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The Top 20 Films of 2020 (#10 – 1)

January 30, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Invisible Man

Top 20 Films of 2020 (#10 – 1)

Welcome, one and all, to part two my Movies Year in Review for 2020! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, and today we’re concluding our look at the best films of the past 12 months. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right into it!

Earlier this week I kicked off my Best Films of 2020 list with numbers 20 through 11. As I noted before, with the 8 Ball no longer keeping me to the top 8 format (or a two-part top 16), I’ve decided to expand to an even 20. There’s not a lot to say except that I really love all of these films, so let’s just get right into it!

Caveat: My criteria used to be that if the film had its domestic theatrical release this year, it was eligible. Obviously, that would lead to a very short list of films for 2020. Not only that, but the business is changing anyway (a move that’s long been needed), so I’m altering my structure a bit. If a film was released in theaters in any remotely significant capacity, or if it was a high-profile and marketed release on VOD or a major streaming service, then it was eligible. I don’t include films that are purely straight-to-video and may have a star or two but is essentially being shoveled out to reap in some profit on some name value. 2020 examples of this include Survive The Night (Bruce Willis), Last Moment of Clarity (Samara Weaving), and The Night Clerk (Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, John Leguizamo and Helen Hunt). There’s obviously some wiggle room on some of these and people may debate if some films are really “high-profile releases,” but that’s why it’s my list.

The only other caveat is that I have yet to seen everything that was released in 2020, especially factoring in streaming services. The films that I missed that could have possibly qualified based on reputation are Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The King of Staten Island, His House, and News of the World. Other than those, I feel reasonably confident I would have seen every movie that would have likely made the list. For those curious, I saw a total of 119 films that were released in 2020 (catching two more between my Worst Of and Best Of lists).

Just Missing The Cut

Freaky
The Gentlemen
Anything For Jackson

The First Ten

20: Host
19: Onward
18: Shirley
17: La Llorona
16: Just Mercy
15: The Trial of the Chicago 7
14: The Dark and the Wicked
13: The Lodge
12: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
11: Sound of Metal

#10: Possessor

Top Films of 2020 - Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg is definitely his father’s son. Cinephiles will immediately recognize the surname as that of David Cronenberg, one of the masters of body horror and the man responsible for mind-bending genre films like The Brood, The Fly, Videodrome, and Scanners. The elder Cronenberg has veered away from horror and sci-fi in the 21st century, but Brandon seems happy to step into his place in that respect. Brandon’s 2012 sci-fi horror flick Antiviral was a cold and clinical, stylish effort that didn’t quite explore everything it wanted to. The younger Cronenberg has made leaps and bounds as a filmmaker since, as evident with the maturity he shows in Possessor. The sci-fi thriller about an assassin who operates by taking over other people’s bodies in the ultimate undercover hit is brutal, unforgiving, and deeply thematic.

To say that there is a lot going on under the surface of this film is an understatement. Through his tale of Tasya Vos’ unravelling — achingly portrayed by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott — Cronenberg explores concepts of identity, the encroachment of technology on privacy, gender, morality and a hell of a lot more. Riseborough’s Tasya is a character who is has trouble putting together what it means to be a normal-passing human in society, and her disassociation causes all sorts of problems for her. Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from the hardest questions or the most brutal points, and while the physical violence is absolutely upsetting (and no one is safe), it’s the violence of implication and dialogue that tends to hit the hardest. The rest of the cast is stellar as well; Jennifer Jason Lee is electric as Tasya’s boss, Sean Bean is viciously good as the latest target and Gabrielle Graham delivers big time as the woman Tas is possessing for a hit in a masterclass of an opening sequence. But this film truly belongs to three people: Riseborough, Abbott, and Cronenberg. The former two are perfectly matched against each other as the minds doing battle over a body, and Cronenberg uses that dynamic to make his film stab deep. Like his father’s best work, Brandon makes Possessor a movie that coils up in your brain and won’t leave until long after you’re done with the running time.

