What more is there to even say about 2020? Critics and bloggers alike everywhere are coming up with the openings to their end-of-year lists with snide and dismissive comments, commenting on how weak and underwhelming this year has been for film.
The fact is, 2020 was an unforgettable year for cinema, and it has nothing to do with the lack of creative innovation. In fact, I’d go as far as to say this was one of the more consistent and expressive years for film in a long while. While it’s true that we never got anything in the same vein as last year with powerhouse releases like Parasite, The Lighthouse, or The Addams Family, don’t let that distance you from how bold this year has been. Besides: last year we got Cats. So 2020 is already better in ways.
It began with seemingly infinite pushbacks. No Time to Die was the first, but we thought nothing of it. Soon after, Black Widow would follow suit, and then a whole laundry list of films would see delays; some beyond the horizon, some pushed back indefinitely. And while we did miss out on some hard-hitters, indie filmmakers strived. While juggernauts like Disney struggled with the virus and MGM needing to please big tech companies, the indie scene wasn’t afraid to take risks and release the stories they sought to tell. It’s true that we got some blockbuster releases like Tenet and WW84, but these movies were so far-and-few between that it felt like big-business Hollywood completely vanished.
I wrote about my thoughts on the current movie theater predicament earlier last year, but essentially my thoughts were, as much as I miss the movie theater experience that was the leaking popcorn bags and sticky leather seats, we’re moving further into a digital age where people can watch the newest releases from the comfort of their homes. Hulu, Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon shared some of the biggest releases of the year, with many worrying what will be in store for the theater. As for myself, I mentioned that I was cautiously optimistic about what would come next. Movies being released to both theaters and services simultaneously is good. Movies becoming more and more accessible is a good thing.
But anyway, let’s move on to my personal Top 10. Ten movies that weren’t all exactly lightning rods of absolute 2019-level perfection, but were at least good enough to be here, or were at least better than Sonic.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
If Never Rarely Sometimes Always director Eliza Hitmann excels in anything, it’s her visceral use of visual storytelling. Through an actor’s emotional performance, coupled with lingering cinematography, she is able to convey more emotion than most films do with dialogue. The scene where Autumn doesn’t explicitly mention who the father is (as well as her abuser) is sublimely touching and personal.
Wonderful lead performance, lovingly put together with more knowledge and care towards its’ target audience than any teenage drama of this magnitude. The low placement of this movie on this list may be deemed controversial to some, but I imagine with more subsequent viewings, my admiration for it will only escalate.
9. Feels Good Man
I’m happy to say that a Pepe movie was among my top 10 movies in a year that Tenet and Mank came out. Let that sink in, but don’t get too irate yet. Feels Good Man ended up being the most shockingly sincere, heartwarming, feel-good (ha.) movies of the year. Surprisingly enough, given the source, but much like this happy frog, there’s much more than meets the eye.
What if your creation was taken and molded into something unrecognizable? A fascinating documentary that explores some thought-provoking aspects on the dark underbelly of internet culture. The story of a tarnished creator fighting against hate and bigotry and his war of regaining his character back from hate groups. As a movie about a literal meme, it thankfully doesn’t take itself all too seriously, but does present a dark underside for this poor, happy, little frog. Despite being about the cruelty of the world, it ended up being one of the more positive and uplifting films I’ve experienced this year. Worth a watch whether or not you’re well-versed in internet culture.
8. She Dies Tomorrow
Transcendent and hypnotic, She Dies Tomorrow is not your typical, dreadful, grief-drama that we’ve become all-too familiar with. Thanks to the tight editing and kaleidoscope-like visuals, She Dies Tomorrow throws conventional narration out the metaphorical window for a broth of chaotic nihilism, existentialism, and anxiety mixed together.
It tears apart conventional horror tropes and cliches for something more; no escapism, just a cruel reminder of the single raw and unadulterated fate that awaits us all, and the fear, sadness, and stress that fate will bring to us. A dissection of genre film, flooded with an unforgettable and paralyzing dread.
It’s not the dystopian energy, nor the fantastic imagery, nor the superb aesthetics that makes it all so marvelous, but how electrifyingly original and disturbing it is. Brought together by unforgettable performances and the unforgettable and grim atmosphere, this is a film like none other I’ve seen since the powerhouse of Under the Skin.
Possessor is a visceral experience in scope and energy, a hauntingly effective and sinister sci-fi-horror film. Cinematographer Karim Hussain has proved his power to craft a visually-sensational film, with shots pulled straight out of a cyberpunk nightmare. This is a movie that begs to be analyzed and discussed, and is bound to become a sci-fi cult classic in the time to come. It’s that powerful.
6. Palm Springs
There’s something awfully lonely about repeating the same exact moments, day-after-day. These Groundhog Day movies aren’t too unlike our own lives, repeating our same tasks every day. Together with Palm Springs, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti created a dazzling romantic-comedy where the events surrounding a wedding are on an endless loop.
Effortlessly charming and funny, Samberg and Milioti are the dream team I never realized I actually needed. If the Groundhog Day formula was about existential loneliness, then Palm Springs subverts the tired idea, forming romance and friendship in a world where consequences don’t exist. Brought to life by the gorgeous summer shots of Palm Springs, this is an uproarious comedy about relationships and the future of it that lies ahead.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead
What do we do with the time we have left? For me, there’s still so much I seek to do: I want to write that screenplay that’s been on the back of my mind for years; I want to find myself in a loving relationship; so many movies and stories I want to consume before I eventually do pass away. The thought scares me, but I’m not so much scared of death as I am the actual act of dying itself. The sensation, the anxiety of the moment out of your control, and what exactly lies ahead in the beyond – of lack thereof. But in a way, thinking about our own death is cathartic and important; you realize your own fragility and so you want to make the most of what you have on Earth.
