2020 was a weird year for many things, and especially movies. As the pandemic hit, studios delayed many of their films into 2021. It would appear to make it a pretty catastrophic movie year. But guess what? Taking the big blockbuster boats out of the bathtub allows for the smaller ones to actually be seen. We collectively leaned a little harder on streaming services to fill in the blanks, allowing for a wider spectrum of cinematic voices to make their way through. This may be the most deeply empathetic list I’ve been together in all the years I’ve done this. No year taught me more, film after film, about experiences not my own while giving me universalities to connect with.
Before we get started: some awards!
The 91% Alcohol Swab Award: Tenet
At one point this past Christmas, I had to hunt down 91% alcohol for a project. I’m still not sure which evaporates faster: a dab of 91% alcohol or Christopher Nolan’s latest, Tenet. To be fair, there’s much to admire about this movie. There’s the typical, still very cool Nolan commitment to using as many practical effects as possible. There’s some nifty editing here and there. There are some camera tricks that, bolstered by a giant studio budget, look pretty dang cool. But that’s about it. All of it in service of a story almost entirely explained between characters and yet still not quite adding up.
While 91% alcohol is about as distilled a solution you can find in stores, Tenet is the most distilled solution of Nolan yet. Everything you love about him – the big real-world effects, the mind-bending thoughts, the suits that look suspiciously like the ones he wears to set every day – is here. But everything you hate about him – the lone, thinly written female character, the use of characters as ciphers for barely-workshopped ideas, the screaming of dialogue over loud noises because of his commitment to live sound recording – is also here, distilled in its purest, most frustrating form. I wanted so badly to figure this movie out until my disinterest increased disproportionately with the amount of time left in the movie.
There’s an inkling of a cool movie there. It’s just a 70% solution of Nolan would have worked better – a little less of his obsession, a little more water poured on the growth of his characters – and made this the event movie he truly wanted it to be.
Best Power Flex: Black is King
If you look up just what this film is, the common (and rather boring) description is that it’s a visual companion to The Lion King: The Gift album Beyonce curated as part of Disney’s 2019 remake. And while this is accurate, it does absolutely nothing to give you a sense of what you’re in for. Working with directors, artists, and collaborators from all over the world, Beyonce used her clout to get Disney to invest in something they maybe didn’t fully understand. They did their best to make it an event, but the best they could do was place it on Disney+ with a few advertisements. If it weren’t for the pandemic, this would be in theaters and, rightfully, an event unto itself.
Beyonce and her team go to great (and joyous) pains to portray Blackness as a spectrum and to reclaim Black heritage with style. They shot in Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana and they worked closely with local artists and musicians from each of these areas. It is an 85-minute testament to the diversity of Africa – something many Americans could use more exposure to. After all, many of us here in the US still think of Africa as a country and not a continent of 54 countries with their own unique cultures.
What I found quite astounding about this film is how it captured all the basic elements of The Lion King without ever explicitly stating them. The narrative arc and the emotional colors it brings are all here – but traced over the greater story of Africa. It would have been easy for Beyonce and her team to lean on the Disney money and make something they’re minimally involved in, using CGI backgrounds and sets. Instead, they took the opportunity to truly stretch themselves and shine a luminous light on culture so often left in American shadows.
Best Groundhog Day Diversions: Palm Springs and The Old Guard
It’s fitting that both of these films came out the same day in July, as we sheltered from the summer heat and the pandemic. Perhaps Hulu and Netflix executives wanted to place a little behind-the-scenes bet on which could be a more perfect fit for Our Time of Quarantine. Palm Springs is a romantic comedy about two people stuck in a weird time loop and The Old Guard is a leaner action film about just how exhausting and devastating immortality can be. In both films, our main characters are struggling to find meaning in their predicament. In essence, they’re the perfect kind of escapist-with-a-side-of-emotion works for 2020.
Not only did both films come out on the same day, but both have Andy’s (Springs‘ Sandberg and Charlize Theron’s character) that need to learn something from those they bring up to speed so they can find their own strength to go forward. One Andy has resigned himself to a life of repeats. Another Andy is exhausted from the accumulation. They both need to believe there’s something more.
