The Best of 2020: A Year In Film

Well, this wasn’t just another year now, was it. I always gave myself a couple extra months to catch up on all the movies by timing the release of these “A Year in Film” pieces with the Oscars of that accompanying year, but both of these storied film institutions benefited from a bit of a delay this year. I managed to cross the 100 film threshold for 2020 films (Oscar Calendar 2020), keeping that streak alive for I don’t know how long, and I think that makes me feel pretty good that I can compare this film fairly against others, even with its Covid impact. But, enough prologue, let’s get to the movies!

Every 2020 Movie I Saw…

Best Scene Of The Year: “Never? Rarely? Sometimes? Always?” – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This category is often awarded to something exhilarating, something awe inspiring, something we’ve never seen. This year is no different, but it is done in maybe the smallest way of any of the winners in the past 13 years I’ve written about movies. The titular sequence of this film is exhilarating in the way it overwhelms you emotionally, with those four words being repeated after a series of questions being posed to our young heroine, Autumn, about her history with her previous sexual partners. It’s awe inspiring because Sidney Flanigan is astonishing as you melt into a puddle of emotion with her as she has to face her reality point blank as these questions disarm us both. It feels like something we’ve never seen before, but that we need to see, because it feels so true, so real, and yet we view frank discussions about these female experiences as taboo or intentionally sweep them under the rug as a society. To protect men from feeling like these things are wrong and not letting women know they are not alone. I was floored. 

Best Shot Of The Year: Maud’s “Ascension” – Saint Maud
Rose Glass’ sort of horror film finds plenty of thrills and haunting imagery along the way, but the film’s final sequence (which I won’t spoil) is her chef’s kiss on everything that has come before it. The hard cut to the title card had me guffawing in disbelief at not just what I had just seen, but that Glass had built her script to this giant middle finger to her main character and everything she believed in. I can’t wait to see what Glass does next. 

Best Score Of The Year: Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Soul
Batiste brings the jazz, Reznor and Ross bring the beyond, and the two different styles define the two distinct settings of this film. Not only do the dual scores help define and separate the film’s locales, but they are both equally infectious in completely different ways. Both can be contemplative, beautiful, propulsive, all while being pitch perfect in their own right. You’d never think they were from the same film if pulled apart, but sound entirely of a piece when put together. Docter’s secret weapon in his latest great movie. 

Most Underrated Film: Hubie Halloween
Hahaha, I can’t believe this is what I’m going with, but I think this is honestly great more than it’s too long and predictable. Yes, it’s a silly Happy Madison comedy, but it knows that! Adam Sandler is committed to playing this weirdo at the center of all of this Halloween madness, which I honestly think should become a staple of the holiday, and it is almost always entertaining. Kind of sweet, plenty of big laughs, and a great Steve Buscemi performance, what more can one ask for?

You Had It Until The Third Act: The Empty Man
The Empty Man was released to zero fanfare, a dumped film from the Fox acquisition by Disney, but in it’s slowly growing cult over the past couple months I consider myself a convert on this one. Starting with a flashback that could stand on its own as a horror short, the film then dives into a three day detective tale starring everyone’s favorite James Badge Dale. A girl has disappeared, a bunch of kids show up dead, and this ex-cop gets on the case for these family friends only to uncover a much bigger conspiracy possibly at play. The present day section of the film is broken up into three days and at the end of the second day I was ready for this film to spike the football of greatness. But it doesn’t. There is some stuff to like in the final act, and the reveals and reasoning around what happens work, but it all feels so rushed and way too incoherent in the moment compared to what came before. David Prior’s film almost becomes a poor man’s Fincher masterpiece, but even though it doesn’t, I was pleasantly surprised all the same.