More depressingly, I fear for the death of my own loved ones. But that’s where this loving celebration of life comes in; here we have Kirsten Johnson’s love letter to her father. Dick Johnson is Dead is a meditative look at life laced with brilliance, pitch-dark humor, and heavy emotion. Dick Johnson understands humanity like no other film on this list, a loving tribute to a wonderful man who loved his family more than himself. The scenes of Dick Johnson in heaven is a beauty to behold, with gorgeous and intimate cinematography by John Foster. To love yourself and love others and make peace with the fate that awaits us all: Thank you, Kirsten Johnson, for letting me know about your father.
Modern Disney-Pixar has been in a weird juncture to be certain. Once the studio that released hit after hit, Pixar has worryingly become far too comfortable with releasing mediocrity this past decade. After the underwhelming Onward that came out earlier in the year, the age of mediocrity from Pixar has felt like it won’t be leaving anytime soon. Then, imagine my surprise, as Pixar rolled out Soul the same year, a genuinely heartwarming and lovely movie about life, death, and everything in-between.
People’s lives have undoubtedly changed through COVID-19. Over the course of the year, I and everybody else has had to take online classes, avoid public places to the best of my abilities, have job applications rejected, and have college graduations under tight policing. Plans have changed, and that’s what the main protagonist of Soul endured; Joe Gardner achieved his dream but tragically passed. Was it his destiny, or was he pulled away far too soon? When he attempts to right his wrongs, he learns more about himself, his past life, and that his life’s purpose was not what he thought it was. It’s an immensely powerful and existential message, one that caused myself to reflect.
I can only hope this is a turning point for Pixar, a once-innovative and artistically-sound studio that put love and care into their films, will stop settling for mediocrity due to its name. Art is becoming the exception and not the rule for most major studios nowadays, and Soul has reminded me of why Pixar has had such a profound effect on me as a kid. It reminded me of what Pixar is capable of when it tries to create art: art that makes you feel, think, and inspire. That’s true magic.
3. First Cow
I don’t know how they did it, but this movie made milking a cow an emotional sucker punch. My experience with First Cow was instantly intimate. First Cow is a movie that I could only classify as being… nice. What a nice movie with beautiful backdrops, gorgeous landscapes, and lovely, humane characters. A visual masterpiece, I’ve been hit with a strong level of comfort that I feel just can’t be acquired anywhere else on this list.
That’s really where it comes down to with this movie for me; an affectionate and loving comfort that makes it such a harrowingly pleasant experience. The two protagonists find conflict not in their cultural backgrounds, political identities, nor their belief systems, but keeping their relationship afloat during times of loneliness and aspiration. Just bros being bros.
Such a harrowingly peaceful movie that I, in 2020, needed. A movie that makes milking a cow a poetic, saddening, and metaphysical experience. An enticing, visual exploration of the woodlands and mother nature.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a challenging, frustrating, hypnotic, bizarre, and otherworldly experience. Charlie Kaufman delivers yet again with an otherworldly tour-de-force, all equal parts terrifying, disturbing, romantic, and existential. Purposeful in its dialogue, I’m Thinking of Endings Things is almost claustrophobic in its atmospheric loneliness. The dreadful blizzard, the dank and moody farm, and the lingering discomfort in the car driving along a deserted road. Like poetry, it all comes together beautifully and seamlessly.
Not sure what it is, but Kaufman somehow understands the human race more than most. Within this film, he has crafted a visually-enticing, quaint, existential nightmare. The fear of age, the fear of not obtaining some great importance, the fear of self-conscious attractiveness. While those remain as fairly common themes in Kaufman’s works, we see them be applied to new visual contexts in surreal realities. Within the abstract nightmare is something enticing, welcoming, and comforting.
It’s difficult for a film to completely knock one’s socks off, but Charlie Kaufman consistently does so with thunderstorms of imagination, surrealism, and humanity. I’m Thinking of Ending Things will do everything in its power for you to love it, hate it, fear it, be confused by it, and leave you wanting more. A good sign of a good film, if anything.
1. Sound of Metal
You can never fully appreciate what you have until it’s gone; everything is temporary, always moving forward. When what we love or have taken for granted is gone, No movie has struck me quite like Sound of Metal has. From the sublime performance from Riz Ahmed with his vibrant range of emotions, or the masterclass in sound design that puts you in the personal and muted world of Ruben, or the intimate cinematography by Daniël Bouquet, it’s all a beautiful puzzle that comes together in flawless ways.
It begins with the ear-erupting, chaotic, dark opening of a heavy metal performance. Ruben is in the rhythm, seemingly content with the mayhem and lack of organization going on in the stage. But as he loses his hearing, the life and passion he had has vanished before his eyes. His girlfriend Lou leaves him in counseling, and is forced to mold into a brand new life, one likely that he never expected. Our own passions are unpredictable, and could change at any moment.
It’s been said over and over again by everybody else, but Sound of Metal’s sound design is something that doesn’t feel it came from this world. Echoes, bass, and muteness surrounds Ruben at every turn. No other movie’s sound design made me feel I was in the main character’s shoes. After he gets implants, everything is glitchy, electronic, and nearly inhuman in an unlovable, uncomfortable way.
To embrace change and accept life for what it is. This is the takeaway from the loving and honest Sound of Metal. Ruben is an addict and an anarchist, but a loving partner and great musician. He makes amends with Lou, telling her she saved him. Tired of the hellish noise, he takes out his implant processors and finds comfort in the silence, in the stillness. He is finally at peace. Like Ruben’s attempts, we can all make life better, but we must first find peace in where we are now. At least we’re alive and breathing. If things don’t go well this year… well, there’s always next year.