In a way, these Andy’s represent our zeitgeist. They are who we imagine ourselves as: people exhausted by this pandemic yet needing something to have hope in. We need to believe there’s a future worth living in, just as much as need to believe real change has occurred so the same nightmares won’t be repeated. In the end; it’s in our hands far more than we realize. It’s our mission should we choose to accept it.
Going To See Your Favorite Person’s Play Award: The Lovebirds
I love Issa Rae and her Insecure TV show. I love Kumail Nanjiani. I love Michael Showalter (Hello My Name Is Doris, The Big Sick) as a director. What makes this movie work is the comedic chemistry between the leads. Both Rae and Nanjiani are excellent actors in their own right, but you can see them struggling against the mechanisms of the story. Where it feels more effortless and deeply entertaining is when their legit comedic chemistry sparks to a smolder, either through comic timing or ad-libbed lines. They lean into the absurdity of each situation, still always trying to find the emotional truth behind the lines. It makes for a great Friday night escape flick, worth some chuckles and the joy of seeing two of your favorite comedic presences find new ways to bounce off each other.
An additional fun bonus with this film: trying to figure out where Kumail was on his Marvel’s The Eternals training schedule while filming this. When I saw how director Bong Joon-ho kept hiding a too-buff-to-be-poor Captain America Chris Evans in a long trenchcoat in Snowpiercer, I realized how much fun was to be had with seeing Marvel actors and their directors try to hide all the cinematic muscle. After his Men’s Health cover came out in April 2020, which showed the word a Kumail absolutely ripped in a way we never knew possible, Slate did the investigative work for everyone.
Best Original Power Ballad: Frozen II
I have no problem admitting it: I was one of those moviegoers genuinely shocked by how good the first Frozen movie turned out to be and considered myself a fan. I didn’t think it was begging to be a franchise, but billions of dollars worth of merchandise will sway a studio like Disney. Nearly seven years after the original (not a good sign), Frozen II arrived on Disney+ and…I was not a fan. For many reasons. But! It made it that much easier to spot my one true highlight from that film: Kristoff’s 80’s power ballad, “Lost in the Woods”. The song along is a true banger. But the song with the lip-synching reindeer and dramatic lighting? 100% fried gold. Lock it away in the Smithsonian. This is the best thing Disney will ever do for the next fifty years.
Best Polar Express Replacement: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Watching Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express on a large TV screen with a thundering sound system this past Christmas reminded me of its original selling point in 2004: a CGI extravaganza rendered in 3D (hence the objects randomly thrown towards the screen). Sixteen years later, the animation holds up better in some places than others, but there’s a dark, rather creepy core to the whole thing. Maybe it’s having a homeless man giggling on top of a moving train. Maybe it’s the way every adult’s face just sets up camp in the Uncanny Valley and looks increasingly grotesque as the story goes on. All of it works together to create something rather exhausting and discomforting, buoyed by some show-stopping action pieces that remind us of just how great Zemeckis was at live-action directing before he built a second living inside the computer.
David E. Talbert’s Jingle Jangle, on the other hand, accomplishes quite a few things in a delightful package bursting with color and imagination: it introduces a much better, more empowering idea of belief, and it does it with great actors, imaginative sets, and some genuinely catchy songs. It’s a smart cotton candy delight of a Christmas classic for the whole family and with none of the creepiness or Uncanny Valley treks found in Polar Express.
Most Unlikely Reminder That Octopus Are Dope: My Octopus Teacher
There are some unmistakable truths in life. Coke is better than Pepsi. Showerheads are cheese graters for water. Everything is improved with an Oreo in it. And octopuses are one of the most incredible, baffling, and inspiring animals on this entire planet. You know they’re special when Pixar, well known for making animals talk and bringing otherwise inanimate objects to life, spent an insane amount of time on research and development with Finding Dory because octopus arms were constantly breaking their animating brains. Or when they allow them to make World Cup soccer predictions.