Some Movies I Really Wanted To See, But (Still) Didn’t Get The Chance:
Kajillionaire, Proxima, Saint Frances, Freaky, Babyteeth, Undine, La Llorona, Bacurau, Beanpole, Tesla, Lucky Grandma, Relic, Shithouse, True History of the Kelly Gang, Ema

To The List:

The Also Rans (All Movies Worth Your Time And Discussion):
Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Way Back, Another Round, Time, The Invisible Man, Onward, Palm Springs, We Are Little Zombies, Underwater, Let Them All Talk, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Empty Man

The Contenders: 

You Don’t Nomi
Who would have thought an exhaustive deep dive into the film Showgirls could be so entertaining, but You Don’t Nomi proves exactly that. It dissects the film, the culture around it and its director’s storied career, all while making you realize that Showgirls is probably better than you think it is. I watched Showgirls for the first time, read Adam Nayman’s book on it, and watched this over the course of a month, I can’t imagine that happens if the pandemic isn’t around, but I’m glad to have an appreciation for everything in and around Showgirls now, I even bought the damn thing on blu-ray. Nomi stands apart on its own though, being a great piece of critical analysis on a film that is well made, easy to watch and as entertaining as the camp classic it gets its namesake from.

Crip Camp
Starting off as an intimate look into an upstate New York summer camp for young people with varying ranges of disability, and evolving into a fantastic portrait of political activism for these individuals, Crip Camp is only held back by the creative involvement of one of its subjects. James Lebrecht is a great entryway into this story, but it feels like he maybe focuses the film on himself a bit too much by the end. He’s clearly not the star here, luckily he realizes that for the much of the film, but once we get embedded with all of these individuals, who are given a voice and interiority our society fails to give them at every turn, I couldn’t help but wish we were getting more and more of them and their anecdotes about their lives and experiences over a fairly traditional talking head history lesson. Still, I don’t want to criticize too much, as there is so much to appreciate and love in this doc. You’ll fall in love with its characters, you will be blown away by some of the stories in their fight for equality and you will, hopefully, become more considerate of this population’s humanity.

Bad Education
Cory Finley’s follow up to the great Thoroughbreds is a true crime tale with no dead bodies; well, no real ones. Hugh Jackman is a marvel as someone in mid-meltdown as he tries to bury his guilt deep, deep inside, all while you learn about this story of school board fraud that so casually took place for years. Allison Janney and Geraldine Viswanathan provide some excellent support to Jackman’s showcase, all while Finley doesn’t let the story get in front of him, instead smartly focusing on the tragedy of these characters and their downfall at the hands of one of their students. Feels slightly reactionary to the Trumpian aesthetic in its look at vanity and stupidity on display for a quick buck, but isn’t that just America, Zac?

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime
Don Hertzfeld’s third entry in his World of Tomorrow is a brilliant and insane hard sci-fi black comedy that is wonderfully animated with stick people. If you’ve followed my recommendations of the previous entries in this series, you know what you are getting into, but I think you could start with this one and work backwards if you wanted. Focusing on David Prime, what we watch is this future being trying to uncover a great mystery that was sent to him across time, constantly failing miserably along the way and culminating in some truly hilarious time travel shenanigans by the end. It’s better to experience it then listen to me talk about it, but if you are into sci-fi/futurism concepts at all, this series should be on your watchlist. 

First Cow
Kelly Reichardt continues to be a director I really, really, really like, but don’t quite love, and I feel almost the same about First Cow. As natural and easy going as any of her other films, it does also feel like her most accessible work to date. About two guys who want to invent donuts in America, and the cow they need to do that, the film might not seem like something anyone would enjoy. But like all of her work, it’s about the characters and the relationships they form inside her simple set-ups, while Reichardt nails the mise-en-scene to a T. Cookie and King-Lu will warm you heart about as much as that cow does, a platonic partnership as strong as any this past year on the screen, but I did wish there was just a bit more meat on the bone when it’s all said and done. I know that’s not Reichardt’s style, and I think it is what keeps the filmmaker and I just a tad apart from true love, but I’m going to keep trying.

Extra Ordinary
A silly movie by every measure, a paranormal parody of sorts out of Ireland had me grinning and laughing along with it every step of the way. It might take a moment or two to get on it’s wavelength, but it knows what it is trying to do, you might just have to catch up to it. Full of great bits and takes on a tried and true genre, it knows how to earn it’s laughs and endear you to the kooky characters that populate it. Plus, it lets Will Forte go for it, and what more can you ask for? Maeve Higgins could be a star, how has she never done more movies or isn’t a bigger deal? She should be! Make this a Halloween classic, you cowards!

