When I did my Top Films of 2019 last year, I opened by saying "what a year it was," and I find that utterly adorable in hindsight.
The chaotic maelstrom of 2020 blew through every facet of life and the film world was no exception. Massive delays and distribution shake-ups blew away any sense of normal moviegoing, theaters struggled to get by on whatever assistance could be found, and creators had to contend with new reforms and systems more than ever in drastic ways.
(Also, still no new 'Paddington' movie, even for as inconsequential as that sounds.)
That being said, somehow, some way, we also got a few really excellent movies this year and certainly enough where I felt comfortable in making a best of the year list. The films that stood out this year were essentially dominated by streaming, from giants like Netflix and Hulu to new players like HBO Max and Apple TV+ giving homes to plenty of new and exciting projects. But even in an era of theatrical uncertainty, there were still a fair few projects that streaming couldn't quite touch; spoiler alert, my Top 5 Films of 2020 is a bit of both.
Side note: If you'd like to see year-end lists from my fellow critics, Samantha Incorvaia and Marcos Noah Guzman, click on their names and check those out as well!
A few matters of housekeeping before I get started on the list:
- Other Honorable Mentions include 'The Trial of the Chicago 7,' The Photograph,' 'Enola Holmes,' 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' 'The Personal History of David Copperfield,' 'The True History of the Kelly Gang,' 'Birds of Prey,' and 'Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe.'
- There were also a myriad of projects that you've probably seen pop up on a lot of other year-end lists that I simply haven't watched yet: 'Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always,' 'Tigertail,' 'The King of Staten Island,' 'Palm Springs,' 'Tenet,' 'Miss Juneteenth, 'Dick Johnson is Dead,' 'Wolfwalkers,' 'Minari,' 'Promising Young Woman,' 'Nomadland,' and the entirety of the 'Small Axe' anthology series eluded me this year, so if you're wondering why they didn't make my list, that's probably why.
- As I've done previously, I also want to give out my Biggest Pleasant Surprise award for the movie I wound up liking beyond a lack of expectations, such as last year's winner, 'Alita: Battle Angel.' This year's winner was a bit of a no-brainer, that being Jeff Fowler's 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' the movie that seemingly everyone had collectively decided should never see the light of day, but actually wound up winning over a lot of audiences and I'm not above including myself in that.
ON TO THE LIST!!!
5. Spontaneous (Directed by Brian Duffield)
Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer star in Paramount Pictures' 'Spontaneous'
Photo Credit: Paramount Movies – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dt523AHZWY
When I first heard about 'Spontaneous,' I rolled my eyes at the synopsis: girl meets boy, both are cynical and quirky, they form a relationship...all while, one by one, their entire class begins to spontaneously combust out of nowhere without a clear cause in sight. What one earth was I getting myself into?
But the thing is, for as absolutely ridiculous as it aims to be, 'Spontaneous' is very sneakily the existential gut punch of a film that 2020 so righteously deserves. I'm not even joking, from commentary on everything from generational divides to pandemic responses (timely), writer/director Brian Duffield puts a mirror against everything terrible in current society, only to smash it with the kind of youthful, middle finger energy you can't help but get behind.
It almost makes you forget what kind of film you're watching between the lovely chemistry of Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer, the introspective, irony-filled dialogue, and trying to frame its gruesome story in much more subtle ways. This was something truly special and, if I may be so bold, bloody fantastic.
4. Soul (Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers)
Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx voice characters in Pixar's 'Soul'
Photo Credit: Pixar - YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TojlZYqPUo
In a bit of a coin flip from 'Spontaneous,' we have 'Soul,' a project that pushes a similar message of pushing away the nonsense and embracing life for what it is, but much more psychological and, strangely enough, optimistic. While I thoroughly enjoyed Pixar's other 2020 effort, Dan Scanlon's 'Onward,' 'Soul' is on a whole other plane of existence (keeping with the Meta aesthetic of it all), acting as a left-brain counterpart to Pete Docter's previous work with 'Inside Out' and just as fascinating.
The story is paced in such a way that, as we dive deeper into these huge, borderline academia concepts of what/why is a soul, the underlying humanity to it all is never lost as seen through our two main characters (an excellent Jamie Foxx as Joe and Tina Fey as 22, maybe the best performance she's given this side of 'Mean Girls'). Sure the overarching ambition can be a bit too much at times, but when its handled with this kind of creativity, you kind of just roll with it, wondering just where on earth you're going next.