#9: Palm Springs

Top Films of 2020 - Palm Springs

Listen, I know that 2020 was a really weird year. But even by those standards, it’s strange to think that one might string together the words “That Andy Samberg romantic comedy is one of the absolute best films of the year” in that particular order. And yet, here we are. Palm Springs is absolute revelation of a movie, with Max Barbakow getting superb performances from Samberg and Cristin Milioti as a man who has been stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario at a Palm Springs wedding and the woman who gets trapped in the loop with him. It’s a simple set-up with a pretty clear source of inspiration, and yet it goes in some very different directions thanks to a whip-smart script by Andy Siara that balances the potential hijinks of a time loop movie with some real sentiment and emotional exploration of its characters.

Enough cannot be said about how good the leads are, particularly Milioti. Her Sarah is our “eyes of the audience” character, and she serves as a credible questioner of everything going on. Her acceptance of her situation helps us accept the premise, and her chemistry with Samberg has real sparks to it. Samberg plays a more grounded character than we often see from him and nails it. His comic timing has never been in question, but he shows an ability to channel some real emotion instead of sticking to his often-funny caricatures that serves him well here. Add in the always-welcome J.K. Simmons as another time loop prisoner with an axe to grind against Samberg’s Nyles and you have the recipe for a lot of fun. I’m always a fan of rom-coms, but studios have had trouble for years making worthy entries in the genre. Even setting its sci-fi elements aside, Palm Springs is the breath of fresh air that romantic comedies have needed for a while now. This is one of my new automatic picks when I need a feel-good movie, and we deserved more of those kinds of flicks in 2020.

#8: Soul

Top Films of 2020 - Dolittle

It’s not exactly a controversial statement to say that as far as big studio efforts go, no one does animation quite like Pixar. There’s a reason why the Best Animated Film Academy Award is nicknamed “The Pixar Award” by many moviegoers; if a Pixar film is eligible, it’s usually going to win. And 2020 was a particularly good year for the studio. Not only did we get Onward, which managed to crack into my top 20, we also got Soul. Directed by Pete Docter of Up and Inside Out fame (not to mention being Pixar’s CCO), the story of a music teacher/jazz musician’s soul trying to get back to his body on the verge of his big break follows the Pixar formula of delightfully funny scenes laid out over a thought-provoking story that hits the emotions hard. Doctor, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers’ script explores what it really means to be human and what makes us precious while also speaking to the power of art, passion and dreams.

If there’s one thing that Pixar’s storytelling has been criticized for, it’s a tendency to rely on an easy-to-follow playbook. You can chart out the course of a Pixar film in one of two ways: either they lean more into the surface-level entertainment like The Incredibles, Monster University, and Brave or they hit a more conceptual level and explore more expansive themes like Inside Out and Coco. Soul goes the latter route and there are definitely recognizable spots down that path, but it’s certainly not a film that just follows a road map. So much about this film feels fresh and distinguishing from the standard Pixar process from the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to the visuals, the story structure on down. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey do fine work in the lead roles, while Graham Norton is a delight in the supporting role of dippy hippy Moonwind and the duo of Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett add gravitas to the physical world of the film as Joe’s mother and jazz star Dorothea Williams, respectively. Jazz is at the center of Soul’s emotional core, and like jazz itself, the film is a whole mood is hard not to get swept away in.

#7: The Invisible Man

Top Films of 2020 - The Invisible Man

2020 may have been a year that seemed to never end, but it still doesn’t seem like that long ago that Universal’s monster plans were in shambles. The Dark Universe petered out with the misguided The Mummy and all the studios big plans for spinoffs looked dead in the water. (And that’s probably for the best.) Credit to the studio for finally figuring out that a connected universe was a horrible idea and putting the power for their horror franchises in the hands of different voices for a series of mid-budget entries. Even if the other ones all bomb, the first of them was one of the best of the year in The Invisible Man. I recall a lot of skepticism about this one in the lead-up to it, fueled in part by negativity toward the Dark Universe and concerns about what seemed like a very loose adaptation at best of the classic story.

