2020 Review

4 Jan

2020 Review

By Tanner Smith

Well, it’s that time of year again! And even though I haven’t been able to see critically praised latecomers such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” (being released to the general moviegoing public February 2021), I figure it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: the year-end list. (Btw, am I the only one who thinks it’s unfair that critics get screeners in 2020 so they can put those films on their lists, while other movie buffs like me have to wait until the following year to see them?)

So, spoiler alert, neither “Nomadland” nor “Minari” will appear on this list…I’m sure that’s the only thing about 2020 I have to gripe about!

It’s been a crazy year for sure, and I do indeed miss movie theaters. But when I enjoy a first-rate work like the many I’ve seen via streaming services from the comfort of my own home these last several months, I take what I can get. (The times, they are a-changin’…so, up yours, Oscars!)

Also, since this was a very strange year, it’s only fitting that this is a very strange list. For example, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (one of the best-reviewed films of 2020) is not on my list (though I do admire it quite a bit)…but Impractical Jokers: The Movie (NOT one of the best-reviewed films of 2020) is. And all respect to fine films that were also critically acclaimed, such as First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, Mank, Driveways, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things…they just weren’t among my personal favorites of 2020. But I’ll try my best to explain my choices for my top 20 favorite films of 2020.

In honor of each of these truly fine films, whichever selection is available exclusively for a particular channel, I will acknowledge that very channel. Let’s begin with my honorable mentions: Tigertail (Netflix), Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix), The Rental, On the Rocks (Apple+ TV), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix), The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO Max), The Midnight Sky (Netflix), Let Them All Talk (HBO Max), The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime), The Half of It (Netflix), Horse Girl (Netflix), Banana Split, and Run (Hulu).

So, here we go: my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2020!

20. All the Bright Places (Netflix)

This year, we had the fourth season of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”–we’re already past the point where most of us are thinking that these serious teenage issues such as depression and suicide are being exploited for profit. But Brett Haley’s Netflix film “All the Bright Places” doesn’t feel manipulative or exploitative in the slightest–it feels like it was made by people who genuinely wanted to help other people.

19. Come As You Are

I have a conflicting relationship with this film, about three disabled people hitting the road to get laid. I loved “Come As You Are” when I first saw it…then I saw the outraged comments from people who were offended that the three lead actors were able-bodied in real life. On the one hand, I get it–there are a lot of disabled actors who would love the opportunity to star in a feature film. On the other hand, the movie is still entertaining and funny and heartfelt and very well-acted, so why not let it be?

18. Impractical Jokers: The Movie

And here we are…the black sheep of the critical establishment, as I see it. Maybe I knew I was going to like “Impractical Jokers: The Movie” before I even saw it–I am a big fan of the TruTV series “Impractical Jokers,” the obvious basis for this uneven but still very entertaining, hilarious romp. There’s still the same charm to the way these four lovable doofuses embarrass each other with one outrageous challenge after another. And I will not lie to myself or to you about my favorite films of the year, so I was going to make room for it on this list!

17. Stargirl (Disney+)

Director/co-writer Julia Hart and her co-writer/co-producer Jordan Horowitz (the husband-and-wife team responsible for wonderful indie fare such as Miss Stevens and Fast Color) definitely did not disappoint with their first mainstream-studio project. Maybe Disney trusted their indie-based collective creativity and/or maybe Disney wanted some low-key character pieces for their streaming service Disney+ (which no one knew would be anything at the time). Whatever the case, I didn’t expect to find a new coming-of-age high-school movie on the same level as John Hughes’ best-known works or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Love, Simon” brought to me by Disney. But it’s been that kind of strange year. 

16. Saint Frances

I’m always going to have a soft spot for indie dramedies written by the lead actor–the resulting passion that comes through brings something more to admire. Cheers to Kelly O’Sullivan, who beautifully stars as an aimless, underachieving 34-year-old who takes a nannying job for a precocious 6-year-old while also going through a personal crisis. And another cheers to O’Sullivan, who also wrote the wonderfully balanced (both funny and endearing) screenplay.

15. Mr. Jones

This is a film not enough people have been talking about. “Mr. Jones” is a film set in 1933 about a reporter who intends to interview Joseph Stalin to learn more about the Soviet Union’s plans…and gains more knowledge than he expected. The scenes set in Moscow are especially upsetting and powerful. I doubt I’ll forget this film anytime soon.