There are so many ways this documentary could have sunk to the cinematic floor. The idea of a man obsessively following an octopus for a year? In this economy? But it’s a testament to Ehlrich and Reed that they sculpt such a genuine heart at the center of diver and filmmaker Craig Foster’s cephalopod friendship. The footage they’ve pulled together is astonishing in its own right, as intimate a look as we’ve ever seen at our eight-leg friends of the sea. But what makes this special is how Foster, exhausted and adrift and barely floating above a mid-life crisis, delicately explains the way this sea friend has revitalized his life. It buoys a rather sad ending, lining it with a golden hue of hope, not unlike the sunlight that snuck deep into the kelp forest Foster spent so much time in.
Best Superhero Film: Birds of Prey
Another example of how great a superhero movie can be when you put the women in charge, Birds of Prey skillfully adopted Deadpool‘s unreliable narrator structure and ran with it, complete in stylish heels and an egg sandwich. Bonus points to Yan and Hodson for putting their newly-formed team together in a funhouse, creating one of the liveliest, most creative third act action scenes in recent memory.
Best Reminder the Human Body is 70% Water: Onward
By the time the final emotional notes hit from this film, I was reminded our bodies are just sponges holding in all the tears Onward had yet to squeeze out of us.
Onward is a testament to how much grace you can buy from an audience when you nail the key emotional moments of your story. Not everything about this movie really works. There’s a fantasy element that doesn’t feel completely thought through, a rare miss for Pixar. There are jokes that don’t quite swish the net, awkwardly rattling around the rim. But none of this quite mattered because goddamn, did Scanlon and his team nail down their emotional tracking. No movie in 2020 reduced me to a tear-stained mess quite like this one. There was an ache in my chest all the way through, a feeling I haven’t really had since 2015’s Creed and Inside Out. Keep the kleenexes close by as Chris Pratt and Tom Holland make you believe in brothers who need each other more than they even realize.
20. Boys State – directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
This documentary is likely to leave you with two deeply conflicting feelings: hope in the future of American politics and utter despair at the white supremacy coursing underneath it. You’ll absolutely root for Steven Garza and his utterly genuine demeanor and for René Otero and his uphill climb to respect he rightfully deserves, and you’ll absolutely steam at just how close their experiences are to being toppled by the most rudimentary, yet insidious forms of racism and their teenage perpetrators. A fascinating thin slice of how America often plays out on the bigger stages.
19. Underwater – directed by William Eubank, written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
For all the attention (and taxes) we pay to space exploration, I’ve often felt we’d be better off using our resources towards exploring the 80% of the planet’s oceans that remain a complete unmapped, unobserved mystery. Even further, it’s been estimated we haven’t discovered more than 90% of the ocean’s species. What Underwater does so well is tap into two things at once: the unexplored ocean and the mysteries of the dark, deep Mariana Trench. And then it uses the insane water pressure of the deep in conjunction with the imploding pressure of not knowing just what the hell is going on around you. And it does it all while allowing an extremely game cast to wear some weighty, utterly cool exploration suits.
18. Get Duked! – directed and written by Ninian Doff
17. Extra Ordinary – directed and written by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman
Extra Ordinary comes from Ireland. Get Duked! comes from Scotland. They are both similar in their structure, stringing along quiet, unique characters as they go through increasingly baffling circumstances before breaking open into highly memorable, highly hilarious final acts.
Extra Ordinary is a bit like low-budget Ghostbusters in a small Irish town, with spit-out ectoplasm, unusual ghosts, and a deranged Will Forte as a fading one-hit-wonder. Get Duked! mixes hip-hop sensibilities with the Scottish Highlands – a brew I’d never imagine dreaming up – to delightful results. Just be sure to keep on the subtitles to decipher those thick, wonderful accents.
16. Beastie Boys Story – directed by Spike Jonze, written by Jonze, Adam Horovitz, and Mike D
I’ve got a lot of cultural blindspots – everyone does – and a big one I’ve always wanted to somehow remedy is the Beastie Boys. I never grew up around their music. But I knew that I loved every crazy, quirky video they made, especially the ones they did with Spike Jonze, a director I dearly love. So when I heard they collaborated for this filmed special/documentary? I was so there.