On The Rocks
New Sofia Coppola! It’s been far too long and she has returned with a film that might not be as personal as Lost in Translation, but is a reflection of the women she has become since. A fantasy of sorts with next to no stakes along the way, Coppola sits back and lets her camera capture Bill Murray bounce off everyone while Rashida Jones stands in as a Coppola avatar of today. Murray is delightful, Coppola proving she knows who to utilize him about as well as anyone, while the shabby tale that unfolds underneath all the vamping is just enough to keep things moving along. Is it her best film, no. Is it her worst, possibly. But if you are into the Sofia Coppola vibes then there is no reason you won’t be into this. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
A sequel no one asked for, but was somehow the one America needed, Sacha Baron Cohen returns to a character that I felt got driven into annoyance by douchebags who missed the point of the original film’s satire, by doubling down and exposing how far we’ve further fallen as a country all these years later. The film is often hilarious, humiliates the people who deserve to be humiliated and captures the cultural crossroads of this country and just how stupid we can be. Cohen has empathy here as much as he takes the piss out of some deserving targets, while rightfully getting out of the way of star Maria Bakalova. She goes toe to toe with him, often even blowing him out of the water, and never once flinches at what Cohen and his team ask her to do. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Bakalova and if she can be as appealing when she isn’t being targeted as an agent of chaos at every turn.

The most fucked up film on this list by a mile, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get into with this one, but I’m glad I took the plunge. Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi head trip has a brilliant conceit at the center of it and slowly uses that to weave a story that just goes further and further off the rails. How do you come up with some of this stuff? Full of surprises and by no means for the squeamish, Cronenberg pulls no punches. I’m no gorehound, that’s not what sucked me into this one, it’s held together by some great performances from Andrea Riseborgouh and Christopher Abbot while also tackling some complex ideas with lo-fi visuals and clever plot twists. If you can stomach a little lot bit of violence, this is the sci-fi pick of the year.

The Assistant
The horror film of the year doesn’t contain a single jump scare, but instead dives head first into a day of the endless acceptance of sexual assault and harassment inherent to the film history. With a camera propped up outside the office a fictional Harvey Weinstein type, we watch the machinations of complicity surrounding men like this, while investigating the moral obligation and hurdles put in front of people that kept/keeps them from outing this awful behavior in a heartbeat. Julia Garner perfectly captures the crushing guilt of someone at the end of the rope of their moral dilemma, while never really giving the audience an easy answer or out for themselves or Garner. Kitty Green’s feature debut quickly launches her near the top of filmmakers to keep an eye on and Garner proves to be the star people have been predicting she could be if given the chance to carry something on her own. Buy stock in both of these women. 

Haley Bennett is someone that’s never really stood out for me, but she leaps off the screen in Swallow, which throws the movie on her back and she carries it with ease. She plays Hunter with such bored exasperation, all while realizing she is being swallowed up by the wealthy class of America who think they can do anything they want, to whomever they want, because they are rich. Laced with social commentary, dark humor and beautiful filmmaking, Swallow enraptured me even when it’s third act got a tad rickety. Still, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis makes it all work because Bennett sells us on it, a subtly over the top performance that you can’t look away from, even as the character goes careening down a melodramatic path towards the film’s end, which resolves itself in a place of self empowerment that feels earned in every way. Laith Nakli in everything, please.

The Top 20:

20. Greyhound
This taught game of battleship, starring and written by Tom Hanks, never leaves the titular ship as it crosses the Pacific, protecting the fleet that carries supplies for the Allied forces during WWII, but it never gives you a moment to breathe as it builds great set piece, after set piece. It doesn’t hurt that Hanks is in or a step away from every frame of the film, turning right into the bad guy mojo that the Nazis exude, even ones that are on U-Boats underwater. Stephen Graham chews it up as the second in command, while a bunch of young and fresh faced actors fill the roles everywhere else, and even though the film might have, could have been a deeper character study of the men that went into battle, well, Hanks already gave us that when he made Band of Brothers. Greyhound is an action thrill ride and it executes on that level with ease. If you for some reason fell into an AppleTV+ subscription, give it a shot!