Well, “loose adaptation” is an accurate description, but it was absolutely to the film’s benefit. Leigh Whannell took the idea of an invisible threat and smartly turned it into what I can safely say is a modern classic about a woman being tormented and gaslit by her abusive ex. Elisabeth Moss gives a captivating performance as Cecilia, who escapes from her abusive tech genius boyfriend only to have him seem to kill himself, then use his invisible suit prototype to make her life hell. We’re with Moss all the way along the journey and she makes us feel Cecilia’s trauma but also her resourcefulness and refusal to let Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Adrian control her. Whannell’s direction is the best of his career to date; for all the legitimate tense moments involving heightened situations surrounding the invisibility, one of the most intense sequences this year legitimately comes an entirely grounded and fantasy-free sequence in which Cecilia carefully escapes from Adrian at the start of the film. This movie has one of the best jump scares in film in 2020 with a scene I will, to stay mostly spoiler-free, refer to as just the restaurant moment. The Invisible Man isn’t scare because of all the crazy science and special effect-enabled hijinks; it scares because outside of all of that, it is very real. Moss’ performance is probably award-worthy but it’s horror so alas. Instead, she will have to settle for knowing she starred in one of the absolute best films of the year.

#6: One Night in Miami

Top Films of 2020 - One Night in Miami

You can quibble with this one’s inclusion on this list, if only because it hit most screens this month on Prime Video. However, it did have a limited theatrical start on Christmas Day, so I decided to count it for 2020. It’s certainly tough to argue that Regina King’s film adaptation of the Kemp Powers stage play doesn’t belong on a best of 2020 list for any other reason. Powers adapted his own work for the screen, documenting a fictional meeting of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in a hotel room after Clay beat Sonny Liston in 1964 and before he became Muhammad Ali. Powers’ deft script takes a look at those men, four of the most prominent names among Black luminaries in the early 60s, and bounces them off each other to explore the complex and shifting power dynamics of racial activism both in that era and now. Because the truth is that there’s a lot that hasn’t changed and Powers’ script lays that bare, mostly in the conflict between Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), two enormously talented actors who are giving their all in these roles. Ben-Adir channels Malcolm’s charisma and fire in smoothly shifting ebbs and waves, with Odom matching him inflection for inflection. It’s a battle between two heavyweight performers and two characters more thrilling than the actual fight the night is set after.

Ben-Adir and Odom may be the undeniable stars of this piece, but credit goes to Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge too, who play Clay and Brown’s personas well. Goree affects Clay’s famous demeanor well, but he also gets to the man underneath and there are moments of real vulnerability there. Hodge, meanwhile, is more of the elder statesman among the four and has a weary sense to him, with resentment for how he is treated roiling just underneath. King takes these four fantastic performances and makes sure to capture them in just the right perspectives. It’s a talky film to be sure and feels every bit the stage play adaptation that it is. But it never feels dull and never feels like it’s limited the way some stage adaptations can be. One Night in Miami may mostly consist of four guys in a hotel room, but the result is a film much bigger and finer than such a structure could possibly hold if it didn’t want to be there.

#5: Nomadland

Top Films of 2020 - Nomadland

Frances McDormand has a rare ability to appear in films that seem by their description to be the proverbial “Oscar bait,” but turn out to be much more than that. I’m not suggesting that she’s never done such a film, but through a potent combination of her ability to pick good projects and elevate material, a good number of films she’s starred in have been able to avoid that label even if that’s how they were positioned. Nomadland is a great example of that. McDormand is as good as she’s ever been in Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Playing a woman named Fern who takes to the lifestyle of van life after her the CDP of Empire, Nevada becomes a ghost town and she loses her job, the actress allows Zhao to capture her quiet, unassuming journey into this new life and the growing community of nomadic Americans going from place to place to find work and survive in America.

