Summing Up 2020

End-of-year, best-of film lists are some of the best evidence that people do not—and, probably, cannot—simply choose the “best” films. The divergence in lists shows very clearly that people judge and rank films not only on their merits as films. The viewer’s experience and life, and what is happening in the person’s life at the time he or she watches a given film, make a significant difference to how a film is received and ranked. Some of this can probably be mitigated by watching films more than once, and the gut reaction at a single viewing can be leveled out. But for me, at least, there are too many movies that I want to see, which often keeps me from spending that time watching a movie that I’ve already seen. 

At any rate, perhaps that is simply my justification for my own list, which I prefer to call my favorites of the year, rather than the best. There are of course criteria for what makes a “good” movie, but when it comes to ranking them, even people who otherwise agree are going to have completely different lists—such as, for example, my brother and me on our latest episode of Saints and Cinema. We didn’t tell each other which movies were in our top five, and we ended up with only a single film in common (although at the same number!), not to mention that Jay’s top film was a film with which I was not particularly impressed.

But that is really the point of lists: so we can fight over them. They don’t matter at all in the long run, and so we can expend our energy and enmity without serious consequences. In that spirit, here are the movies I liked (and some I didn’t) in 2020 (some of them were released internationally in 2019, but in the U.S. in 2020).

First, a few that I enjoyed or that made me think, but that didn’t make my top films of the year. Les Misérables (so named because it takes place in Victor Hugo’s neighborhood of Paris) is a tense film, sort of like a French Training Day, where a cop joins a new task force and is forced to make hard decisions in the wake of a tragedy and its aftermath.

I thought Driveways was understated and under-appreciated, with an excellent Brian Dennehy in one of his last roles. It feels a bit like a calm place in the middle of a storm. The Way Back is a compelling story of an alcoholic trying to right his life, in maybe Ben Affleck’s best film.

I watched a few good films in the virtual Newport Beach Film Festival: Kindred (in which an isolated widow is gas-lighted by her in-laws…or is she?) and The Penny Black (which feels incomplete, but it had my attention until the end). Disclosure is a taut Australian drama about two families dealing with the fallout of an abuse accusation, and Faith Based is an often hilarious comedy about two friends who want to get rich by making a “faith-based” film…in space. No Man’s Land steps into cliche-land a few too many times, but in spite of that, it has a powerful scene of forgiveness that sticks with me.

One I haven’t seen a lot of people mention is The Roads Not Taken with a brilliant and multi-faceted Javier Bardem, as a man trying to navigate his past and present in the midst of early-onset dementia, and the daughter (Elle Fanning) who is doing her best to care for him. It has its faults and shortcomings, but I found it moving. I love Christian Petzold, so I was looking forward to Undine. It didn’t make my top ten, but it is an interesting take on an old legend/myth. I enjoyed Flannery, mostly because I love O’Connor. Extraction, while not making any lists of great films, is a passable action film for when you don’t want to think too hard.

Now, some that disappointed me for various reasons. A lot of people have Bacurau on their end-of-year lists, but while the idea was interesting, I thought the central conceit didn’t hold up through the twist. I really enjoyed Jim Cummings’ debut, Thunder Road, but his follow-up, The Wolf of Snow Hollow seemed too spread out, with too many pieces to make a whole. I confess this might be a result of bad expectations, and I’m willing to be corrected by the many people who loved it.

The idea of seeing Mel Gibson as a disenchanted “Chris Cringle” and Walton Goggins as the hit man trying to kill him is strange enough to be appealing, but Fatman is a mess that probably sounded better after a few drinks than it looks on the screen. Wonder Woman 1984 is a similar mess, bloated into more than two-and-a-half hours. I enjoyed the first one, but this is a sophomore slump. I expected more from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and I am sure this worked better on the stage than on the screen. Enola Holmes tries to take advantage of Millie Bobbie Brown’s Stranger Things fame, but it wastes her, as well as Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter, in trying to force a twenty-first century gender equality agenda onto a nineteenth century story. 

It was a bit harder to make a top-ten list this past year, because it was harder to see new movies. But Video On Demand services, many of them run through local or independent theaters, made it possible to see some that I otherwise would have had to wait to see until they hit Amazon, Netflix, or Redbox. So by the end of the year, I finally filled out my top-ten:

10 – Soul. I don’t think it justifies some of the superlatives I’ve seen, but it’s a solid animated film, and the shift from what the characters think “the spark” is to what they discover put it on my list.

9 – The Quarry. I doubt this would have made my list if Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Bruno Bichir, and Catalina Sandino Moreno were not in it. Or maybe I just like movies about people impersonating clergy (see number 1).

8 – The Outpost. This might be the most intense, white-knuckle war movie I’ve seen. I could see how a viewer might grow tired of the constant bombardment. But it is realistic, and I was impressed with the vocational themes, where even in the middle of a pointless war with unclear objectives, and even when some of the soldiers didn’t personally get along, they fought for each other because that was what they had to do.

7 – The Truth. This isn’t my favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda film, but it deals from a unique perspective with the idea of truth in a life and in a family, a theme to which Kore-eda has returned more than once in his movies.

6 – Arkansas. I feel like this is one that is going to be low on people’s lists, but perhaps it hit me at just the right time. It’s a drug-running film with good dialogue and humor, and it feels unique to me among the many films set in some sort of criminal enterprise.

5 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always. A heart-breaking movie about a girl trying to get an abortion that doesn’t degenerate into easy answers or a propaganda piece.

4 – Sound of Metal. Riz Ahmed is excellent as a drummer who has lost his hearing and so his life as he knew it begins to come undone.

3 – Tenet. The sooner you stop trying to wrap your mind around the mechanics of what is happening and just sit back and enjoy the ride, the better this movie will be. It’s a fast-paced mind-bender, and I don’t get the hate that it received when it came out in theaters. I did have to turn on subtitles, because the dialogue is often quiet (one of the criticisms of the movie, from what I’ve read). But this is one that would bear repeated viewings and cause a lot of discussion around interpretations of what’s actually going on.

2 – Sorry We Missed You. This is not a happy movie, but it offers us an intimate view of a family simply trying to survive. Like life, answers and solutions are hard to come by.

1 – Corpus Christi. This might have been the first 2020 movie I saw, and it’s been at the top of my list the whole year. Brutal at times, but thought-provoking on multiple levels.