19. The Hunt
Craig Zobel has had a pretty solid career by my book (Mare of Easttown! On HBO right now) and The Hunt is my favorite film he’s done yet. A parody of, well, everything political in our current era, the opening ten minutes of this movie are about as entertaining and insane as you could see last year. Once it settles down, it only gets better, as it follows Betty Gilpin in a star-making turn that is one of the best performances of 2020. She’s tough, hilarious and complex, all while selling us on this crazy world concocted by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. Sure it’s a bit broad at times, but most of the set pieces work, every scene has a great line or two, and it will keep you on your toes as Gilpin tries to escape her situation. I think everyone was a bit precious around this one, sit back and laugh at how dumb America is. 

18. Beastie Boys Story
Spike Jonze directs this concert documentary film thing that sees Ad-Rock and Mike D (Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond) tell the story of their band, the Beastie Boys. The sadness of no MCA (Adam Yauch died of cancer a few years back) is certainly felt, but his presence is always felt as a lot of the video elements in the film were shot by him over the years. The format isn’t terribly revolutionary, An Inconvenient Truth is similarly produced, but the energy of Horovitz and Diamond carry through any staleness you think might be inherent to the format. They also build in some audience bits, have running gags with Jonze “messing up”, but I don’t even know if that was really needed as their story and the music stands on its own. I don’t know how appealing this is to non-fans, but I’d like to think their story could be appreciated by everyone. Anyways, I’ll always show up for new Jonze content and it doesn’t hurt that it’s about such a great music group.

17. The Gentlemen
I’ve always had a soft spot for Guy Ritchie and this return to the genre that made him the name he is feels right at home with those early crime capers. A stacked cast, McConaughey doing McConaughey, Jeremy Strong getting weird, Colin Farrell being the best, Hugh GRANT!, a rap video for the ages, and endless numbskullery to sit back and laugh at. Never takes itself too seriously, maybe is not quite PC, but it delivers all of its shenanigans with a wink and over the top nature that I don’t know how/why anyone would take this film serious enough to get upset. Come for the accents and violence, leave wanting Ritchie to keep giving us crime entries like this. I’ll be there!

16. Boys State
This documentary about the Texas Boys State week that happens on an annual basis is an inside look into a borderline insane idea that gives you some hope for the future while realizing we might just be fucked for generations. Moss and McBaine know how to pick their stars, with the boys they follow being right in the mix of all of the drama that unfolds over the three day erection of political parties, candidates, committees and culminating in an election. Sweet, sweet Steven Garza could be President one day, this film definitely doesn’t hurt his case and in fact shows how we should hope our politicians react in some quasi-compromising government. René Otero shows how someone who could be easily othered in a place like this can still find a way into power and appealing to folks who never thought they could ally themselves in the first place through sheer intelligence and charisma. While Ben Feinstein is the poster boy for the craven and bankrupt side of our political coin that is destroying our country. Seriously, Feinstein is a huge piece of shit. Entertaining as hell and will leave on the edge of your seat come election night, while realizing the power of the journey might mean more then the ending you had hoped for.

15. Saint Maud
I awarded Rose Glass’ film the shot of the year above, for this film’s final frame, but everything that comes before it slowly turns the screws to get you to that point. Morfydd Clark is wonderful as the title character, seething with that righteousness that gets under my skin more than just about anything else in this world. Jennifer Ehle is the only other major character in play and she plays an excellent foil to Clark’s Maud as a dying star of yesteryear. Moments of horror are few and far between, but dread fills every frame as Maud draws closer to her self-driven higher purpose. The middle finger ending made me cackle and Glass has jumped to the front of the line of filmmakers to watch.

