My Top 20 Movies of the pandemic year

Just before the Oscars are awarded...

(art by @RentonHawkey)

TL;DR => view my Best of 2020 list on letterboxd.

#20 - Boys State

Boys State is a fascinating documentary about a bizarre annual event where youths across the state of Texas are gathered to form and elect a student-led government. If you’re looking for some magical reassurance that the kids are going to save us all from political polarization and tribalism, Boys State does not grant us this wish. It does, however, illustrate the reality of our political discourse and provides a glimmer of hope that honest engagement and participation can - across ideological and cultural lines - provide a framework for progress. Filled with echoes of contemporary political figures - uniters, dividers, coalition-builders, schemers, coat-tailers, organizers, shit-posters, it’s all there in a microcosm. The level of sophistication and political awareness of this generation is orders of magnitude greater than even the most plugged-in members of my high school generation were.

#19 - Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Turns out we had another one of those years where the same movie concept got made twice, with starkly contrasting results. Joining the likes of cinematic siblings Armageddon / Deep Impact or No Strings Attached / Friends With Benefits, this year’s duo are a couple of films about a young woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Earlier in the year, Unpregnant took this premise as a means to go on a comedic buddy trip with bizarre hijinks and opportunities for character development and bonding. Never Rarely Sometimes Always hews to the bones of the structure of the idea and goes with a cinema verité immersive and dramatic approach. This was a strong film overall, but the main reason it’s leaped into my best-of-year list is on the strength of a remarkable long shot in which lead actor Sidney Flanigan gives one of the most powerful performance moments of the year.

#18 - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

This was a dangerous proposition all around. The audacity of revisiting a character who’d become so overexposed virtually everyone could do an imitation of the character’s signature catchphrases for over a decade. And given the level of awareness of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen, and his many disguises and characters, plus the potentially hostile locations in which they chose to incite comedic moments, the production team on this film deserve some kind of special award for bravery (or insanity). The risks pay off in unexpected ways - the story spine about Borat and his daughter, which on its face seems beyond ridiculous, somehow works as an emotionally organizing principle.

The original Borat film contained a moment that might be the scene that elicited the loudest sustained laughs I’ve ever had in a movie theater, and I was thrilled and surprised when they had the gumption to revisit it with a callback and managed to reach that insane level of hysterics again (alas, it being the Covid19 year, I was bellowing those laughs without hundreds of fellow moviegoers).

#17 - Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted Face the Music was released in late August, toward the end of the dog days of summer of the pandemic year. It was the perfect time for some cinematic comfort food. On its surface, the film is merely a perfunctory bit of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to make sure the unexplained timeline gaps in the series are tied together for that segment of continuity pedants out there who needed the question answered: so just how did Bill and Ted create such magnificent music for the future?

The answer: it’s complicated. And in quite a hilarious manner. They truly “face the music” in the form of their listless middle-aged existence. And this is where this trilogy-capper shines: bringing an emotional three-dimensional maturity to these iconic lovable metalheads, exploring their difficulties in marriage, in the burden of the knowledge that they must create a song to save the universe, and in raising a pair of kids with an appreciation of music and the core Preston and Logan family values: be excellent and party on, dudes.

#16 - The Assistant

The relentless, thankless job of an assistant at an independent film studio reaches almost horror-film dimensions in this workplace drama. Julia Garner, in the title role, shows an ability to pivot across a vast landscape of precarious emotional territory with fighter-jet speed and agility, all while enduring a mountain of misogynist shit.

#15 - Beastie Boys Story

One part exhaustive retelling of the journey of a band, one part elegy for Adam Yauch, this documentary provides a trip down hip-hop memory lane, putting the Beasties in full context. They revisit their low points with harsh self-criticism and candor. The film also contains one of the most poignant moments in cinema for the year, when the remaining members of the band reminisce about their last gig: in a year without live music, the moment was additionally impactful.