It’s hard to talk about your own band for and hour and a half without it sounding a bit masturbatory, but Michael (Mike D) Diamond, Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz, and Jonze make it absolutely work. There is an utter genuineness from the opening minutes, a tone of celebration mixed in with the humbling that comes with failure, reflection, and untimely death. I grew to appreciate just how wild it was these guys made it big in the first place, how they great to hate their own image, and then how they burnt it down and build it all back up in a way they could be proud of. The music is always a reflection of where they’re at in their lives, allowing them to let the art speak for itself. And Mike D and Ad-Rock are disarmingly charming, owning up to their mistakes (like the party atmosphere and casual misogyny of the past) and expressing their deep gratitude for Adam Yauch’s impact on their lives.
If you’re a fan, this is a welcome parkour dash down memory lane. If you’re like me, curious but never quite getting their deal, this is as good a shot to your musical veins as you’ll get. Come for the dope beats and the hilarious side stories about Mike D’s failed film career; stay for the heartfelt themes of ownership, gratitude, and fighting for the right to your own party.
15. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
Audiences love it when you give them 2 and 2 and then let them add it up to 4 on their own (and not just because they may be insecure about their own math skills). But I swear the math equations Charlie Kaufman gives us are time-released, meant only to be solved as soon as the credits roll. And they usually involve the Quadratic Formula or Calculus or something quite complex.
What I’m saying is that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is maybe the most Kaufmanesque movie yet in that it withholds its true meaning through your entire first viewing so that it’s lodged in your brain for weeks after. Both my wife and I found ourselves liking the film more and more with each passing day, our brains finally solving rudimentary parts of the Kaufman Equation, sending out tiny shots of endorphins. The true genius of Kaufman’s work here is the way you still are entranced and drawn into a movie you don’t fully understand. You can feel your way around it, like your tongue searching for that stubborn piece of candy at the back of your teeth. For a while, I wasn’t sure if Kaufman himself even understood his own movie. But the meandering, as witty and heartbreaking as it is, is the point. It’s an ode to memory, to a life regretfully lived, that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
14. Uncorked – written and directed by Prentice Penny
Another Netflix movie that got buried beneath the layers of content and the initial shock of the pandemic, Prentice Penny’s debut film is much like the wines it nerds out so deeply about: sweet, rich, and full of flavor. What’s so special about this film is how Penny takes a very universal theme – fathers and sons who struggle to understand and respect their differences – and makes it something fresh and alive with the details that surround it. Just as we salivate at the Memphis BBQ joint the father (Courtney B. Vance) runs and wants to hand off to his son (Mamoudou Athie), we marvel at all the rapid-fire, priorly-unknown details of such a foreign wine world. By the time you see Athie studying late into the night about all the different wine regions around the world, you know there’s more to wine than just your friend’s Target purchase.
13. Soul – written and directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
I have grown to rely on Pixar emotionally devastating me. Like clockwork, I can count on one of their movies just knocking every possible tear out of me, dumping out my inner water ducts so they can get whatever blockage they have out of their system. Soul had all the ingredients to do the trick. With Pete Docter – the emotional terrorist responsible for my biggest tearjerkers outside of Coco – at the helm, I figured I should keep a tissue box handy. But the movie was over before any waterworks began. I felt a little deprived. I wanted to cry, dammit. I expected it.
But what I appreciate about Soul is the idea that sometimes there’s the things we want to see and hear, and then there’s what we need to see and hear. There’s enough to cry about these days. We can look at the news or grieve about the family time and experiences we’ve lost to the pandemic. But I needed to hear what Soul had to say. I needed to be reminded that single-minded pursuits of things I enjoyed were very much in danger of being a path of regret. It made me think about all the illustrators, so in love with drawing, who work backbreaking 16 hour days to finish work they get severely underpaid for. Or the screenwriters who spend years writing scripts that never get made, barely getting by. More than all of this, Docter and co-writer Kemp Powers are showing us that the wider river is the one that moves at just the right pace. We gotta expand our peripheral vision. We gotta see the detail off the to side we often overlook. And we gotta remember the people around us that hold it all together.
