My Favorite Films of 2020

Honorable mentions: Bad Boys for Life (an interrogation of Will Smith’s screen persona in a Bad Boys follow-up that dares to have an emotional story); Wolfwalkers (gorgeous perspective-flattening animation and weighty historical themes from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon); The Way Back (one of Ben Affleck’s best-ever performances in another outstanding sports drama from Warrior director Gavin O’Connor).

10) An American Pickle

This solid dramedy is built on an improbable intergenerational culture clash. Like an inverted Back to the Future setup, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant to America named Herschel Greenbaum is pickled in time for a century, waking up out of his depth in a modern world, and face to face with his great-grandson. Both roles are played by Seth Rogen, who almost disappears into the role of Herschel. It’s an excellent comedic performance spearheading a year with several standouts in that field, getting laughs and going to unexpected places to get them.

9) Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Can you imagine saying, “Oh yeah, I just saw BOPATFEOOHQ!” Well, I did, and found a dynamic, caustic action movie wrapped in neon warning tape. It’s a testament to Cathy Yan’s film that my inherent irritation at the Harley Quinn character gave way – it helps no end that she untethers herself from the Joker – and I came to really appreciate a) her taste in team members, with Rosie Perez’ Renee Montoya a standout, b) the small moments when her background as a psychologist paid off, and c) her desperate and doomed quest for a sandwich. 2020 was supposed to be the year women dominated the superhero landscape (Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Chloe Zhao’s Eternals). In the end only DC retained their comic book slate this year, helmed by Yan and Wonder Woman 1984’s Patty Jenkins.

8) Run.

One of the best films of 2018, Searching was a stunning debut from director Aneesh Chaganty. Run. is Chaganty’s follow-up, a claustrophobic horror-thriller about one mother’s sadistic attempt to control her wheelchair-bound daughter’s life. Newcomer Kiera Allen is outstanding as the daughter, with Sarah Paulson a memorable maternal arch-villain. This type of contained, nerve-serrating thriller built on time-release twists might not have the most rewatch value, but it’s certainly worth at least one watch. Sarah Paulson pushing phony prescriptions on people, who does she think she is, Nurse Ratched?

7) The Vast of Night

This Lynchian, minimalist yet ambitious slice of 50s small town “watch the skies” wonder is one of the purest slices of science fiction in years. Unfolding like an Outer Limits radio presentation, this story of a DJ and a switchboard operator trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious signal is chilling and riveting, especially in one glorious extended phone call with a veteran named Billy. The level of craft is impressive, especially in propulsive tracking shots, but the movie knows exactly when to contract to send a subtle shiver through the audience, and when to expand to stoke a sense of wonder.

6) Mank

When I heard that the story of Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane was David Fincher’s next movie, I thought it was quite an interesting departure for him. As it happens, this screenplay was written by his father Jack decades ago, on track to star Kevin Spacey (…) and Jodie Foster in the late 90s. In its final form, Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried are in their place, poignantly portraying the friendship between Mank and actor Marion Davies. I would say the first act’s bouncy “day in the life of a 1930s studio” stuff is outside Fincher’s wheelhouse, and doesn’t grab nearly as much as the story’s secret weapon: its razor-sharp political material.

5) The Prom

The Prom is probably the movie on this list with the biggest “your mileage may vary” tag attached. But if you’re into go-for-broke production numbers in a hammy, broad, cheesy, self-consciously fabulous Broadway musical adaptation, this scratches that itch. Use your enjoyment of, say, the 2007 Hairspray as your yardstick. I’m certainly there for the slathered-on color palette (typical of Ryan Murphy) and Meryl Streep serving up that ham and cheese as a self-centered diva who delightfully romances Keegan-Michael Key.

4) Palm Springs

More 2020 escapism. A wonderful new spin on Groundhog Day, as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (both excellent) find themselves stuck repeating the same day, as wedding guests, over and over and… over. More 2020 escapism. A wonderful new spin on Groundhog Day, as Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (both excellent) find themselves stuck repeating the same day, as wedding guests, over and over and… over. More 2020 escapism. A…

3) Soul

The best Disney-distributed movie of the year. Simultaneously disturbing, funny, and moving, Soul is a delight even as it’s dumping tons of metaphysical rules on the viewer (part of what helps that go down is the pleasing number of Kiwi accents). In Collateral, Jamie Foxx’ character is asked if he likes jazz, to which he responds, “Not that much”. In Soul, here he is as a passionate jazz musician, and when he gets “in the zone”, the world around him disappears like he’s in Fantasia. Both Pixar movies this year, Onward and Soul, get mileage from very loose-limbed physical comedy, which in this case is a necessary counterweight to an ambitious and poignant story of a musician dead before his time.

2) Color Out of Space

One thing that can be tricky to adapt from Lovecraft is that some of his horror is more conceptual than empirical, or more intangible than visceral. But Color Out of Space nails the fear of the ineffable unknown breaking down earthly logic. A meteorite crashes on a family farm, an impossible color seeps into the air, and interdimensional hell breaks loose. When it comes to depicting some of these lateral horrors, the visual effects clearly aren’t the highest ticket in terms of budget. But that actually fits the movie; it reflects the difficulty our reality has of accurately manifesting the matter of another dimension.

1) The Invisible Man

Structurally, like clockwork. Everything comes together: a precise take on the material, a star willing to run herself ragged emotionally, a director with a keen visual sense and ability to generate tension. The opening sequence easily outdoes A Quiet Place at its own game, Elisabeth Moss is Oscar-worthy, and between this and Upgrade, Leigh Whannell is developing into an exciting voice in genre filmmaking. With the thinner release schedule leading into this awards season, hopefully The Invisible Man will not be invisible.

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