#14 - Promising Young Woman

I saw this without knowing anything about it other than it featured Carey Mulligan - and I’d advise you to do the same. Based purely on the title and a couple of promo images, I had the wrongest possible set of expectations, in terms of tone and genre, so the less I type the better. Just see it.

#13 - Soul

This one sneaks up on you. On the surface, a typically candy-colored Pixar story with dazzling animation - but before you realize it, this movie dives you deep into an existential crisis. How does one live a life? How to define happiness? How do we keep pursuing dreams even long after society has placed an expiration date upon you? There’s a brilliantly constructed, quiet and quick moment near the two-thirds mark in the film that is just jaw-dropping in its depth and impact: it’s almost as if the totality of one’s potential for being is examined and subjected to an excruciating choice: the single best moment in cinema for the year.

#12 - The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin revisits the genre that placed him on the world’s radar: the political courtroom drama. Instead of culminating in another passionate monologue with every phrase and punctuation mark dictated by his pen, Sorkin constructs the emotional climax of this one to be absent any flowery language and be the recitation a simple list. As I am the Founder and President-for-Life of the International Eddie Redmayne Hatred Society, the fact that I not only tolerated but enjoyed his performance shows what an effectively crafted film this is. Sacha Baron Cohen may have been the obvious choice to play Abbie Hoffman, but he managed to push beyond any expectations or limitations in generating his performance, which alone is worth catching the film.

#11 - The Father

Middle-aged children of an a aging father, confronting the difficult choice of “what to do with him” as his faculties decline and his capacity for self-maintenance fades is a premise of so many dramas, I was quite frankly repelled by the prospect of seeing yet another one; but, with Sir Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, I had to at least give it a chance, and I was delighted and utterly transported by this fresh and inventive approach to the scenario. Many a filmmaker have gone down the rabbit hole of contemplation on the intersecting concepts of cinema and memory with elaborate techniques - but co-writer/Director Florian Zeller provides an elegant, classic, Rashomon-like approach to the idea and provides one of the most direct and empathetic depictions of dementia I’ve seen on film.

#10 - I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Holy smokes what an exercise in aesthetic eccentricity from the Patron Saint of Quirk. Charlie Kaufman puts the idea of an unreliable narrator through his Kaufman Weirdness Machine and twists out a winding voyage into - is this even a story? - a story where audience members will likely disagree on what actually happens in the film. A descent into psychological disorders with immediacy, given life by fantastic performances by Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis.

#9 - Mayor

If the titular assistant from the movie The Assistant had a thankless job, she’s got nothing on the job of Mayor of Ramallah, a city government that faces crises on a daily basis. Problems compounding problems compounding problems arrive on this man’s desk like candies on the assembly line from Lucille Balls’ famous sketch.

Mayor Mousa Hadid emerges from constant documentary-surveillance as a man committed to making Ramallah the best city it can be, while encumbered with extraordinary challenges resulting from the occupation. No problem is too small or too large in scale for him to try to use whatever resources are available to him to try to make lives better for the people he serves.

#8 - Babyteeth

It’s a tricky needle to thread, but often, movies about death or tragedy can often be among the most life-affirming, and this is one of those cases. Young performers Toby Wallace and Eliza Scanlen both give breakout performances - I’d love to see them both again, soon. Wallace steals scene after scene as a charming scruffian ne’er-do-well rogue and Scanlen shines as a wise-beyond-her-years young girl facing a terminal disease with courage and awareness. The Academy and various film critic organizations have done a fairly good job with handing out deserving accolades overall this year, but Ben Mendelsohn’s work in this film should’ve gotten much more recognition than it has.

#7 - Da 5 Bloods

It took me far too long to see this film. That’s the problem with the ubiquity of streaming films - once they drop, they’re available for any time you want to watch. Unlike with theatrical releases, where you have the ritual of a narrow window of availability that you can anticipate and plan towards - once this one came out, I thought, great, I can get around to this one when I’m good and ready for it. And then I said not now, maybe later and said it again and again. Most of the response I heard was positive but not stellar, so, it sat in my watchlist for months.

