I think we can all agree that 2020 was the worst year in cinema that any of us can remember. The film industry, with its heavy emphasis on redundant and blockbustery comic book movies, was already headed into the toilet when the year began and the pandemic only drove the nail into the coffin. I deeply missed going to the theater for the big screen, in-person experience, but even the movies I saw at home tended to be disappointing. When, at the end of the year, I looked at the “top ten” lists from the major critics to see what I was missing, I saw that they had selected small, independent, depressing movies I’d never heard of. Watching someone else’ trauma didn’t really appeal to me this year, but what was the alternative? The usual mainstream movies with movie stars and well-known directors were absent, apparently being withheld by the studios until the pandemic is over and it’s safe to go to the movies again.
The last time I watched this few movies (and when I say “movies” I am including films that were or could have been released in a movie theatre but which I streamed at home) was more than 20 years ago when my son was too small to sit still for a full-length picture.
However, once the Oscar nominations came out I made a special effort to watch the Best Picture contenders and I’m glad I did because one of those small, independent depressing movies — “Nomandland” — turned out to be a masterpiece that salvaged the year after all, and many of the others were pretty good.
Every once in a while there’s a movie so original that you not only can’t predict where it’s going, you can’t even understand the parameters of HOW to predict where it’s going and need to just let it wash over you. Last year it was “Parasite” and a few years earlier it was “Boyhood.” I’ve never seen movie characters that seemed as real as they do in “Nomadland” and that’s because they actually are real-life modern nomads, who have chosen a deliberately rootless life, unencumbered from anything that will tie them down. Before I watched it, I thought this was a movie about the victims of capitalism but discovered it’s really about a certain kind of personal brokeness can only be salved by kindness, temporary community, and flight. The Frances McDormand character isn’t “houseless” because she has to be, but because she wants to be. Just like Huck Finn, Natty Bumpo and a dozen other characters in American literature and cinema before them. The director Chloe Zhao will probably win best director but I hope they don’t put her in the “identity” box as the first Asian woman to win because she’s much more than that. Although born in China, she’s a great AMERICAN director.
All year long I resisted subscribing to Disney+ out of principle but I finally plunked down seven dollars for a month’s subscription so I could watch “Soul.” If I hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t have written a movie list at all because until then I didn’t have a legitimate Number One. “Soul” turned out to be a piece of art that literally changed the way I look at the world like nothing else has since I sat through “Our Town” for the first time — a work that expresses similar themes. I knew “Soul” was a Pixar movie about a guy who loved jazz but I didn’t understand until halfway through that the title referred to a person’s literal soul. Wrapped within a a very charming, funny, gorgeously presented, easy-to-digest animated movie is the answer to the profoundest question — how should you live your life? Here’s a hint — you should live you life by living it to the fullest.
I need to make it very plain that this movie is definitely NOT “Tiger King,” that uber-trashy Netflix series about big cats. “Tigertail” is a deeply affecting story about the personal choices made by a working class Taiwanese immigrant with conflicting dreams. This quickly becomes an allegory about the emotional price paid by generations of ambitious new Americans who sacrificed love, family and their own mental health to pursue an economically better life in the U.S. Beautiful filmed with understated acting.
Like “Tigertail” (see above) this is a the story of the Asian immigrant experience, expect more optimistic. The family in “Minari” is not as damaged by broken dreams and although they face the usual setbacks (although not, surprisingly, any discrimination in their little Ozark town) there’s enough love to pull everyone through.
5. Judas and the Black Messiah
It’s one of those odd quirks of the year that two Oscar nominated movies — “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — both revolved around a related series of events from Chicago in 1969. “Judas” twists the facts a bit to make the cops and the FBI look even worse than they were, but it’s a David McCullough-quality history compared to “The Chicago 7,” which is a cartoon version of reality. “Judas” is about the betrayal of the charismatic Black Panther organiziser “Chairman” Fred Hampton, who was killed (or assassinated, as is claimed here) in a police raid. The filmmaking is compelling, story story is though-provoking, and the acting is superb.
