In one of the most hellish years in recent memory, escaping to the movies became rather difficult, at least if you wanted to see them in theaters. Thankfully, through the magic of all the streaming services that we once complained about being too plentiful, we were still given a smorgasbord of cinema to feast upon, and it made for another challenging time for picking my favorite movies of the year. All of my Top 10 Films of 2020 were watched from the comfort of my home, but I wish I could have admired them from a cushy seat in front of a silver screen in order to absorb them even more completely.
Ethan Anderton’s Top 10 Films of 2020
10. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin is responsible for writing A Few Good Men, one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time. With The Trial of the Chicago 7, in addition to laying down a razor sharp script, Sorkin also gets behind the camera for his sophomore directing effort. While some have criticized Sorkin for being a bland director without any real visual style, in this movie reminiscent of classic courtroom dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and 12 Angry Men, I think Sorkin’s simple visual approach to the material lets his superior script and the outstanding array of performances from the ensemble cast do the heavy lifting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton and pretty much everyone all deliver knockout performances. Though some may think Sorkin is being portentous and pretentious throughout, thanks to the writer’s familiar tics, I find The Trial of the Chicago 7 to be earnest and exceptional.
9. Sound of Metal
How many times have we talked about how rough this year has been on all of us? It’s not just the coronavirus pandemic killing people, but the drastic change in our everyday lives that is taking a serious psychological toll on us all. So it only seems appropriate that Sound of Metal struck a chord with me during this unprecedented time. The movie follows a heavy metal drummer and former addict named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) who suddenly loses his hearing. It’s a devastating blow that threatens to spark a relapse, but thankfully his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) pushes him to seek assistance by learning how to be deaf with a small, rural community who can help him along the way.
What follows from director Darius Marder isn’t a story of overcoming disability, but instead coming to terms with the fact that his life will never be what it used to be. The movie strays away from being cliche in Ruben’s journey back to what he considers normalcy. Not even the cochlear implants that Ruben assumed would take him back to his old life can bring him the solace he needs, and it takes him making that mistaken assumption that allows him to properly discover himself all over again. Though Ruben’s harrowing journey brings redemption, it doesn’t come in the way you might expect. There’s no happily ever after simply because he’s learned sign language, sparked friendships with fellow deaf people and squashed his rage. There’s simply a before and an after, and it’s how we make our way through the after that truly defines us.
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, there’s a sweltering heat and tensions running high in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation by director George C. Wolfe of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name. But instead of the hot blacktop of Brooklyn in the summer of 1989, we find ourselves in the sizzling city of Chicago in 1927 where blues singer Ma Rainey and her band are about to partake in a recording session for some new songs. Though it might seem like this group is riding high by entertaining people in nightclubs, there’s unrest bubbling beneath the surface of their relationships
What makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sizzle is the performances from Davis and Boseman in their rising anger and resentment. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is always on the verge of walking away from the record executives who only exploit her voice for money and expect her to jump at their every wish. Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the band’s trumpet player, can only take so much of his bandmates mocking his glad-handing of record executives and giving them a smile as he tries to be given a chance to record his own songs before he’s prompted to recount the troubled childhood he endured thanks to the white men who ravaged his mother and killed his father when he attempted to avenger her.
Through Ma Rainey, we see the path the Levee hopes to walk as an artist with his own band. But what Levee doesn’t realize is that it won’t satiate his hunger for getting back the dream he believe is owed to him. It’s just another trap that leaves him at the beck and call of the same kind of white men who exploited his mother and killed his father. Even if he was playing the trumpet and singing his own songs, he wouldn’t be doing it for him, he’d be doing it for the white people who still wouldn’t see him as an equal. It’s a heartbreaking truth, and in case it wasn’t clear, the movie brings it home by having an all-white band performing one of Levee’s songs that Ma Rainey’s recording executive didn’t think was good enough, and we’re left with an ending that isn’t quite as incendiary as Do the Right Thing, but it’s certainly just as bleak.
Movies have the power to introduce us to people and stories that we otherwise might not encounter ourselves. Nomadland takes us into the largely unexplored community of nomads, people who live their days moving from place to place throughout the year in caravans, trailers, and RVs. They pick up temporary jobs, travel in groups to vacant lots in the middle of nowhere, and merely live off the road as minimalistically as possible. Fern (Frances McDormand) has begun life as a nomad after the passing of her husband and the economic collapse of the US Gypsum plant they worked at in Empire, Nevada.
Director Chloé Zhao explores Fern’s new life without ever really leaving her old one behind. The pain of her loss still travels around with her, but just as Sound of Metal isn’t about a man trying to overcome his disability, Nomadland isn’t about a woman trying to overcome her grief. It’s about using it to fuel the creation of something new while never forgetting the old, and this is even literally expressed as she repairs a collection of plates she inherited from her father that are accidentally broken by a fellow nomad. The damage might be done, but Fern picks up the pieces and glues them back together. In a year (or four) when we’ve had many plates in our lives broken week after week, this movie reminds us that it doesn’t mean we’re broken too.
Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers is one of those animated movies where every single frame is a stunning piece of art. Like an old children’s storybook brought to life, the drawings of these 17th century folktale feel like they’re sketched on parchment. But beyond the mesmerizing illustrations, which include glowing runes and swirling strokes of nature, there’s a charming story of family love, friendship, and togetherness that blossoms among a timeless battle between nature and industry.
As an Irish town clears out a nearby forest, a wolf pack terrorizes workers to slow their destructive spread. Leading them is Moll and Mebh, a mother and daughter pair of Wolkwalkers, shape-changing beings who are human by day and inhabit the bodies of wolves when they sleep. When a hunter’s daughter named Robyn encounters Mebh in the forest, the strike a lovely, lively friendship that is brought to life with astonishing animation. But this newfound friendship will face plenty of hurdles as Robyn’s father is tasked with eradicating the wolves and the Lord Protector who oversees her town has captured Mebh’s mother in her wolf form and intends to kill her in the town square in order to squash the public fear of the nearby pack.
Though Wolfwalkers undoubtedly contains a historical metaphor that may not be immediately grasped, you don’t need any of the deeper understanding of the Irish resentment of English colonization to appreciate the beautiful story that directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart are telling here. In the end, it’s a story of seeing the world from a new perspective, and finding love in unexpected places, and I think that resonates rather significantly right now.
5. Bad Education
What’s initially painted as an indictment of corruption in our broken education system becomes so much more in this adaptation of a true story from Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley. In Bad Education, Hugh Jackman plays a New York school superintendent who learns of a massive embezzling scheme that threatens to completely destroy the school’s reputation that he’s worked so hard to build up over the years. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this can’t be blamed on one person, but a number of school board members and officials who got carried away with their discretionary spending.
While the movie focuses on the irresponsibility and scandalous behavior of these school administrators, it also illustrates how it’s something that slowly builds as they’re driven to madness by parents who expect them to cater to their every whim and make exceptions at every turn for their children. In a pivotal scene when it Hugh Jackman’s superintendent character Frank Tassone has been outed in the school newspaper for partaking in and covering up this embezzling scheme, he’s confronted by one of these parents who has a child read a prepared letter asking for assistance to be admitted into an accelerated learning program (she was there the year before with the same request). As the child struggles to read one of the words, Frank pauses to help a child pronounce a word in a letter that his mother has clearly forced him to read. In this scene, it’s clear that Frank’s passion has always been to help kids succeed, but he can no longer abide by these parents and the way they want to live vicariously through their children, pressuring them to be great, and blaming the teachers when they don’t reach their impossibly high standards. These people are pushed to the brink of madness by parents who expect the world to be handed to their children on a silver platter with little to no effort. Does it justify their unethical actions? Absolutely not, but perhaps if we treated our school’s administrators and teachers with the respect and compensation they deserve, this wouldn’t be something we have to worry about.
Minari gives us a refreshing spin on a family trying to achieve their own American dream. Jacob (Steven Yuen) moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han), son David (Alan Kim) and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) to a mobile home in the middle of a vacant, soil-rich plot of land in the middle of Arkansas, hoping that this will be their chance to finally have something to truly call their own. Acting like a modern pioneer tale, Minari finds this Korean-American family trying to to start their own farm full of Korean fruits and vegetables that they hope to deliver to grocers around the state.
The financial strain and struggle of starting a farm aside, this family is on the verge of falling apart. Monica doesn’t think this is the best use of their resources, and she’s embarrassed about having her mother (Youn Yuh-jung) coming soon to live with them in such a state. And the kids are so stoked about having their feisty grandmother around the house, especially little David. But much like the minari (or water dropwort) seeds that grandma brings to plant in the woods, all this family needs is a place to grow, and the love between them is so strong that it will hold strong anywhere.
Though it’s a story we’ve heard several times before, presenting it through the lens of a Korean-American family allows it to resonate that much more. Despite being primarily in the Korean language, director Lee Isaac Chung tells an inherently American tale with Minari, and it’s about time these kind of stories weren’t defined solely by suburban white nuclear families.
3. One Night in Miami
What would it be like if Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcom X all hung out in a hotel room to pal around but ended up discussing their place in the world as Black men with prominent voices during the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Marking the directorial debut of Regina King, One Night In Miami answers that question with a series of fictional but consequential conversations between these four historic icons as they gather after Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, and Aldis Hodge play Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown respectively, each dealing with their own struggles of being Black and famous in a world where casual racism still slides by in a world run by the white majority. In addition to the notable portrayals of these large-than-life historical figures, an insightful and stirring script by Kemp Powers uses these men as conduits to debate how to prominent Black figures should best use their place in the spotlight to enact real change and provide some much-needed perspective during this important era.
Though the film is unmistakably based on a play that doesn’t require the use of many showy locations and relies heavily on dialogue as the driving force of the movie, One Night in Miami never feels like it’s sitting still, even in its most contemplative moments. The dialogue comes fast and fierce, andthe actors all have a natural chemistry that makes them feel like tried and true friends. The movie feels like it really captures what it might have been like if all four of these men came together like this, and even though they’re fictional representations of these figures, there’s plenty to learn from them here.
2. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Against all odds, Borat Subsequent Film not only matched the greatness of the original, but it actually exceeded the impossibly high expectations. In the sequel, we’re given a story that a tender heart, a significant arc for the titular character that goes beyond pranking unsuspecting citizens, a shocking revelation with real world consequences, and a breakout star in the form of Maria Bakalova as Borat’s 15-year old daughter Tutar, who is somehow able to keep up with Sacha Baron Cohen‘s improvisational skills without missing a beat.
While Borat Subsequent Moviefilm delivers on the same kind of gags that made the first movie a memorable laugh riot, the kind of shenanigans that Borat is able to pull off are taken to a new level. This includes holing up with some conspiracy theory-touting rednecks for an entire week during the coronavirus pandemic, the infiltration of the The Conservative Political Action Conference where Vice President Mike Pence was speaking, and landing an interview with Rudy Giuliani that took a disturbing turn. They even managed to fit in a coronavirus twist featuring a Tom Hanks cameo that wraps up an impressively cohesive narrative that weaves through everything. It’s hard enough to make a comedy as good as this, but it’s astonishing that one can be this provocative and important while also being astoundingly inappropriate and offensive. It’s nothing short of comedic genius.
Ever since Toy Story debuted as the first computer animated feature-length film from Pixar, the animation studio has delivered an incredible string of incredible original stories that pull at our heartstrings. What’s most impressive about the filmography of Pixar is how they’ve taken mature, adult concepts about life and made them accessible for children while still being entertaining for adults. Soul is the first Pixar movie that seemed like it might struggle to meet those expectations as it tackled the existential crisis of a high school band teacher who comes to believe is life is meaningless because he hasn’t been able to realize his dream of being a professional jazz musician.
Soul contains ambitious, bizarre new artistic strokes, some of the most beautiful and experimental computer animation Pixar has ever created, and an otherworldly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But Pixar is all about story, and co-directors/co-writers Pete Docter and Kemp Powers have crafted one of the animation studio’s most emotionally complex stories that doesn’t shy away from digging into complex questions about our purpose in life, getting lost in our own ambition, and whether we need to achieve our dreams in order to feel fully satisfied with our place in the world. The fact that it does all of that that with comedy that’s charming and still accessible for adults and children alike is even more impressive.
In the end, Soul has a deceptively simple message that concludes the film. It doesn’t matter what we do with our life as long as we live it to the fullest, and we don’t have to let our passions define every aspect of our life. As we dig deeper into our adult lives, sometimes even the simplest messages must be reinforced in order to remind us to appreciate the life we have, even if our dreams haven’t come true.
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