Axe)
Another of the Steve McQueen movies, this is more of a life story of a real person rather than Lovers Rock's single night. This shows the challenges of police reform through one officer's real struggles.
14. Queen's Gambit
More appointment viewing of the pandemic, this limited series felt very cinematic. So incredibly riveting, it's hard to say this isn't a movie when you can't turn it off until it ends.
While it's an interesting story of immigration for a rural part of America, it's the great performances from the actors and the incredibly strong characters that nearly feel like they have come out of a sitcom to live in a drama.
It's probably not the best instance of putting a stage performance to screen, but it's an undeniable show that was not available to everyone to see. After listening to the cast recording for years before seeing this, it is still a thrill to see it even on film.
17. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee was busy. A wild story of Vietnam veterans told in the way that Spike Lee likes to layer multiple messages into the storytelling in a way that is exciting and engaging. This was probably a victim of its early release date that a number of actors that deserved awards recognition were forgotten by the time the shows came around.
18. David Byrne's American Utopia
In the second part of Spike Lee's 2020 double dip came a collaboration with David Byrne for a really exciting and imaginative concert film that was a perfect breath of fresh air in the middle of the lock down.
19. Birds of Prey
For a year with almost no releases from the major comic book cinematic universes this one Harley Quinn vehicle stuck the landing even if it was one of the first movies to go straight to streaming. With bright colors, a bunch of humor, over the top action and a little retconning of some other DCU this should have been a huge hit.
Tom Hanks gets his chance to both be in a western and be a "voice of god" news anchor. Shedding some light on how news spread during the days of the wild west, this gives one more detail into western movies with a decent pace and a touching story.
21. Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
As a fan of the Ottolenghi cookbooks, this is a beautiful and relaxing document of both great food, young chefs and bakers and the history of Versailles that is a great visual palate cleanser on its own.
While this was released well before the end of the pandemic and even before the end of the Trump presidency and the vaccines, this gives a detailed account of COVID-19 and the response.
23. The Midnight Sky
This is more along the lines of a science fiction novel rather than a blockbuster movie. It cares more about mood and humanity than spectacle, and it is not a visual disappointment either.
24. On the Rocks
What's fun about this movie is that it is about the characters and the plot really doesn't matter except that it motivates their interactions. I'm not always a fan of Bill Murray, but he is given space to be funny while staying understated.
A disaster movie that leans into the chaos of disaster and throws challenges at the characters rather than making them do the impossible. Gerard Butler surprises everyone that this isn't a B-movie and he's more of an everyman than smirking action hero.
Honorable mentions: It's notable that I have Borat Subsequent Moviefilm at #26 and a movie that, for a while, was near the top of my list, The King of Staten Island, at #27. There were a few indie darlings I thought were good but didn't crack my top 25, First Cow, Sound of Metal and I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Likewise, there were a lot of either under-the-radar or snubbed films that I really enjoyed: Host, The Personal History of David Copperfield, The Opening Act, The Outpost, The Painted Bird, Capone and Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway. I didn't have any animated movies in my top 25, although there was a trio that stood out, Weathering With You, Soul and Wolfwalkers. At the bottom of my list were a few movies that were split in public perception, The Jesus Rolls and Artemis Fowl were pretty universally disgusted, but movies like The Vast of Night and Color Out of Space were enjoyed by many but fell flat with me. I was generally an enjoyable year for what we got, but not a great year. Some of that was because of the pandemic, but some of it could just have been the hangover after an especially great year of movies in 2019.