14. Emma.
The Jane Austen adaptation is full of charm and I for some reason took a couple viewings to fall for it. Anya Taylor-Joy has always been an actress I’ve liked, but she will knock your socks off here. She’s such a diverse actress, even in such a brief career, but her title turn her is just pitch perfect as the trendsetter of her small town. It’s the cast that Autumn de Wilde puts around Joy that makes this work so well though. Johnny Flynn is a perfect foil to Joy, Josh O’Connor’s weirdo priest is a delight, Calum Turner is snooty smugness to a T, Mia Goth is delightful as a wide-eyed romantic, Bill Nighy is never not hilariously cold, and the list could go on. Not to mention that it is exquisitely framed, has an amazing score and never makes you feel too dour, it was a perfect film for the past year. As rewatchable as anything from 2020 as well, one of the few I saw twice on this list.

13. Miss Americana
I’m not afraid to be a Taylor Swift fan, but I don’t feel like I am some blinded zealot for liking this film either. Lana Wilson has intimate behind the scenes access to Swift’s post 1989 life, as she reveals Reputation, pivots to Lover and decides to get political. Seeing her talent at crafting songs is pretty impressive, but it’s her vulnerability around her feelings and how she’s sick of being put in a box around her “image” (culminating in her defiance of being chaotic neutral politically) that made the film so compelling. It feels like we shouldn’t have access to someone of this stature, like we are seeing something we shouldn’t, and while she surely got to approve what did or didn’t ultimately end up in the final cut of this film, Swift feels incredibly authentic and not cynical about her status and love for her fans. And that felt, oddly, refreshing to know someone with as much power as she has over our youth wants to wield it for good. 

12. Small Axe: Mangrove
I could have put four films (out of five) from the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen (one of my favorite filmmakers) onto this list, but Mangrove was the standout by a fair margin and I decided to just leave one on the list. Part origin story of the political movements around the title restaurant and part courtroom drama of the prosecution of the people that lead that charge, Mangrove excels at everything it sets out to do. A top notch cast, succinct history lessons, powerful protest imagery, thrilling courtroom setpieces and a complete wash of the corrupt police system, all while perfectly setting up the throughlines of the series of films, it’s an impressive feat that can also stand on its own. McQueen uses this film (and series) to put a lens on a community rarely committed to film and their struggle still feels all too relevant even today. It should resonate with viewers in how hard change can be, but change can happen all the same; and that’s some to put hope in through the harshness. 

11. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I awarded Eliza Hittman’s film the scene of the year at the top, but it’s everything that the film builds up before the title sequence knocks you out that sticks with you. Raw and human, infuriating and discouraging, Autumn’s journey to get an abortion is so hard and arduous you can’t help but be infuriated. Hittman finds plenty of kindness and humanity along the way, whether it is the professionalism of the clinic employee’s, the bond with her best friend on this journey with her or the awe of a big city even if their circumstances aren’t ideal. Sidney Flanigan feels so authentic in her understated performance, piling on the guilt she feels (even if not earned) without ever breaking; until she does. Talia Ryder plays Autumn’s friend on their journey, Skylar, and she is great as well as Flanigan’s ying to her yang. Ryder is wider eyed and leading the charge, where Flanigan has to just hold it all together as Autumn, and the two’s chemistry is entirely earned through the girls’ performances, making us believe why they would trust each other to go on this journey together. You got to be after dealing with that creepy manager at their grocery store job!

10. Soul
One of two Pixar films this year, this one was directed by the studio’s most masterful director, Pete Docter, taking on another grand idea of humanity. Not so much about death, but what makes a life, half this film takes place in an in-between space of existence as our lead character Joe (Jamie Foxx) gets thrown together with an unfully formed soul named 22. There are some silly body swap shenanigans, an adorable cat, and plenty of fun observations about what makes a human, while sending both of our leads down a path of discovery around their own selves and what they could possibly be. Beautifully designed, animated and directed, the film also has the best score of the year. The jazz sequences are truly a sight to behold, while the before time is scored to an incredibly original and bizarre soundscape that perfectly fits the visuals on screen. This needs another viewing before I move it out of the middle of the road Pixar, but if you know me, I don’t think that’s anything to sneeze at. 

9. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
This is my first experience with Jim Cummings (his previous film, and feature debut, Thunder Road has rocketed up my queue), but I am on board with what he is putting down. This small town murder mystery with a werewolf twist has a hilarious script, succinct energy and a direction that isn’t afraid to try something. Cummings writes, directs and stars in the film, and his performance is one of the zaniest things I have seen in some time. I don’t know what he is doing, he’s a loose canon, all nerve endings, tearing at the seams. He’s a horrible person, but you can’t help but like the goof. If anything Cummings is doing in this film tips one degree the wrong way (his direction, acting or script) the movie probably bombs, but it holds itself together and the fact that it feels like things are always just about to fall apart starts feeling like a feature, not a bug. It helps that Cummings doesn’t let the rest of the cast play on his level, but aren’t necessarily too far off either. The world feels lived in, the editing on this film is a whirlwind of excitement and the werewolf looks pretty damn good too! Underrated gem of the year.

8. She Dies Tomorrow
Amy Seimetz’s sophomore feature is a pitch black comedy full of dread as we watch people’s anxiety slowly infect those around each other and slowly make these people go mad. Episodic in that it keeps folding in newly anguished individuals, while still having a throughline to get to the bottom of where this all started for our lead character Amy, I was on Seimetz’s wavelength pretty much from start to finish. The film worms into your brain, what would you do if you think you were going to die tomorrow, but the film is also great at asking us as a society why it should take that level of fear and regret to make us stare the way we live in the face. Did I mention this is a comedy? Jane Adams won’t let you forget, in one of the best performances of the year, as she awkwardly infects those around her in hilarious intrusions and confusion as to what the hell is going on. I don’t know, any movie that can joke about taxiderming your body into a leather jacket to be helpful is a win in my book.

7. The Father
The last film I saw for this list almost jumped even nearer to the top. A seemingly small story about a man dealing with his dementia/Alzheimer’s from his point of view is elevated into greatness thanks to an incredible performance by Anthony Hopkins and exquisite filmmaking by Florian Zeller and his team. The production design and editing are working overtime on this film, but are always nuanced at slowly keeping us off kilter alongside Hopkins’ lead. Olivia Colman wonderfully captures the grief, frustration and sadness a situation like this must be on a child, trying to have her own life and not “abandoning” a family member to their fate. Hopkins is the real star here though, bouncing between memories, emotions and confusion in ways that feel incredibly authentic. I think the film brought me to tears the most I did all year, on multiple occasions, and that is almost entirely laid at the feet of Hopkins’ performance. This film has the goods. It’s ending’s inevitability was the only thing I wish felt a bit more fresh, but, again, it’s inevitable. Still, that final scene leaves you in a place of some comfort, even if you are full of sadness. Sigh, this was excellent. I wonder where it will fall with some more time under it. 

6. Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s feature debut is sharp, insightful, prescient and has a great lead performance at its heart with the always excellent Carey Mulligan. Peppered with an all-star cast that are ready to step up to the themes of the film, a young woman trying to enact revenge for the misogynist violence towards women in the world (and specifically her best friend), Fennell aims big and nails it at every turn. Mulligan’s confidence as Cassie leaps through the screen, she’s in command of every frame of the film, well, until she’s not. The film’s final act seems to have divided some, but the bleak reality left in our laps is sadly our reality all the same. We can fantasize and root for Cassie’s triumphs across the film, but Fennell isn’t naive either. This film should serve as a litmus test for people if the men in their life have seen this. Be wary of those men that react in any way the enablers in this film do. You were warned. 

5. Tenet
I don’t get the negativity around this one. The only negativity I have towards anything about this film is that Nolan seemed a bit too gungho about getting this thing into theaters during the middle of a pandemic. He was proven wrong on that front, but that doesn’t diminish his power as a filmmaker. Tenet isn’t his best movie, but it’s right there with everything sitting below that top tier, which is as good as anything anyone else is making today. Gorgeously shot, brilliantly conceived and expertly executed, I don’t know why anyone would get hung up on the logic of inversion. Like, who cares? The idea works in the reality of the film he’s created and you should just embrace his call at the beginning of the film to feel it, not over think it. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are having a blast, individually and off one another, while Kenneth Branagh would be tearing down the sets if this wasn’t shot almost entirely in the most beautiful real life locations you could imagine. Debicki feels a bit short shrifted at first, but she has the emotional throughline of the film, and I love the ending she gets to round it off. I feel like in a few years we are going to look back at the reaction to this film and realize how much we took it for granted. 

