There’s a saying that everyone’s a critic. And although there’s some truth to that, I’m certainly not a professional critic, which is probably quite obvious with my writings below. I bring this up for three reasons: 1) I do not have a film studies or journalism background, 2) I do not include my list in the tally for the year and 3) I don’t have the opportunity to see some films – most notably Nomadland and Minari that real critics have. Therefore, please consider this a work in process until those films are more widely available in late February. With that said, I did see most of the other films currently in the top fifty, and these are the ten that impressed me the most:
10. BAD EDUCATION
Cory Finley | 108 mins | Biogrpahy/Comedy/Crime Hugh Jackman | Ray Romano | Welker White | Allison Janney
Sometimes, the truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Bad Education, the HBO movie that tells the true-life story of the largest public school embezzlement in American history.
Adapted from a New York Magazine article, director Cory Finley rounds up an all-star cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Ray Romano to tell the story of a Long Island public school, where officials argued that an embezzlement should be kept secret to defend the reputation of both the school and the city. It’s informative, but even more than that, it’s actually quite fun, and probably the most underrated movie of the year.
9. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Eliza Hittman | 101 mins | Drama Sidney Flanigan | Talia Ryder | Theordore Pellerin | Eliazar Jimenez
The fact that I picked Juno as the best film of 2007 and have placed Never Rarely Sometimes Always near the other end of my ten-best list for 2020 is deserving of any criticism that I may receive. Eliza Hittman’s story of a young woman’s struggle to abort her unborn child is difficult, challenging, heartbreaking and painfully realistic. It’s also a film that I never care to watch ever again.
Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, the fore-mentioned teenager who travels from Pennsylvania to New York City with her supportive cousin. The last time I saw a debut performance this strong, it was by an unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence.
Yet, the majority of the credit for the film’s success belongs to Hittman. Her raw direction and unflinching honestly helped her make a movie that even those who oppose its opinions can’t avoid from feeling sympathetic. Never Rarely Sometimes Always may be one sided, but it makes it challenging to believe there should be another side.
8. LOVERS ROCK
Steve McQueen | 70 mins | Drama Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn | Micheal Ward | Shaniqua Okwok | Kedar Williams-Stirling
It’s challenging to rank Steve McQueen’s second film in his brilliant Small Axe anthology alongside the other films on my list, simply because Lovers Rock isn’t anything like the other films on my list. Boasting almost no story at all, Lovers Rock relies on its infinite beauty and mood as it takes us inside a Saturday night house dance party in the early 1980’s.
And yet, it’s not exactly fair to say nothing happens in Lovers Rock either. During the film’s short 70 minutes, characters experience love, fear, anger and disappointment. Culture, religion and music is examined. And the coolest Kung Fu Fighting dance off ever filmed takes place.
Many critics have placed the entire Small Axe anthology on their year-end lists, but Lovers Rock clearly stands out as the most accomplished in the series. McQueen obviously poured his focus into the direction of Lovers Rock, ensuring that each shot perfectly captured the atmosphere of the coolest dance party ever. At least in cinematic terms.
Autumn de Wilde | 124 mins | Comedy/Drama/Romance Anya Taylor-Joy | Johnny Flynn | Mia Goth | Callum Turner
The Jane Austin remake that I never knew I wanted is not only the best romantic comedy of the year, but also one of the best in recent memory. Anya Taylor-Joy, who became a household name for starring in The Queen’s Ganmbit, is brilliant as the title character, a wealthy socialite who has the charm, looks and fakeness of an early 19th Century Taylor Swift.
Emma spends her days dreaming of Frank Churchill, a wealthy socialite who she has never met, but has lofty expectations of because she adores his parents. Meanwhile, George Knightley, who is played with an abundance of charm by Johnny Flynn, has a unique connection with Emma as he finds her both charming and incredibly vain. Together, they have more chemistry than any pair I’ve seen onscreen in many years.
It’s that charm, along with some beautiful cinematography that is certainly inspired by director Autumn de Wilde’s photography background, that makes Emma. so much better than the 1996 adaptation, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow. Wilde also trims the story down to focus on Emma’s attempt to find the perfect match for her friend, Harriet Smith, rather than attempting to retell the entire 1,036 pages of Austin’s classic. By focusing on the juiciest part of the story, Wilde has created one of the best of a countless number of Jane Austin adaptations.
6. THE VAST OF NIGHT
Andrew Patterson | 91 mins | Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller Sierra McCormick | Jake Horowitz | Gail Cronauer | Bruce Davis
Science fiction, ironically, has been the genre that has progressed the least over the last few decades. A genre that was at its peak in the late 1970s, with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has tiredly become too dependent on expensive visual effects and worn-out franchises. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a small film with no major stars and little special effects is one of the few sci-fi films in recent memories to escape the funk of the genre. And that film is Andrew Patterson’s UFO tale, The Vast of Night.
Patterson’s film, which was picked up by Amazon, takes us back to New Mexico in the 1950s, where dresses were long, glasses were thick, and the local high school basketball game was the biggest event in town. That is, until some mysterious happenings start taking place that may or may not be extraterrestrials.
The Vast of Night’s story isn’t all that different from the hundreds of UFO stories told before it, yet Patterson’s quick dialog and creative cinematography make his debut film feel incredibly refreshing through its quick 89 minutes. So much, in fact, that it may just make you wish a spaceship would capture you and take you to a place where all science fiction films are this good.
5. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Aaron Sorkin | 129 mins | Drama/History/Thriller Eddie Redmayne | Sacha Baron Cohen | Mark Rylance | Joseph Gordon=Levitt
Writers never have and likely never will get the credit they deserve in Hollywood. It’s true that two-thirds of Best Picture-winning films also won a Best Screenplay Academy Award, but how many of those Oscar-winning screenwriters can you name? Perhaps their importance is never more obvious than by the countless scrips that may never get made due to the Writers Guild strike of 2007. And Sorkin’s film nearly became just that.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was originally written by Aaron Sorkin right before the strike and was intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Instead, the strike resulted in the project being scrapped and the script getting filed away, until Sorkin himself decided to breathe new life into the project by directing it himself. And we’re all fortunate he did, because The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the sharpest written story released this past year.
It tells the story of various men who were tried for organizing a protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which led to a violent battle between protestors and the police. The film spends most of its efforts inside the court room, a setting that Sorkin is most comfortable with after writing both The Verdict and A Few Good Men.
Sorkin wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 just a couple years before he wrote the script for The Social Network, which marks the peak of his writing career. He wouldn’t reach his directing peak until ten years later, in 2020.
4. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross | 98 mins | Documentary/Drama Peter Elwell | Michael Martin | Shay Walker
When I watched Bloody Nose, Empty Pocket back in November, I had no clue that it was staged, and that it wasn’t actually a documentary. How could I, when the emotions and personalities feel so incredibly lifelike?
Most critics didn’t know either. When it was leaked that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was actually filmed in New Orleans rather than in Las Vegas, and that the Ross brothers cast unknown actors for the film, some were outraged. They felt as if they had been betrayed and lied to. But nobody had similar complaints when the Coen brothers stated that Fargo was based on a true story. And why should it matter? The important thing is that the quality, personalities and emotions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets are so lifelike that we believe they’re true.
The film tells the story of a Las Vegas dive bar that throws one last party before closing its doors permanently. It’s a place where regulars come together and become family – sort of like a version of Cheers where all of the sitcom silliness is stripped away. And like Cheers, the one is well worth our time.
3. SOUND OF METAL
Darius Marder | 120 mins | Drama Riz Ahmed | Olivia Cooke | Paul Raci | Lauren Ridloff
It’s no stretch to say that COVID-19 has altered each of our lives in some way. Perhaps, that’s why it’s so easy to connect with Darius Marder’s story of a drummer from a moderately successful metal band whose life is turned upside down after he begins to experience significant and sudden hearing loss.
Riz Ahmed, who could become the first Muslim Oscar winner in history, plays Reuben, the forementioned drummer. Although he agrees to join a deaf community for recovering addicts, Reuben cannot shake the desire to have an expensive surgery that will restore much of his hearing and get him back to his past life.
Fittingly, Sound of Metal is one of the quietest films of the year, and also one of the most difficult to shake off. Reuben’s desire is completely understandable, and incredibly relatable even for those of us with far less-challenging circumstances. Yet, Marder seems to know that it’s that relatability that we have with movies that make them something everlasting. And Sound of Metal truly feels like one of the few films from 2020 that will be remembered years from now.
2. PALM SPRINGS
Max Barbakow | 90 mins | Comedy/Fantasy/Mystery Andy Samberg | Cristin Milioti | J.K. Simmons | Peter Gallagher
2020 was a year where we all were desperately in need of some laughs. Fortunately for us, first time director Max Barbakow provided us with enough for a whole movie year with Palm Springs, the funniest comedy since Bridesmaids.
Sure, Palm Springs owes much of its success to Groundhog Day, which remains the Citizen Kane of time travel movies, but Barbakow’s hilarious story of a lovable boyfriend stuck in an infinite hellhole loop is the best film of its kind since Phil Connors punched out Ned on the streets of Punxsutawney. But that alone isn’t why Palm Springs is my choice for the best film of 2020 – it also earns extra credit for being the movie that best represents the torturous infinite loop we all faced in 2020.
2020 may be an unusually bad year, but like Nyles and Sarah, we’ll get through it, with perseverance and science. In the meantime, at least we have some great movies like Palm Springs to help us keep our sanity.
1. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Emerald Fennell | 113 mins | Crime/Drama/Thriller Carey Mulligan | Bo Burnham | Alison Brie | Adam Brody
When the clock struck midnight on December 31, I had not seen a movie worthy of the prestigious honor of being named the best movie of the year. Fortunately, that all changed in mid-January when Emerald Fennell’s unforgettable #metoo revenge thriller was finally released to VOD platforms, after opening at theaters on Christmas day. And, I must say, Promising Young Woman was certainly worth the wait.
The film tells the story of a former medical student named Cassie, played brilliantly by Carrie Mulligan, who dropped out after her best friend was drugged and raped at a party. And now she wants revenge. Think of it as a Thelma & Louise for the new century, except with more twists, turns and vengeance.
Promising Young Woman realizes that we’re still living in an era where women marginalized while the Brett Kavanaugh’s of the world can still get elected to the Supreme Court, despite their past actions, and that far too many of us are able to brush social issues under the table, as long as we’re not directly impacted. And perhaps more than anything, it’s a sad reminder that a movie – albeit a brilliant one – takes more of a stance on the issue that our leaders in power. Promising Young Woman is a brave and thoughtful movie, that reminds us that it’s not psychotic to want justice and to demand change. How many movies have the power to do that?