I could rave about so many things about this movie. The exceedingly clever and perfectly-designed score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The typically-gorgeous Pixar animation now showing off its fancy natural lighting ability. The way this movie, as with so many Pixar films, just absolutely bursts at the seams with creativity and innovation. It’s all there. It’s a Pete Docter movie, after all. You know you’re gonna get something wacky and undeniably special. But what I will take away from this most is the deeply mature and wise message at the heart of it all: to remember why any soul would be jealous of our time on this crazy planet.
12. Dick Johnson Is Dead – directed by Kirsten Johnson, written by Johnson & Nels Bangerter
The premise sounds like a joke gone too far: documentarian Kristen Johnson helps her father prepare for death by moving him across the country and filming all the possible ways he could die. What keeps this from reeling off-track is the utter sincerity of everyone involved. They want to give Dick a safe end of his life. But they also recognize that as soon as his memory starts slipping, he’s not the same person and never will be. Johnson’s ending is one of the deepest arguments I’ve seen about losing people and what it means to say goodbye.
Johnson’s interactions with her father are colorful and hilarious, the repartee developed between two deeply good humans, and yet she never shies away from reality. As a longtime documentarian, it may be her most difficult subject yet. And by the time you hear a priest’s final, heartbroken blowing of the trumpet, you’ll realize just how much Dick Johnson means to those around him and how everyone has to let go in their own way.
11. Possessor – written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg
The premise is the definition of sci-fi high concept: an agent uses brain implant technology to inhabit others, driving them to assassinations at the request of high-paying clients. In essence: it’s the perfect crime. That is, unless you’re the person inhabited.
What makes this such a vital, nasty piece of film is the artful way Cronenberg imbues reality into everything. Perfect crimes never work out because the messiest possible conduits are at the helm: human beings themselves. We can see it in the way Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) frequently goes off-book for a more impulsive, far bloodier method of execution. And the film spreads its thematic wings when Colin (Christopher Abbott) realizes he’s being inhabited by Tasya and decides to fight back, a body truly at war with itself and the consciousness that keeps it alive.
Rather unexpectedly, Possessor reminded me a lot of 2014’s Wild, the way director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby worked together to create a true audiovisual examination of the ever-intrusive presence of Cheryl Strayed’s memory. While Wild layered music and flashbacks over the narrative in exciting, accentuating ways, Cronenberg uses Possessor‘s visuals like he’s developing the film in his own dark magic lab, dipping and combining shots in all manners of material. The result is a phantasmagorical experience that feels as real and honest as anything that came out of 2020.
10. Da 5 Bloods – directed by Spike Lee; written by Lee & Kevin Willmott
Hollywood has produced a great deal of Vietnam movies over the years. Many of them are quite good. But there’s a piece of it that’s been missing for 50 years: the experience and contribution of Black veterans. This is a movie that started out as a script written by white writers called The Last Tour, following white veterans who head back to Vietnam in search of a former squad leader they left behind. When the project stalled out and Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got their hands on it, they not only made the veterans Black, but they saw an opportunity to weave in the history Americans had long ignored.
This is a film with so much to say. Lee packs the frame with archival footage, differing aspect ratios, and plays with elements of magical realism and memory. He has a group of great actors bringing their characters to life, Black men in various stages of life who are determined to find gold they buried in Vietnam and bring back the bones of their fallen comrade, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). While it was initially a decision decided by budget, Lee keeps the same actors in flashbacks with Boseman, a decision that only pays off as the film goes on. We can see how much their love is bone-deep for Norman and how much their loss has affected them. We also get to see how complex war really is, when Norman and the other four Bloods gun down Vietnamese soldiers having a simple conversation and only making the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There is a lot to process and absorb throughout this film’s 156-minute run time (though any complaining about it too much should wonder why we didn’t say the same with similarly long-running times from the likes of our highly-regarded white directors) but what Lee and Willmott so effectively illustrate is how these men are a part of the one long war of systemic racism. While they’re fighting in Vietnam, they’re already marginalized and have to listen on the radio to the protests that take place for their own rights in America. When they come back from the War, they’re still marginalized in a number of ways. That’s why the buried gold has so much promise to them. It’s a chance to tip the balances in their favor for once. To get ahead and reshape the narrative of their own lives and the generations ahead of them. And while infighting takes place over who gets what throughout the movie, it’s absolutely no mistake that the one man who threatens to blow this whole plan apart wears a wardrobe very reminiscent of our current president.