4. Mank
David Fincher makes a movie, it’s probably going to be one of the best of the year. Enter Mank. I will say, on the first watcht I was a little thrown off at what Fincher was putting down. I didn’t know what to expect from the film, I thought it might get more into the making of Citizen Kane than it did, but Fincher’s aims were much broader that that narrow lens I was trying to view it through. It’s about passion, reflection, intelligence, politics and it is beautifully wrapped up in a brilliant Gary Oldman performance. Hilarious and always moving forward, even as it flashes back, Fincher’s exquisite craft shines through right alongside the shambling adventure laid in front of Mank. The famous faces that pop up around Mank (both fictitious and in the casting) are just a new friend to banter with, and that’s what the film feels like, looking in on Mank bantering and giving perspective on the world around him. Coming to terms with the choices he made with a chance to try and get a stab into the gut of the man that played him the fool; his knife being a pen. Now, Criterion, give this the physical release we deserve. 

3. David Byrne’s American Utopia
Shot by Spike Lee, this performance film of the Broadway production of David Byrne’s titular show is joy in film form. Byrne is as endearingly awkward as ever as he guides us on a journey through the American human experience and how we should have hope even if it feels dark all around us at times. Full of songs across Byrne’s entire career, Talking Heads and solo, dotted with a cover or collaboration or two, the film keeps building and building towards a cathartic finale that brings Byrne’s message and Lee’s directorial style to a head. “Hell You Talmbout” is a visceral and beautiful reminder of the loss our country has endured, specifically our black community, and how things still need to change. Lee’s reminder is a call to arms of Byrne’s hope that we can still make a change. We can cast out the powerful cynics who would keep us all down and enact humanistic change in this world. We will see, but this film gave me hope, all while entertaining me more than just about anything I’ve seen in years.

2. Nomadland
This portrait of a group of American’s being left behind doesn’t wallow in sorrow, but tries to find the sparks of happiness and joy that these people are trying to find in this community of van living nomads. Anchored by an incredible lead performance by Frances McDormand, the film is populated otherwise (outside David Strathairn) by non-actors and real individuals living these lives. Director Chloé Zhao’s experience with non-actors perfectly collides with an authentic McDormand who bounces off all of these characters with an ease that makes her feel like one of them. It doesn’t hurt that Zhao’s camera also captures the beauty of our countryside, she edits the film to perfection and gets performances out of everyone that feel lived in and keeps her lead character moving forward. Justice for Swankie in the Oscar nominations, but if this walks away with wins for Zhao and McDormand in every category, it wouldn’t feel unearned. I was wow’d by every frame of this film.

1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman made a film, I loved it. Completely unexpecting at every turn, Kaufman (maybe more than any filmmaker) understands that films can be anything. Anything is possible within a film and just because it might not feel real doesn’t mean it can’t help tell his story. Right from the start Kaufman lets you know not to expect the expected, as his adaptation of Ian Reid’s novel is unlike any movie I’ve really seen. An insane long car ride, ever changing names and ages, the ability to interpret people’s thoughts, an ever shaking dog, an ice cream shop from hell, oh and throw in a ballet and homage to A Beautiful Mind for good measure. All of this makes sense, I promise (sort of), but he also gets four of the best performances of the year out of his cast. Jessie Buckley is asked to do everything and does so with ease, Jesse Plemons’ quiet malevolence is on the edge of every scene, while David Thewlis and Toni Collette drop into the middle of this movie and seemingly blow it all to hell with some of the most terrifyingly hilarious acting you’ll ever see. Part nightmare, part dark comedy, part scathing satire of the male psyche and entirely of a piece with the mind of Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the best film of the year.

Thanks for reading, and here is some other The Best Of content:

A Year In Film: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

The Decade’s Best: 2010-19 – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Decade’s Best 2000-09 – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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