We probably didn’t need another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but what a treat it was to have this one to entertain us in the early days of the pandemic. The title character is played by Any-Taylor Joy, who gained far more notoriety this year as the alcoholic chess whiz on “The Queen’s Gambit.” She was great, as was the entire cast except for Johnny Flynn, who lacked Mr. Knightly’s gravitas. Each generation gets the “Emma” it deserves and this one rightly focused more than others on the class distinctions among the characters. Very fun.
7. News of the World
I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to see this Tom Hanks western in the theatre because the cinematography of the wild west was just beautiful. I don’t know if this is a deliberate homage to “The Searchers” but it has some of the same plot points — young girl kidnapped by Indians who brutally massacred her family and then adopted her being returned to her kin. In a normal year this would have been a hit, but in 2020 it dropped into obscurity. Too bad.
8. 63 Up
The last movie we saw — in our beloved Avon Theatre — before in-person movie-going shut down for the pandemic. The “Up” series, which has followed the lives of a dozen British subjects as they aged from 7- to 63-years-old is the greatest documentary project of all time. This will probably be the last in the series (which has updated every seven years) because the director Michael Apted has died. Given that several of these people, who we’ve been watching grow older over decades, have also died, are dying, or are grieving other personal losses, this particular episode is unusually elegiac. I’d encourage anyone who cares about film to go back and watch the original “7Up” and then follow the updates one by one. It’s amazing to experience how a life really rolls out and how some people turn out exactly like you think they will and others surprise.
9. The Sound of Metal
What happens when a drummer with an addiction problem and nothing to live for except the love of his girlfriend-the-vocalist goes deaf? It’s not good. So many movies about damaged people this year! And yet all credit to our protagonist, who’s not really very smart but has a lot of courage as he addresses this challenge.
10. My Octopus Teacher
Certainly the dreamiest documentary of the year, about a man who makes friends with an octopus. I learned a lot about cephalopodas. The underwater filming, in an ecosystem I never even knew existed, is remarkable, as is the anthropomorphizing that occurs within this movie. I mean, can you really be “friends” with a mollusk? Still, the fact that this was made at all is astounding.
This is the movie I was most looking forward to this year: David Fincher’s account of how Herman Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of “Citizen Kane.” It’s told in lush black and white with a curlicue narrative, and since you can’t always tell what flashback you’re in as the movie unspools, it’s not that easy to follow. I loved the first half, with its scene-setting and depiction of old Hollywood, but the historical story goes way off the rails as Fincher tries to establish that Mankiewicz’ motivation for attacking William Randolph Hearst via the fictional Charles Foster Kane is somehow connected to California’s 1936 gubernatorial campaign. Huh??!! And then there’s the movie’s unpersuasive assumption that the “Citizen Kane” story and the Kane character were both conceived solely by Mankiewicz and not in collaboration with Orson Welles. It’s ironic that a movie about a near-perfect screenplay has, itself, such a messed up screenplay.
12. One Night in Miami
A play made into a movie with a lot of “Capital A” Acting. It’s a fictionalized look at the night when Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke all find themselves in a hotel room debating and soliloquizing about very big ideas. I generally don’t like film adaptations of plays but the subject is so fascinating and the acting so compelling that it generally held my interest.
13. The Truffle Hunters
A documentary about the elderly men in a northern Italian village who live to find and dig out truffles from the forest floor. Absolutely nothing happens but it’s nice to spend time with these charming old men, their florid Italian mannerisms and their cute dogs.
14. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is a great director but he goes intermittently goes off the rails, Rambo-style, in this story about four Black Viet vets of varying disposition who return to ‘Nam to reminisce and resolve some unfinished business. It’s exciting and emotional, especially when you admire the performance of Chadwick Boseman, who has since died, but some of the plot twists are asking too much of us.
15. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Heartbreaking and intense, with great high-octane acting by the dying Chadwick Boseman and the very-much-alive Viola Davis. Unfortunately, this is essentially a filmed play, complete with stilted theatrical dialogue and long monologues. Watching this I finally admitted to my self that I’m a philistine who just doesn’t like dramatic plays, even by someone as talented as August Wilson. The music was great, though.
16. Let Them All Talk
This movie is a hot mess. Meryl Streep is a novelist who wants to reconnect with her two former best friends from college (now estranged, played by Diane Weist and Candace Bergen) by taking them on a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary. Oh and her nephew’s on board too. Also her book agent, who’s is secretly spying on her. And then there’s a fabulously prolific John Clancy-type author who admires her greatly. Some conflicts get solved; some don’t; nothing really makes sense but it’s fun to watch everybody experience luxury cruising.
17. The Bee Gees: How Deep in My Love
Watching this documentary is more than a guilty pleasure — its a look back at two decades (the 1960’s and ’70’s) of rapidly evolving pop music. It’s the kind of movie that tries to make you feel guilty for ever scorning the amazingly prolific Bee Gees and largely succeeds. Be warned, though, that if you don’t like disco it’s because you are either racist, homophobic, or both (this, in a movie about three of the whitest, straightest, most hirsute guys in the business).
18. The Trip to Spain
This is the third “Trip to” movie involving a couple of British comics who go on exotic trips, eat fantastic meals, do Sean Connery impersonations, and have at least one existential crisis. The formula is always enjoyable but is wearing thin now. I literally had to go back and read a recap to refresh my memory about what happened in this one.
19. Wonder Woman ’84
This actually wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but in a year when a lot of movies “didn’t make sense,” this was the most disappoining. I had admired the original “Wonder Woman” in 2017 and hoped the director Patty Jenkins would build on that ,but WW84 was a sad step back into Marvel-grade territory. As usual, the future of the planet is in doubt, this time because a Donald Trump-like businessman has a self-esteem problem. Gal Gadot is great, though. I enjoyed watching her, even in civilian clothes.
20. The Book Sellers
I have nothing against this documentary, which is a pleasant, genteel look at the rare book store business in New York City, but it’s a trifle dull and doesn’t deliver the “Wow” moment of a great documentary.
21. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Another perfectly fine documentary about a marginally interesting subject — the band called “The Band.” This is not that different from the knock-off movies of other bands that you can watch on Amazon Prime and I only included it in the list because it was theatrically released and we paid to watch it during the first month of the pandemic.
22. The Trial of the Chicago 7
With a paint-by-numbers screenplay that sets out to hit all the usual beats and frame the action around the usual dramatic opposing protagonists, this Aaron Sorkin travesty reduces one of the most climatic and bizarre events of the 1960s to a banal, Hollywood-ized conventional movie. It’s possible that if you never heard of the Chicago Seven, who were on trial for causing a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention, you might find some of this plausible but almost every dramatic high point was concocted so that Sorkin can reach a couple of simple conclusions. No complexity allowed here. And are we seriously to believe that this wimpy Tom Hayden will go on to entrance and marry Jane Fonda?
23. The Prom
If you ever watched Ryan Murphey’s “Glee,” you can’t be surprised by the massively uneven way his full-length movies turn out. “The Prom” has an interesting premise. Four Broadway stars — Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells — cynically try to rehabilitate their careers by cynically taking up the cause of a high school lesbian in Indiana denied admission to her prom. You’l never guess what happens! Oh wait, you will. As in “Glee” there are some genuinely affecting moments, but they are buried beneath strata of cliches, absurdity, and blatant emotional manipulation.
I hate to pile on, but this really was terrible. I never saw “Cats” in the theatre or or even listened to the soundtrack before but didn’t realize that, except for “Memories,” the score is actually pretty bad. And that’s just the first problem. The plot is apparently about alley cats competing to see which of them will win the chance to — it’s a chance to die, right? I literally cannot explain how this Broadway musical became such a musical sensation.