In a film packed with great performances, Delroy Lindo’s Paul towers over them all. It’s a character we haven’t seen before – a Black Trump supporter who’s tired of always being ignored and overlooked. The further they get into the Vietnamese jungle, the more he loses his grip on reality. It’s terrifying and enthralling at once. Lindo is the angry, confused soul at the core of the film while an outstanding Jonathan Majors as Paul’s son provides the heart, trying to keep his father tethered to some kind of reality and help him find some kind of peace.
Near the end, there’s a scene where Black Lives Matter protestors and advocates gather together at a rally. Many wondered how Lee could film something and inject it in his film so quickly. But the revelation that it was filmed more than a year before doesn’t prove Lee to be prescient – instead it proves he knows all too well that the war the 5 Bloods fought is the one still being fought today.
9. I’m Your Woman – directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart & Jordan Horowitz
In a pretty bleak year for humanity, this film gave me a shot of optimism. It’s a rather simple story about a housewife suddenly tasked with taking care of a baby in the middle of an unfolding criminal situation, suddenly have to fend for herself as she holds onto a new child and a bagful of ever-expanding questions. Hart and Horowitz blew me away last year with Fast Color, another movie in which we watch to see if the stronger, kinder human instincts will overcome the darker, more aggressive ones. This film leans just as much into the emotional muscle, in the quiet moments in which characters share some of their deeper fears in front of a cup of midnight coffee. From first frames to last, it’s quite the journey for Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) in which she can only watch and run for so long before she’s gotta fight back at the life being taken from her. A deceptively simple candle of a movie that burns long after its final notes.
8. His House – written and directed by Remi Weekes
Horror is an incredibly elastic genre. It can make room for any number of ideas and issues. It can use jump-scares or psychological terror. It can be a mad dash of jump scares or a slow-burn barnburner. In his debut film, Weekes takes two seemingly disparate issues – the trauma of the past and the desire to own one’s one home – and weaves them together in an unforgettable fashion.
When refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) escape their warring South Sudan community, they are granted probationary asylum in a house on the edge of London. It seems like their dreams have come true. They finally get to have a home! But then they arrive, and the reality sets in: it’s the definition of delipidated. Walls are torn and ridden with cracks. Weird sounds are everywhere. Nothing really works. And the neighborhood lady and her cat won’t avert their gaze.
But there’s something far more sinister bubbling within the walls of the house, and it’s here where the elasticity of horror and Weekes’ vision crackle to life as Bol and Rial’s trauma – which they’ve tried so hard to suppress – becomes impossible to ignore.
I still think about the final moments of the film, when Bol is trying to convince British officials that he and his wife finally have their house under control. “Your ghosts follow you,” he says, “they never leave. They live with you.” And it’s the next line he delivers – which I won’t spoil here – that struck me as one of the most profound bits of wisdom I’d heard all year, wholly a piece with the terrific movie that came before it.
7. Spontaneous – written and directed by Brian Duffield, based on the novel by Aaron Starmer
Another deeply confident debut film, Duffield knows exactly what he wants to do with this story about high school seniors who, suddenly and without explanation, start combusting in horrifying, bloody splatters. You could say this movie is about a lot of things – about the senior year fears of the future, about the COVID pandemic, about the short-sighted view of the world we have in light of climate change and all number of other imminent disasters – but Duffield knows it only works if he gets you to believe in the characters.
6. Sound of Metal – directed by Darius Marder; written by Darius and Abraham Marder
About ten years ago, I looked for community. I wanted to meet other Deaf/HH in Spokane and stumbled into a monthly coffeeshop gathering in which ASL students and Deaf intermingled. It was never a particularly complementary fit, with cliques forming as soon as they entered the shop, branching off into dimly-lit corners. And while I did make some friends, what I remember the most is the friend I bailed on: a woman in her mid-to-late 50’s who had just lost her hearing. She arrived and explained to everyone her situation in slow and erratic sign – the kind you would expect from such a late, panicked learner – and was quickly dismissed. The hearing crowd could never really understand her beyond offering pity. The Deaf crowd’s impatience grew in staggered lines. She became a puzzle piece no one quite had the empathy to offer a connection with.
I thought about this woman a lot during Sound of Metal, a rather astonishing debut film from Marder. When I’ve talked with my Deaf friends about it, I go straight to the cochlear implant activation scene and how nothing sounds like we imagined, and a flicker of recognition and being seen streaks across their faces. When I tell my hearing friends and family about it, it’s an opportunity to see the other side. To let the incredible sound design build their empathy of what it may be like in Ruben’s shoes.
Sound of Metal is one of the more powerful empathy machines I’ve seen built. It forces me as a Deaf viewer to consider my own bias – both physically and culturally – towards someone like Ruben. It forces the hearing audience to sit with how a transformation would affect them. But what will last about this film the most, I hope, is Marder’s message of stillness. That no matter how much noise – external or internal – we have around us, striving to find peace and stillness within us is the most empowering pursuit of them all.
5. One Night in Miami – directed by Regina King, written by Kemp Powers a
All I could think about after Regina King’s stunning debut is the Lester Bangs quote from Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Writer Kemp Powers skillfully adapts his own award-winning play for the screen – never leaning into the temptation to artificially inflate the possibilities of film – and King leads and guides each actor into his own astonishing performance. This is about four very public and very popular Black men who realize what they’re up against. Powers quickly sketches for us just where each man is at the beginning of the film, and it’s beautiful the way he shows how vulnerable each of their positions are. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is as popular as any NFL player and yet is still not allowed past a favorite coach’s front porch. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is playing for white audiences who can’t catch onto what he’s capable of. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is still too wide-eyed and naive to really understand what’s working against him. And Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) ties it all together as the man with perhaps the very most to lose.
As desperate as some of these men were to leave the quaint hotel room and party, they couldn’t help but find themselves coming back to each other. They need each other more than they realize. The way Powers and King continue to find new layers in each combination – especially between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke – is as sumptuous a cinematic feast as this Oscar year has to offer. I keep thinking about how Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X and how Ben-Adir still somehow finds a completely different take on it that feels just as essential and lived-in and perfect.
By the time the last Sam Cooke song plays, it hits you just how far these men came in one night of conversation. One night to take measure of their responsibility to themselves and their own community. One night to think about roads untraveled. One night to show us as an audience just how beautiful friendship can be between four Black men at the height of their powers.
4. Promising Young Woman – written and directed by Emerald Fennell
From the first frame to the last, Fennel knows exactly what she’s trying to accomplish. Not only does Promising Young Woman boast a powerful, incisive central performance from Carrie Mulligan, but Fennel makes the brilliant choice to surround her with all our favorite Nice Guy actors – Sam Richardson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and a revelatory Bo Burnham – to challenge us the most as an audience. There are no false notes. No filler. Just one show-stopping scene after another, adding up to an ending I’m still thinking about today.
3. In and Of Itself – written by Derek DelGaudio, directed by Frank Oz
When I think about magic shows – either on-stage or in the middle of Austin’s 6th Street during South by Southwest – I think about the look of astonishment on the audience’s faces. It doesn’t matter if they’ve seen something like it before. There is just something about seeing it live that sends endorphins straight up the most hardened of brains. But one thing I have not seen is a magic show that’s reduced people to utter, moppable tears.
Derek DelGaudio reminds me a lot of Mike Birbiglia. Both are pasty white guys with sincere motivations in their storytelling. While Mike uses comedy to color his storytelling, Derek uses magic to bolster his. They are remixing two genres to bring their individual flavors out even more.
In the final half of In and Of Itself, I can confidently say there may not be a more powerful 30 minutes I’ve seen all year. I don’t want to give anything away, but all I could think about are the roles we use to define ourselves with – both helpful and unhelpful – and how every, EVERY person has at least one emotionally-devastating and exceedingly cathartic letter yet to be written to them. Maybe you should be the author of it. Maybe you’re waiting to be written to. Both scenarios help us define who we are. It’s an incredibly insightful conceptual trick DelGuadio pulls, one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
This is both the perfect film for 2020 and wins the year’s All the Feels Award. It’s hilarious and full of great lines. It’s got confident, swooping cinematography. It’s got attitude and wit. It’s got some understandably and effectively awful explosion sounds that just hang in that negative sound space, waiting for you to be comfortable before unexpectedly exploding again. It’s got a gooey sweet, yet incredibly endearing love story at the center of it. It’s a full ride that’ll give all your emotions a good workout and close it all up with a message on living we all absolutely need to hear.
