The Best and Worst Films of 2020
By Danny Minton
This will, in almost all retrospective examinations, go down as the year of the asterisk. Sure we had sports, movies and many of our other pastimes, but they were all enjoyed in different ways and none in the way we wanted to see them. We did get to see a few films in theaters before March, but March is when all the good films start for the year and that was unfortunately when much of theater-going was finished. Back in January, I was most looking forward to films like Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Steven Spielberg’s Westside Story and Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, all of which have been pushed to deep in 2021. Did this hurt the quality of the year’s releases? Sure did. But I’m trying to see the silver lining here. Most of this year’s releases came to us via our streaming friends at Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, Apple, HBO Max and others, and only time will tell if that trend will continue or if people will start to once again flood theaters once they are vaccinated and the virus has gotten under control. Regardless, here are the films that I think are the gems in this turd of a year.
1) Soul (Streaming on Disney+). Pixar gave us two animated adventures this year. Onward was okay, but Soul, just release this past week, has proved to be one of Pixar’s best, once again showing that writer/director Pete Docter is a true master of taking an unconventional idea and making it sing. Here an aspiring jazz musician finally gets his big break, only to step into a manhole, sending him on his way to purgatory. But when given the chance to inspire a future soul, he gets the chance to discover his own. It’s a beautiful and surprising film that can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels.
2) Palm Springs (Streaming on Hulu). This crazy sci-fi turn on Groundhog Day follows Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two people from a wedding party who get stuck in the same day, over and over and over again as they try to not only figure a way out, but also discover who they really are. Sure it riffs off of a very famous romantic comedy, but it does so in a way that is fresh, funny and poignant.
3) The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Streaming on Netflix). Originally written by Aaron Sorkin for Steven Spielberg to direct over a decade ago, Sorkin took on the directing role with an all-star ensemble cast to tell the story of the men who were put on trial for conspiracy to bring havoc and destruction to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. With Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Frank Langella, as well as some great fresh talents, the film brilliantly helps you understand the protests themselves as well as their importance and relevance.
4) Minari (Coming soon to theaters). This quiet and gentle drama follows Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) as a Korean immigrant who moves his family to rural Arkansas in order to begin a new life and hopefully live the American Dream. The face of the immigrant family in America has been so greatly damaged over the last four years, but this film brings a different and loving image to a complicated and dramatic existence. It’s a joy to watch and its authenticity is its strongest power. If you didn’t recognize several members of the cast, you could easily mistake it as a documentary.
5) Sound of Metal (Streaming on Amazon Prime). I love it when I have no clue what a film is about only to have it wallop me over the head and heart. Such is the case with Sound of Metal. Here Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) is a drummer in metal band who one day very suddenly loses his hearing. Having to adjust in life-altering ways, he finds himself living in a commune where the ultimate goal isn’t to get your hearing back, but learning to live without it. You walk lockstep with Ahmed as every one of his decisions and actions is not only understandable but quite likely what you would do were you in his shoes. It’s an incredible tour de force from an actor who is quickly rising up the Hollywood ladder.
6) The King of Staten Island (Available to rent or buy on all streaming platforms). Judd Apatow’s comedy starring Pete Davidson as almost himself was one of the first films this year to take a chance by starting at home rather than in theaters. The bet paid off and the film found quite an audience. As funny as any other Apatow film is quite the compliment and this indeed was. But with the story about a young man whose father died a hero in 9-11, starring a talented young comedian whose father died a hero during 9-11, well, you probably understand the gravity. It gets you laughing and crying in equal measure.
7) My Octopus Teacher (Streaming on Netflix). One of the greatest nature documentaries in modern years is this treasure from Netflix about a filmmaker who makes friends with an Octopus off the coast of South Africa, and proceeds to visit with his friend every day for a year to learn the mysteries of her world. It is a beautiful, fascinating and mesmerizing movie that you will find unforgettable.
8) The Way Back (Streaming on HBOmax). One of the last films released in theaters before Covid shutdowns hit was this emotionally riveting drama starring Ben Affleck as a local high school basketball legend who is asked to come back and coach. But with demons born from a horrible tragedy in his life, he battles alcohol as the only thing standing in his way. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, whose 2011 film Warrior proved that he knows how to take a sports film up a notch, the film only looks like a basketball movie from the outside as it really delivers up a sobering examination of the human condition and the things that get in the way of our success.
9) The Trip to Greece (Streaming on Hulu). Writer/director Michael Winterbottom here takes British comedy legends Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon on their fourth culinary and cultural trip, this time to the Greek Isles, where for almost two hours we get to be a fly on the wall listening to their conversations about food, life, love and career. Having followed this concept for the last ten years from Britain to Italy to Spain and now to Greece, I found them all to be great, but this latest is the most impactful, especially given that most of the world’s vacations have been monumentally impacted and living vicariously through them, even though the events and dialog are scripted, served as an excellent two-hour replacement trip. Sure we didn’t actually get to eat at any of the Michelin three star restaurants enjoyed here, but there wasn’t a better replacement to be found this year.
10) The Social Dilemma (Streaming on Netflix). This uber scary documentary spends its time interviewing leaders of Silicon Valley to get a better understanding of how social media is adversely affecting the health of the country and the world. It’s a wake-up call that makes it easier to see how so many people could possibly say and do things that they would have been embarrassed about 5 years ago, but through manipulation and surgical propaganda, the world has seemingly been a victim of a chaotic monster that has been loosed. It might not be the best film you see this year – but it could be the most important. It emphasizes that when it’s not apparent what product the company you use daily is actually selling to raise revenue – rest assured that product is you.
1) Dolittle. Robert Downey Jr. butchers one of my favorite classic characters with this ridiculous waste of a ginormous budget. If they animals really could talk to him, even they would have begged him to avoid.
2) Irresistible. I firmly believed that John Stewart had the best of intentions for this Steve Carrell/Rose Byrne political comedy, but studio heads at Focus should have known better than to finance him on this one.
3) Antebellum. It looked like a smart sci-fi/horror vehicle about slavery and race relations from the trailer, but once deep enough in, the movie collapses under its own lousy, misleading plot.
4) Scoob! Warner Brothers assembled an amazing voice cast for this expensive Scooby movie, only to give audiences a pointless, thoughtless story that could have just been another mediocre tv episode.
5) Bloodshot. I had a hard time watching this Vin Diesel crapfast due to my eyes constantly rolling around my head. The pain in my head after watching wasn’t immortal like Diesel’s character, but it sure took its slow time going away.