And thus, it was quite a shock to me when I finally jumped in to discover it was such an epically constructed film; a Treasure of Sierra Madre for the 21st century with a fascinating examination of avarice. Not since John Sayles’ Lone Star have I felt the personal circumstances of characters so thoroughly pushed by the forces of history. The entire cast is phenomenal, but Delroy Lindo in particular stands out - another actor who probably should’ve gotten an Oscar nom this season but was overlooked.

#6 - Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed’s intensity in this film is almost scary in effect. Such raw power; pure cinematic acting - from the Elia Kazan tradition, a lineage from Brando to De Niro to Day-Lewis and now to Ahmed. Naked vulnerability radiating from a performer in total command of the present moment as the camera captures it. Matching his brilliance in a supporting role is Paul Raci, who gives an understated turn, portraying a humble man of saintly compassion.

#5 - Minari

As big-screen movies have trended in the direction of spectacle and event, the storytelling stakes keep ratcheting up accordingly. This film narrows the focus and stakes on the destiny of one small immigrant South Korean family in 1980s Arkansas. In recent years, it has almost become the exclusive domain of streaming episodic television to tackle these kinds of topics, but Minari is a welcome return to bringing the majesty of cinema - luxurious photography, immersive location shooting, deliberate and precise camera composition - to intimate family portrayals handled with delicacy and sophistication. Once again, Steven Yeun demonstrates another gear in his extraordinary range - contrasting this devoted, obstinate, honorable family man, to his nihilistic sociopath in Burning - he continues to be a performer whose presence alone makes a film a must-watch item.

#4 - Nomadland

One thing that we here in the United States lack is the ability to have a monarch bestow a knighthood on our greatest actors, and if we had such a tradition here, it’d be long since past time to tap the shoulders of Frances McDormand with a sword and have her rise as a Knight (somehow the honorific “Dame” sounds less appropriate for McDormand, so let’s make this hypothetical American version of Knighthood gender-neutral). As of now, I’d have to say she is my favorite working actor in American film.

McDormand’s grit and empathy penetrate every frame of this film. And unlike her experiences with the Coen Brothers, who meticulously storyboard every shot, the free-wheeling improvisational aspect of this film doesn’t impede on her ability to stop the world and focus the audience’s attention on the many layers and dimensions she brings to her character. I was particularly delighted to have her paired with David Strathairn - because they both have that Gregory Peck quality of conveying humble, honorable strength and dignity.

#3 - Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah rivals Goodfellas in its scope and audacious use of the medium telling a sprawling tale with a wide cast of characters, never slowing down, never relenting, and delivering nonstop entertainment.

The 2021 class of Best Supporting Actor nominees might be the most impressive list in the history of the Oscars, in large part due to the fact that the two arguable co-leads in this film (LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya) were both treated as “supporting” roles for awards campaigns. Both are incandescent in this high-velocity cinematic trip into the political turbulence of late-1960s Chicago.

Kaluuya’s portrayal of Fred Hampton is thoroughly convincing: he exudes that special rock-star quality of charismatic political leaders in a manner that looks totally effortless. Stanfield’s performance as “Wild Bill” O’Neal is multifaceted: in some scenes, detached and carefree, in others, consciously fighting to restrain volcanic inner turmoil on the brink of eruption. The nonlinear editing style juxtaposes these many modes that Stanfield brings the screen in sharp contrast. For once, I’m thankful I’m not an Academy member, so I don’t have to pick a favorite among these two.

Thank the Movie Godz for Ryan Coogler’s box offices successes whose clout as a Producer allowed a film of this level of ambition to be made without compromise on production quality. Director Shaka King immediately vaults to the elite director class where I’ll buy a ticket opening day (whenever those return!) for anything he does next.

#2 - Possessor

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with this kid. Much like his pops, Brandon Cronenberg demonstrates a gift for integrating smart themes into a genre film. Also, like his pops, he pushes the capabilities of modest-budgeted indie horror/sci-fi filmmaking. The key difference here is that Kid Cronenberg is making films in an era where “modest-budgeted” can deliver tantalizing visual results on a level that rivals and likely exceeds what a full studio production could achieve in his father’s era.