2. The Forty-Year-Old Version – written and directed by Radha Blank
There’s an inevitable period in every artists’ life – and it happens more than once – when it feels like time has passed you by. The moments moved on. There’s not much chance for you to hitch the train back to relevance. But the damning thing about all of it is how often it’s about perspective. When I’ve read pieces I’ve written ten years ago, I’m often a bit surprised that it’s better than I expected and yet, I look at it as if the skill disappeared out a window and didn’t leave a note. But the skill is still there. Maybe rusty, but it’s still absolutely, 100% there and colored deeply by the wisdom and experiences that have come since.
What makes Blank’s extraordinary debut film so captivating is how it charts the embarrassment, frustrating, and imposter syndrome of feeling like a has-been while also dealing with the white gatekeeping of the artistic community she wants to break into. She’s got all these great ideas. But they have ideas for her – and they’re frequently accented with unconscious, distasteful racism. The way that Blank lays bare the constant overreach of well-meaning white people is as incisive as it’s heartbreakingly hilarious.
But what beats at the center of all of this is the budding hip-hop career Blank stumbles into as an outlet for all her frustrations, and the producer she befriends. They start off as such an odd match. Then you see what he sees in her and what she’s too disbelieving in herself to see in him and you can see their bruised hearts slowly circling each other.
This isn’t just a movie about aging or putting on a play when you feel you’re past your prime. It’s about navigating that hard part after your early, exciting 20’s when everyone goes every which way and the possibilities of life are both wide-open and terrifyingly narrow. It’s about taking a chance on something wild and weird while everyone else stands aghast. It’s about believing in the message more than the clout. It’s about fighting your way through whatever your Best Self might be to see who the Honest Self is, even as you have no idea what either actually look or feel like. It’s swimming through mud. It’s waltzing, misstep after misstep, through a burning room. The only way out, as you learn, is through.
Blank’s choice of black and white gives everything an intimate feel throughout, as if we’re documentarians alongside her as she explores just what’s truly tripping up this life she imagines herself someday having. And when it all turns to color at the very end? It’s one of the most joyful images 2020 had to offer.
1. The Half of It – written and directed by Alice Wu
Alice Wu could have kept things simple. She could have made her movie a teenage version of Cyrano de Bergerac (or Roxanne, if you’re a diehard Steve Martin fan) and just left it at that. She could have coasted on the charm of her cast, collected her Netflix money, and chilled for a few years. But that would involve acting like Wu didn’t write the line that stuck like a popcorn kernel in the teeth of my brain for nearly a year: that the difference between a good painting and a great painting is just five simple strokes.
I could write quite a bit about what I think those five strokes in this movie might be, but it’s more fun to let viewers find their own. For me, I keep replaying the thermal pool scene between Ellie (Leah Lewis) and Aster (Alexxis Lemire), or the quiet, heartbreaking conversations between Ellie and her father, or the stubborn, uncomplicated puppy dog energy of Paul (Daniel Diemer), or the hilarious friction between Ellie’s spirited verbosity and Paul’s limited utterances, or even the time Paul challenges Ellie’s father about how he sees his own daughter and he responds with a heartbreaking story entirely in Mandarin, of which Paul somehow picks up nonverbally enough to understand the heart of a father’s pained message. The final stroke Wu imprints on this film may be the most daring of them all, withholding the ending we think we want for the ending that truly loves its characters and the potential of their lives. There is no film I thought about or recommended more than The Half of It. Even looking back through this movie to spot some key details, I’m stunned at how alluring it remains. This one will stick with me – and hopefully a larger audience – long after the final ticks and sputters of Netflix’s algorithm break down and whatever new form of cinematic viewing surfaces.