2020 will go down in history as the year of COVID, BLM and the rejection (by many) of fascism. 2020 also saw massive lockdowns in many states in the US. And with that, many businesses where forced to shut down and/or modify how they functioned during a pandemic. This was also true for the film industry and the movie theater industry. Many big budget features have been pushed to late 2021 or placed on a streaming service. But that doesn’t mean there were fewer quality movies released this past year. In fact, some excellent and quite relevant movies were released on VoD and streaming services. So, with that said, here are my top ten films of 2020:
10. Ava: From director Tate Taylor, who’s last film “Ma” was majorly flawed, but highly entertaining, comes a movie about an assassin who has a bounty on her head. Starring Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Common, Geena Davis and Colin Farrell, this is a curious pick for sure, only because I wouldn’t say this is a “good movie” on a technical level. In fact, the acting is shockingly average. The plot is not anything new and (in fact) is filled with clichés. Even the fight choreography is clunky at times. So why is this one my list? Thanks to Taylor’s direction, “Ava”, while flawed, is non-stop entertainment. I don’t really know why I enjoyed it as much as I did, but I did. I enjoyed this more than any John Wick film, more than “Hanna”, or the “Taken” films; all of which “Ava” would be considered in the same category as, but on the B-side. A highly rewatchable and easily digestible movie, this may be an instance of right place/right time, arriving just when I needed some mindless entertainment.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always: This independent film focuses on an American teenager who must travel to obtain a legal abortion. The point of this movie is to recreate an accurate depiction of what a teenager must go through in certain areas of the country, in order to have a safe abortion without parental consent. As viewers, we go through this process with her. Writer/director Eliza Hittman really takes her time with this journey, forcing us to look on as this girl meets with a financial advisor, has multiple sonograms, sees a counselor and on the way navigates a large city full of lecherous men. Reminding me of 2003’s “Thirteen”, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a not so gentle reminder of how dangerous it is to be a teenage girl.
8. Red, White and Blue: John Boyega gives a performance rivaling his own in “Detroit”, in this the third in a series of five Steve McQueen feature length films to come out in 2020. “Red, White and Blue” is the true story of Logan Leroy, a young Black forensic scientist in London who wants to become a cop after his father is assaulted by two police officers. Exploring both sides of what we would now call the “Defund the Police” argument and also the dichotomy of being a Black cop, this isn’t itself a pro-cop or anti-cop film, but more a fascinating character study of two opposing Black viewpoints and how they each see the purpose of police in their communities.
7. The Forty-Year-Old Version: Filmed in black and white on what looked to be a shoe-string budget, Redha Blank, writes, directs and stars in this film about a struggling Black female New York playwright, who may or may not be having a “mid-life” crisis when one day she decides to pursue a career as a rapper. This is a film that drips with love for the culture, feeling like early Spike Lee, but with a more comedically awkward tone. Blank puts it all out there with a character who works in a field run by white gate-keepers, attempting to tell a story of Harlem as she sees it, the whole-time hurtling sexism, ageism and the pressure to write “poverty porn”. It does take about twenty minutes to get going, but once it does “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is hilarious, personal and profound in a way that really caught me off guard.
6. Possessor: Uncut: Set in an alternate universe where assassins take control of (inhabit) unsuspecting people’s bodies using brain-implant technology, in order to execute targets without it being traced back to them. “Possessor” sets a high bar conceptually. And it not only delivers, but will age as a sci-fi achievement on the same level as “Blade Runner”. That’s right. I said it. Starring the brilliantly eccentric Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott giving dueling performances, while technically never actually being in the same room, and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, there is a ton of mind-bending goodness to feast on. It is also the most explicit movie on this list, in every aspect. But what else would you expect from a Cronenberg?
5. Sound of Metal: A profoundly emotional journey following the life of a young metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Director and co-writer Darius Marder does a spectacular job of putting the audience into the shoes of a person struggling with sudden deafness, by focusing not only on how the world feels to someone who is deaf, but also how deafening the world truly can be. The sound mix is superb and Riz Ahmed gives one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. The only real flaw (if I had to find one) is that I wish it was longer. “Sound of Metal” is tragic (not a spoiler) even in its happiest most redemptive moments. Most of the things I loved about a movie such as “Whiplash” or “The Place Beyond the Pines”, are things I loved about this.
4. The Devil All the Time: Just to be upfront, this form of woefully depressing, life is meaningless storytelling is right up my alley; if you couldn’t tell by a list rife with downers. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s acclaimed debut novel by writer/director Antonio Campos, and set between World War II and the onset of the Vietnam War, this “Hillbilly Gothic” tale follows the lives of three groups of people, a war vet and his son, a couple of evangelical preachers and a couple of serial killers, all seemingly trapped in a hyper-religious area within the Bible Belt, whose lives intersect in random and vicious biblical ways. With tons of moving parts, Campos does a superb job of methodically maintaining this ever changing two hours plus story of relentless despair, while teasing us with unattainable hope. Sounds like a blast, right?
3. The Assistant: A snapshot of one day in the life of a young female assistant working for a powerful (but never physically depicted) executive. Written and directed by Kitty Green in a way that really emphasizes the silent suffering of one female employee trapped in an abusive workspace, in order to amplify the voices of many women who work in equally abusive environments. “The Assistant” showcases what an everyday hostile work environment looks like. We watch a mounting drip, drip, drip of uncomfortable and abusive actions made against this woman, as she absorbs every blow for the good of her career. “The Assistant” is a film where, if you relate to the protagonist at all, it will leave you absolutely decimated.
2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Based on a play by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is quite a simple concept on the surface. Set in 1920’s Chicago, we follow Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”) and her band during a single recording session. Like any great piece of art, there are layers. These layers tell a generational tale of the Black experience in the United States. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is less a biopic, than it is a movie about trauma; Black trauma. Much like “A Raisin in the Sun” we are forced into a dingy claustrophobic environment and made to witness multiple generations of black people struggle to make sense of things, as the world around them continues to take and take. Also, the performances for Viola Davis who plays the titular Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman who plays a young trumpet player with big dreams and a whole lot of unresolved anger, will both garner award considerations, if not victories.
1. Da 5 Bloods: Great war movies look to not only humanize, but to tell all sides of the story. This is Spike Lee’s most award worthy Joint since “Malcolm X”. Following four Black Vietnam vets, who travel back to current day Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader and also a secret chest full of buried gold bars they’d hidden during the war, Lee makes the forgotten casualties of war (dead or alive) his main focus. With a cast that includes Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman, it takes no time for the dialogue to become deep, critical and cutting towards a society which has always used poor Black labor to advance and conquer. The movie soon becomes less about a quest and more about the systemic long-term effects of colonialism on all victimized persons in that war, American and Vietnamese. A companion piece to something as prolific as “Apocalypse Now”, “Da 5 Bloods” tops my list most of all because it is unapologetically Black Lives Matter.
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