Possessor plunges the audience into a tour of a near-future premise featuring an amoral application of technology - but without the satiric distance and social commentary of something like Robocop. Instead, Possessor uses a voyeuristic approach, giving the audience a dreadful sensation of being a virtual accomplice in the horrors depicted. Often, speculative fiction of this variety can serve as a warning call for us to avoid the societal choices that lead us down this dark path - but Cronenberg doesn’t seem interested in playing the role of a doomsaying prophet here. He seems to take it as a given that this kind of dark future is irrevocably in our nature, and uses the opportunity to explore those fearful corners of the human psyche. The resulting film is extraordinary, chilling, and one hell of a debut.

#1 - The Last Dance

The Last Dance is a 10-part documentary running approximately 500 minutes, giving a comprehensive look into one of the greatest athletes in history, and yet its primary lesson can be boiled down to five words. Five. Devastating. Words.

Before we examine those five words, a note about the inclusion of this “television docu-series” in what I’ve annually treated as a list dedicated exclusive to theatrical feature films. The pandemic year redefined the fundamental terms of our moviegoing experiences. Every film on my top 10 list this year I watched at home on my television set. I’m a stickler for quality so my home theater setup is pretty great, but there’s nothing like the theatrical experience. I’m looking forward to returning to theaters as soon as it’s safe. But it makes sense for this year to celebrate a film that was unintentionally tailor-made for the moment upon which it arrived.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, as lockdowns were in full effect, fear was running rampant, movies and pro sports were totally shut down, our understanding of Covid19 was scattershot. The public reached out to ESPN, begging them to release The Last Dance early - and ESPN did just that.

The Last Dance became an essential event every Sunday. A two-hour respite from some of the darkest days of the pandemic - a period when we had no clue about the magnitude and length of the struggles we would endure. It gave us at least one thing to talk about besides trying to figure out where to get toilet paper.

Ostensibly a story about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance uses that conceit as a framing device to tell the entire story of the Jordan Bulls era. The core of the documentary is a treasure trove of unseen, immersive, fly-on-the-wall footage that confirms the legend of Jordan: the relentless competitive drive that led him to become the greatest basketball player of them all.

Jordan’s deep need for competition extended far beyond his time on the court. The documentary shows that Jordan often compensated for the boredom between games by playing cards with teammates on airplanes or improvising games anywhere he could find one. Perhaps the most entertaining of them all is a moment captured where Jordan gambles with United Center security guard John Michael Wozniak - in a contest pitching quarters before the night’s basketball game.

Wozniak manages to beat Jordan in the game, and steal that episode of the documentary, in a moment that immediately went viral on the Internet, with Wozniak mocking one of Jordan’s iconic moments - the shrug - as he went to collect his winning coins:

If Wozniak had been a basketball player, he certainly would’ve soon learned that tactic would backfire, as it did with legions of NBA players who made the tragic mistake of getting on Jordan’s bad side.

The Last Dance illustrates Jordan’s technique for generating competitive fuel. The filmmakers combined footage taken in the moment and contextualizing it with an unfathomable roster of superstars for interviews taken many years later so that they can revisit those moments with distance and candor.

As a player perhaps unparalleled on the court, Jordan’s source of motivations were often propelled by a series of slights and insults of varying degree (including one which may have been manufactured). Whether it was feuds with Chicago Bulls’ general manager, scrubs on the opposing teams who had the audacity to challenge Michael, or players whom MJ just plain felt were overrated, Jordan amassed a collection of grudges to fuel his fire.

Which brings us to those five words. The five words we learned that are the Rosetta Stone unlocking the essence of Michael Jordan. It turns out the best way to compete against Jordan was to not even get on his radar in the first place. Because if he noticed you, if you did something to offend him, it would inspire the five words. The Avada Kedavra of basketball: