Every year a Top Ten film list is an exercise in memory, judgement calls and hair-splitting. A critic wanders the wilderness of four cinematic seasons like Diogones with his ancient Greek lantern, searching for “an honest man,” or in our case, a worthy film — ten of them.
A plague year, where the bigger news was in films and festivals canceled, postponed, “buzz” reduced to a more widely scattered collection of isolated critics (less “critical mass” than usual) and studios staring at the futility of even bothering to push and promote “for your consideration” makes 2020 in “great films” feel like 2020 in sports — an asterisk season (Sorry Lebron, Dodgers, et al).
My first thought when asked about 2020 by that first friend and then second colleague wondering “What’s on your list?” was why bother?
A big reason to remember a film is the experience of watching it, and being in a cinema with an audience is a bigger part of that than one realizes. I remember seeing “Tenet” in a Tampa cineplex, and other than that…
I recall tiny IFC dominating the summer box office with titles that just enough people ventured into theaters to see to make them worth releasing, the no-budget “Capone” with Tom Hardy that gained much needed attention simply every major picture abandoned May, and the rest is mostly a blur of home-screened cinema — studio releases, Netflix, Hulu, Film Movement et al kind of swirling into a blur.
But seeing the image of Frances McDormand’s “Fern” with her own lantern, looking for a life beyond homelessness “on the road” in “Nomadland” made me dig back and realize there were worthies rolling out in a variety of ways all year long, from “Saint Frances” to “News of the World,” “First Cow” to “Billie,” “Invisible Man” to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
So let’s have a look, shall we?
“Another Round” reteams Danish director Thomas Vinterberg with his “Hunt” muse, Mads Mikkelson. It’s a beautifully-acted tale of friends facing a loss of lust for life, middle-aged sadness, and it’s also an almost jarring take on alcohol, its use and yes benefits — and the latent alcoholism that is at the risky end of that road. Mikkelson even dances like everybody’s watching but he’s too tipsy of exultant to care.
“The Father” features Anthony Hopkins in a wrenchingly emotional film of a pla, an old man facing the dementia that makes him paranoid, panicked and confused. Is Olivia Colman the daughter trying to get him used to the idea of moving into a “home,” or Olivia Williams? French playwright and director Florian Zeller shows us how the old man sees things, and the quiet heartbreak that witnessing this in a loved one has on family.
“Wolfwalkers” is another magical Irish animation from Tomm Moore, who brought us “The Secret of Kells.” The best animated film of 2020 is a Cromwellian period piece about English dominance forcing a clearing of forests, clearing them of wolves as a part of that, and the shapeshifting Irish forest creatures who might have a say in all that. Gorgeous. Not giving this film the Oscar would be a bigger crime than the robbery perpetrated on “Kells.”
“Beasts Clawing at Straws” is the year’s best thriller, a smart, topical and violent Korean tale so complicated you almost have to become a movie critic to follow it, get into and “just go with it.” “Take notes,” in other words. Mobsters and femme fatales, pain and desire and loneliness and being broke punch you in the face and slap you around in Kim Yong-hoon’s breakout film.
“Red, White and Wasted” is the stand-out doc in a year of dazzling documentaries. Why? It’s about America today, a MAGA era portrait of Orlando area dead-enders and the ways they live, work and distract themselves from lives of noisy, not quiet, desperation. Sam Jones and Andrei Bowden Schwartz embed with their subjects, show us their mores, trials and troubles, the careless lives of people who don’t have enough going for them to have a f— to give. Every weekend, they gather to drive their modified beat-up Jeeps and pickups through mud, wave their Confederate flags and drink, talk treason and mate.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is that rarest of birds in a sad, stressful year — a couple of hours of giddy Dickensian escape. Armando Ianucci’s take on a Charles Dickens classic revels in wordplay, knockabout silliness and intricate plotting. He’s made a film that isn’t just a Dickens adaptation, but an uproarious appreciation of the entertainer and Original Social Justice Warrior Dickens the writer became. Stunningly funny all-star cast, sumptuous locations. Glorious.
“Nomadland” is another terrific take on “Where We Are Now,” an understated drama about moving into a van and living a migrant life when all the other options run out. Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are perfectly cast as modern day Okies — “Grapes of Wrath” nomads who sleep wherever they can park, scrape by and rationalize their experience with “freedom” and “self-sufficiency” and “seeing America” bromides. Chloé Zhao’s film is of its time and timeless — a story of a broke subculture coping in ways uniquely American.
“Bull” is another intimate story of “forgotten” America, of rodeo clowns and trailer parks, manual labor that you’re aging out of doing and a teenage girl who sees even that limited life as a vast improvement in her prospects. Flawless, lived-in performances by Rob Morgan and Amber Havard make it a flesh-and-blood walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes experience. Annie Silverstein has made what is essentially this year’s “The Rider,” the film that “announced” Chloé Zhao and launched her into “Nomadland.”
“Emma” showcases new “It Girl” Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit”) in a timelessly silly, sexy and smart Jane Austen adaptation that reminds us that there’s no such thing as “Too Much Jane.” Among the year’s many splashy debuts by female filmmakers, Autumn De Wilde’s sunny revisiting of Austen’s pluckiest, most empowered heroine stands out. Nothing beats a good period piece for escapist fun.
“News of the World” is, yes, another period piece and another movie about “Who we are now.” This sublime Paul Greengrass Western parable is built around Hollywood’s EveryAmerican, Tom Hanks. It parks him in post-Civil War Texas, an ex-Confederate officer who makes a living “performing” the news to villages and small towns where newspapers are rare. As he tries to escort a freed hostage girl raised by the Kiowa through a racist, unreconstructed rural America, he comes to see journalism’s place in the task of healing and reforming the sometimes willfully misguided, and the unrepentant bullies who like them that way. Lovely, understated, cutting and poignant.
As the ranks of reviewers have swelled in the internet era, most of these lists have taken on a gutless “Top 23…plus here’s nine more” cast. And while there’s no need to stick to a hidebound “ten,” that’s sort of the whole bloody point, Oscar nominee inflation or not.
But most critics who compile such lists cheat by piling on “I also considered” or “also loved” strings of titles at the end, and I’m no better.
I could and will do an entire Top Ten documentaries, because from “Zappa” to “Coded Bias,” “The Social Dilemma” to “Desert One” and “Billie,” there are scores of terrific ones this year.
Films I’d love to have squeezed into this Top Ten include Sorkin’s “Chicago Seven,” the Gloria Steinem biopic “The Glorias,” “The Call” (best horror film), “Mosul,” “Two of Us,” “The Devil to Pay,” and several others.
Considering the sort of annus horribilis 2020 has been, one for the record books, I for one have been grateful for the escape of movies, even if I couldn’t see most of them in my favorite multiplex. I hope you found a few to distract yourself as well.