2020 in Review: The Best and Worst Movies

10. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee) – Streaming on Netflix
Messy, provocative, powerful. That’s a Spike Lee movie, all right. To me, this is his best effort since Inside Man: a reunion of four broken men, haunted by their experiences in Vietnam, and in over their heads as they hunt for buried treasure in a country that’s given them nothing but pain. While it’s a true ensemble film, Delroy Lindo is the center. His MAGA hat-wearing Paul has the most tenuous grasp on reality, which only deteriorates when their mission goes horribly wrong.

9. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green) – Streaming on Hulu
I have never worked for a monster like Harvey Weinstein, who’s clearly the inspiration for the unseen boss in the film. But I have felt lost in the cogs of corporate machinery, and I have worked for a tyrant. And The Assistant nails that feeling, then adds the hopeless and helpless feelings of trying to do the right thing and not having anyone care. The meeting Jane has with her slimy HR rep (Matthew Macfadyen) is one of the most uncomfortable – and accurate – things I’ve seen all year.

8. Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung) – In select theaters Feb. 12
By now, you should all know that the American Dream is a lie. But for the Yi family in the 1980s, they still bought in. They had emigrated from South Korea to California, but had saved up just enough to buy some farmland and a trailer in Arkansas. But nothing goes smoothly once they arrive: a lack of water, childcare and clientele for their harvest all take their toll on the family and the marriage. But the performances across the board are so tender and winning that it never seems completely unbearable.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman) – Streaming on HBO MAX
Easily the winner of this year’s Revolutionary Road Award for Most Depressing Movie, this is still a journey worth taking. In two of the best performances of the year, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder play cousins who travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City so the former can obtain an abortion. Crucially, the film is never judgmental of any of the decisions the characters make, including the ways they survive when their trip gets unexpectedly extended. The relentless struggle and heartbreak feels authentic.

6. Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg) – Available on VOD
This dark comedy feels both like a time capsule and a perfect movie for 2020. Bored with the monotony of their work and the apathy of their students, four teachers start an experiment to see if they can improve their job performance and personal lives by maintaining a solid buzz, but only during working hours. Unsurprisingly, it works until it doesn’t. Mads Mikkelsen is magnificent as usual, but he really goes for broke in the final scene, which is one of the most exuberant things I’ve seen all year.

5. One Night in Miami… (dir. Regina King) – Streaming on Prime
Yes, it’s just a movie where people talk a lot. But it’s so much more than that. King’s magnificent adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play features a quartet of tremendous performances, each with the right amount of nuance or bite to those words. It never once feels confined.

4. Boys State (dirs. Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss) – Streaming on AppleTV+
For better or worse, the boys at this annual convention in Texas (and many other states around the country) represent the future of politics. By turns inspiring and disturbing, the four main boys organize, share their visions and rally support for their faux political parties. But some are much more honest and enthusiastic than others, and already understand how modern politics requires obfuscation, half-truths and outright smear tactics in order to win.

3. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt) – Streaming on Showtime
I’ll always be grateful this was the last new movie I saw in theaters before everything shut down. What a movie to go out on. Kelly Reichardt’s best feature to date goes back to the frontier in the 1800s, but its story of friendship and hustle couldn’t feel more timely. A cook and an immigrant partner to serve desserts to the new arrivals to the Oregon Territory, but the key ingredient they need is milk, and the only way to get it is to steal it from a rich prick (Toby Jones) who doesn’t even appreciate what he has. Even in scenes with minimal dialogue, there’s so much rich detail and texture here, noticeable in every shot and performance.

2. Time (dir. Garrett Bradley) – Streaming on Prime
Of the many movies about difficult topics this year, this one wrecked me the most. Little snippets of dialogue hammer home all the increments of time, all the big and little moments that have been stolen from this family because of our country’s addiction to incarceration. Interspersed with home movies, the documentary has even more power than it would on its own, and it was already heartbreaking. This is an essential film that should be required viewing for every American.

1. Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao) – In select theaters and streaming on Hulu Feb. 19
Fern doesn’t have a home anymore. Her entire town ceased to exist when the mine that employed most of its residents closed. So she hits the open road trying to find something that at least resembles home. It’s not necessarily at the Amazon warehouse or the burger joint, or any of the other odd jobs she takes to make ends meet. But it’s in the people who show her little kindnesses along the way, many of which are real nomads themselves. Zhao’s third feature is a tribute to workers: Resilient people who are forced to make do, but shouldn’t have to.

Honorable Mentions
Bad Education (dir. Cory Finley)
Emma. (dir. Autumn de Wilde)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C. Wolfe)
Mank (dir. David Fincher)
The Nest (dir. Sean Durkin)
Onward (dir. Dan Scanlon)
Palm Springs (dir. Max Barbakow)
Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)
Soul (dirs. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers)
Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin)
The Vast of Night (dir. Andrew Patterson)

A Special Note About Theatrical Experiences
David Byrne’s American Utopia

Despite all the acclaim for these filmed performances, I intentionally avoided them. My wife and I were supposed to see a production of the former this spring, which was then delayed to the fall, and then to late 2021. While I know the version on Disney+ is the only chance to see the original cast, I want my first experience outside the soundtrack to be onstage. Yes, I’m willing to wait for it.

The latter I have a less of a good reason for skipping. But my wife and I did see his touring production of American Utopia back in 2018, one of the most joyous and memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. So I’d like to keep that memory a little longer before I see Spike Lee’s surely tremendous filming of the Broadway production.

Didn’t Watch but Probably Would Have Loved
An American Pickle
The Climb
How to Build a Girl
La Llorona
The Personal History of David Copperfield
She Dies Tomorrow
The Twentieth Century

Didn’t Release in Time
Judas and the Black Messiah
Malcolm and Marie
The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The Worst Movies
The Call of the Wild (dir. Chris Sanders)
The Glorias (dir. Julie Taymor)
Irresistible (dir. Jon Stewart)
Like a Boss (dir. Miguel Arteta)
Unhinged (dir. Derrick Borte)

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