That description sounds depressing, and from a certain perspective it is. Certainly, Zhao captures several melancholy moments in Fern’s life. But this is less a film about pitying these people as it is understanding and appreciating them. Zhao loves character study and that’s what we have here, as we look through Fern’s eyes and see the real people she encounters. I’m not misstating there; a fair number of the characters we see in the film are actual, real van lifers. It lends a naturalistic air that serves the film well. Zhao (who also wrote the film) shows her aptitude at adding profundity to the quiet moments. It’s a tribute to the swaths of people left behind by America’s economic trials and, in some ways, a celebration of them. It’s not a film that will be for everyone, and people who don’t like the lack of a central storyline in Richard Linklater’s works will be bored here. But a little patience with Nomadland will reward you with a fantastic viewing experience.

#4: Da 5 Bloods

Top Films of 2020 - Da 5 Bloods

I know Spike Lee never really went anywhere, but it’s nice to have him back on his game. After a spending much of the ’00s and early ’10s turning out fine but forgettable fare, he came back with a vengeance over the past couple of years. BlackKklansman was one of the top 20 films of 2018, and his follow-up topped even that one. While it’s not as fiercely political as BlackKklansman, Da 5 Bloods is no less powerful. Featuring a strong ensemble cast including Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jonathan Majors, and Chadwick Boseman, Lee’s war drama feels like one of Lee’s most relevant films in years.

The film stars Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock as a squad of US Army veterans who make a trip to Vietnam to locate the body of their late CO Norman (Boseman) after a wreckage of plane that had crashed in the area turns up in a landslide. While there, they plan to recover gold that was in the plane earmarked for the Lahu at the time to aid in fighting the Viet Cong. The characters are a crosscut of American culture, with most of the focus on Lindo’s deeply conservative Paul who clashes with the group. Of course, this being a heist film, things invariably go wrong but the film is less about that than it is about the Black men who lived through Vietnam and examining what that war — and most American wars — meant for them and others like them. It’s a finely tuned piece of work by Lee, anchored by knockout performances from everyone but Lindo, Majors, Peters, and Boseman in particular. Lee is as good at filming the four leads bantering in a Vietnam bar as he is coordinating a big shootout late in the film. Flashback sequences featuring Boseman take on a stylistic element and Lee’s decision not to cast younger actors in the flashback scenes is a canny move to show how they’re all still living in that past in their own capacities. War films can be very hit or miss for me, but Da 5 Bloods was an absolute hit and Netflix’s best release of the year.

#3: Minari

Top Films of 2020 - Minari

Minari was a film that I very nearly missed getting the opportunity to see, having found out it was available through virtual cinema on the final of its one-week release. That would have been deeply unfortunate, as many other years it would have been an easy #1 film of the year. The 2010s have had a lot of films that look at the experience of people well outside the big cities and urban centers of America, but few have captured the poignancy of their characters quite like this gem. It would be easy to guess that Lee Isaac Chung’s feature directorial debut was semi-autobiographical even without having been told so, because it rings of an absolute authenticity that you can’t fake no matter how you try. The characters ring true in this tale of Jacob, a man who brings his family from California to Arkansas in hopes of growing Korean produce and carving out his family’s own place in the American dream. They’re struggling, a situation that is complicated both for better and for worse when Soon-ja, the grandmother of Jacob’s wife Monica, comes to stay with them.

There are a lot of parallels between Minari and Nomadland, at least thematically and visually. Chung’s film has a more directed feel to it than Zhao’s that benefits the viewer’s experience. It’s perhaps more conventional, but it’s also a touch more cohesive. The cast is all stellar; The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeung comes into his own as an actor in the role of Jacob, matched well with South Korean star Han Ye-ri as Monica. Child actors are always a dicey proposition even in the best films, but Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho are wonderful as young David and Anne. This film speaks a lot to the concept of the pressure on multi-cultural families to assimilate in America, with Chung beautifully capturing the setting and the era at the same time. There’s a gorgeous sense of wistfulness to Minari that guaranteed this one won’t be leaving my thoughts any time soon.

#2: Relic

Top Films of 2020 - Relic

As I’ve said in both parts of this list, there was a lot of great horror in 2020. But there isn’t a film that stayed in my head and kept me unsettled the way that Relic did. Natalie Erika James is absolutely stunning behind the camera of her directorial debut about three generations of women dealing with the slow descent into entropy suffered by the grandmother Edna as she slides deeper into dementia. James wrote the script based on her own experiences with losing a family member to Alzheimer’s and she takes care with her slow-burn approach, taking time to build up the three characters as well as the remote house and area around it that the grandmother lives in. It’s not a film with non-stop terror but the dread that settles over the proceedings is palpable, enhanced by the fact that Edna’s dementia is (like all such conditions) an inexorable slide. There’s a feeling of inescapability here, which James sets the stage for slowly before letting it all out in a third act that makes all the careful building very worthwhile.

For all James’ skill, this is a film that would have fallen apart without some stellar performances from the cast. Fortunately, Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote all give exactly that. Nevin in particular is phenomenal as she captures the essence of Edna and her condition, treating it with respect and never overplaying it. This isn’t a film where a broad, histrionic take on dementia would have worked and Nevins’ extensive stage experience is on display in a subtle, restrained but terrifying role. The film ends with a moment that, while controversial, is deeply essential to what James is trying to say about elder care, generational relationships, and mental struggle. It’s not a neatly tied up ending to provide closure, but it gives the film a power in its message that it would have otherwise lacked. In a year that horror was essential to the state of cinema, Relic is for my money the best horror film (and so very close to the best film overall) of 2020.

#1: Promising Young Woman

Top Films of 2020 - Promising Young Woman

I really, really wanted to write a review of Promising Young Woman immediately after I was done watching it. I very nearly did, but on a sudden decision I decided that I needed to sit with it for a while and consider it. I’ve never been so glad to not write something. That’s not to say my thoughts have changed on it; I still think it’s a brilliant, scathing, delightful and exceedingly uncomfortable film anchored by one of the best performances I’ve seen in recent memory. I would actually argue that my esteem of it has grown the more I’ve thought about it. But I also wasn’t in a head space to appropriately discuss Emerald Fennell’s film in the way it deserves to be discussed. (Frankly, I’m not sure I am now but I’m gonna give it a shot.)

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first: Carey Mulligan is unbelievable in this. Playing Cassandra, a woman who is seeking vengeance for a sexual assault perpetrated years ago, Mulligan does everything right. There’s not an inflection out of place, nor a facial cue that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Mulligan gives a performance that is fierce and brave, yet also incredibly vulnerable and charming. This film was sold to audiences with a trailer of Cassandra playing drunk at a club to lure in guys who might want to take advantage of her and then turning the tables on them, and while it was one of the best trailers of last year it’s also honestly the least captivating sequence in the film. Fennell drives the narrative of this film straight into dangerous territory and unflinchingly keeps steering straight as a thousand potential missteps race up on her.

Promising Young Woman is absolutely a divisive film — likely the most divisive of the last twelve months. There’s a wide spectrum of thoughts about this film, about what Cassie does and the tone that Fennell takes (to say nothing of an ending that I won’t spoil, but that I will say to gird yourself for). I understand a lot of what some critics have pointed out as issues and see where and why it’s not something they enjoy. At the same time, despite the chef’s kiss level of candy-coated coloring, twisted pop stylings and revenge-oriented developments, I don’t think this is a film that is necessarily meant to be “enjoyed” in that sense. There are satisfying things that happen in this film, and it’s virtually flawless on a technical level. But this is a film that is intended to provoke and affect audiences, not necessarily satisfy them. I love this movie which and drew my absolute admiration for the whole of the cast (credit to Fennell for casting a host of “nice guy” actors as “nice guy” characters who are ultimately — well, as you can imagine, not so nice). And I am looking forward to seeing it again, but I wouldn’t say it was one that satisfied me. It inspired me and made me think. It is a perfect mix of entertainment, catharsis, and infuriating gut punches that combine to make it my best film of 2020.

And that will do it for this! Join me next week as, with the bad out of the way, we take a look at the best films of the year. Until then, have a good one and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.