Add in some of Pixar's wildest visual flourishes yet, some great internal world-building, and one powerhouse of a score (a mix of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' mind-melting soundscapes and Jon Baptiste's divine jazz touches), the result is a project I can't wait to revisit and deconstruct even more.
3. Sound of Metal (Directed by Darius Marder)
Riz Ahmed stars in Amazon Studios' 'Sound of Metal'
Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFOrGkAvjAE
I was expecting 'Sound of Metal' to be great from the moment I heard about it and I'm so glad it lives up to its potential. Darius Marder's portrait of a drummer slowly succumbing to hearing loss is so much more than a sob story, turning to graceful direction and actual drama where so many other projects never would.
It doesn't rewrite the rulebook for on-screen portrayals of hearing disorders, but it does come off as much more intimate. The framing is much more on exploring internal doubt and anxiety that comes with losing something you might hold so essential, how someone can rebuild themselves back up and embrace who they are in the process.
All of that is anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Riz Ahmed, who takes the character on a layered journey that excellently conveys a journey into putting in the proper self-reflection of rediscovering the love and passions they held so dear. That's also to say nothing of supporting performances from Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and, the real co-star, Nicholas Becker's sound design utilized in ways that are haunting, intimate, even serene, especially in the films meditative final moments.
2. American Utopia (Directed by Spike Lee)
David Byrne leads an ensemble of musicians in the HBO Max documentary, 'American Utopia'
Photo Credit: HBO – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lg4hcgtjDPc
So if I didn't love the American Utopia album, how come 'American Utopia' concert film is so gosh darn euphoric? Well part of it has to do with Spike Lee who, on top of having an incredible year with 'Da 5 Bloods,' decided "hey, I'm going to direct one of the best live shows of the year during a year where live shows are impossible." The sense of scale he gives the stage, the vibrant shots he and cinematographer Ellen Kuras manage to paint the show with, and the ballet he takes in maneuvering between the spoken words sections and the musical performances all make for a film that visually is enough on its own.
But then you get to David Byrne and co. with the musical numbers and they are almost all fantastic. Byrne and his band come into play with the idea of separating anything unnecessary between the audience and the performers, sprinting barefoot across the blank canvas of a stage to Annie-B Parsons' choreography with an energy that is just so infectious to get behind. Every song, from Byrne's solo material to Talking Heads classics to an hauntingly timely Janelle Monae cover, is given proper attention by the backing band led by percussionist Mauro Refosco.
Does it match the frenetic highs of the late Jonathan Demme's 'Stop Making Sense?' No, but I'd argue it gets pretty close and, for what its trying to say, it's more than earned my runner-up spot for this year.
1. Driveways (Directed by Andrew Ahn)
Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and Brian Dennehy star in FilmRise's 'Driveways'
Photo Credit: FilmRise Releasing – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-j1p-U7nKw
On the surface, 'Driveways' doesn't seem like much, let alone any kind of contender for the best film of the year. It's simply mundane at best, possibly leaning into really outdated and cliched tropes at worst. Yet director Andrew Ahn manages to navigate all of those possible hurdles, surpassing them and, in the process, delivering the kindest, most genuine film I saw all year.
There really isn't one secret to how it all works, but Ahn's direction is certainly part of it. 'Driveways' isn't a flashy film, preferring to just sit with its characters (often literally) and conveying that sense of sincere companionship to it, across generational, racial, and class divides. It probably would have worked just as well for me, but there were certainly more than a handful of moments that hit way too close to home in 2020, and I was more than alright with it.
Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and the late Brian Dennehy do fantastic work in bringing to life a mother coping with learning about her family too late, a son just trying to find his own voice in a very loud world, and a veteran coming to terms with his own mortality. The technical side is great too between Ki Jin Kim's blissful cinematography and a frankly underappreciated score from Jay Wadley.
*Seriously, between this and 'First Cow,' what's with me and minimalist film scores this year?
It all comes across as natural and its legitimately surprising how many turns the movie takes that aren't "big," but feel big because you just get so wrapped up in whatever will happens next. 'Driveways' is a film that thrives on sincerity and it seems fitting to want something like that for this year, even if I wasn't expecting it.
What were your favorite films of 2020, and did any of them make my list?
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