14. The Assistant

Very rarely have I felt such hatred and fear for an unseen movie monster. Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” is not simply an attack on horrific business moguls (such as Harvey Weinstein, who is very clearly the inspiration for this subject)–it’s a warning that the behavior will eventually be sought out. (And if anybody knows everything, it’s the assistants.)

13. The King of Staten Island

What I said about “Saint Frances,” about I especially carry a special place in my heart for indie dramedies written by the lead actor, also applies to mainstream dramedies as well–especially if they have help from the modern king of Hollywood comedy-dramas, Judd Apatow. Director Apatow teamed up with “SNL’s” Pete Davidson to tell a semi-autobiographical story of Davidson still coming to terms with his father’s death long after his passing. As with many of Apatow’s work, “The King of Staten Island” is as deeply moving as it is downright hilarious.

Also, it’s nice to know that the Impractical Jokers aren’t the only funnymen from Staten Island to make this list. (Though, I think they will argue with Davidson as to who is truly the “king of Staten Island.”)

12. I’m Your Woman (Amazon Prime)

Yes, ANOTHER Julia Hart & Jordan Horowitz film came to us in 2020 and I’m glad to say I have both this and “Stargirl” on this list! “I’m Your Woman” isn’t the type of gangster movie to fuel the screen with tons of violence and viscera to further enforce the message that these people are scum. Instead, it’s something more along the line of what would happen if we could see “Goodfellas” through the perspective of Maria Hill, mobster wife. Add a good dose of a John Cassavetes film or Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and “I’m Your Woman” is an engaging drama/thriller about how our lead (played very well by Rachel Brosnahan) reacts to everything she learns, the people she meets along the way, and the possibility of her starting a new life (if she can get out of this messy situation alive).

11. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

The late Chadwick Boseman excelled as the MCU’s Black Panther, but his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” based on the August Wilson play, is further evidence that he was such an innovative talent that will truly be missed. Even with that aside (which isn’t easy to imagine), this is a wonderful film. Its straightforward approach to the Mother of Blues (Viola Davis, also wonderful) and her band recording in a studio in 1920s Chicago reminded me of the narrative frankness of George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” And I mean that in the best possible way.

10. Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime)

Riz Ahmed turns in a nomination-worthy performance as Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing, falls in with a deaf community, and struggles to accept his situation. What I like most about “Sound of Metal,” outside of I had never seen this kind of story before, is the brilliantly clever way it uses its sound editing/design to help us further understand what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing. This is a classic example of a movie presented as what the late film critic Roger Ebert used to call an “empathy machine.”

9. Yes, God, Yes

Here’s an indie dramedy about a devout Catholic teenage girl who discovers porn and becomes obsessed while questioning everything. The idea for “Yes, God, Yes” easily could have been made as a dopey laugh-riot comedy from Hollywood, but the way writer-director Karen Maine handles it in this much lower-key independent film is a lot sweeter and more sincere, making for a delightful watch.

8. Hamilton (Disney+)

OK, this one would have been great to see on the big screen…or better yet, live on stage. But you take what you can get. There’s still a great time to be had here.

7. Palm Springs (Hulu)

“Palm Springs” is such a refreshing, original take on the “Groundhog Day” formula, with a lot of laughs and a good heart to it too. What’s better than a comedy that makes you laugh? A comedy that makes you feel. And I felt everything I was supposed to feel for the central pair of Andy Samberg and Cristin Miliotti. Side-note: Samberg’s choreographed dance scene has to be a highlight in physical comedy.

6. Bad Education (HBO)

I watched Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” many times during the lockdown; it’s only gotten more entertaining each time. For a while there, this dark satirical look at the largest embezzlement scandal in public school history was my favorite film of 2020. I love the writing, directing, and especially the acting–for instance, this is definitely some of Hugh Jackman’s greatest acting work.

5. I Used to Go Here

I truly love this film. I’ve probably seen Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here” 7-8 times since its initial release on-demand this past August. Every reviewer has that one personal entry that hardly anyone one else will celebrate in their year-end lists; this one is mine. I love how this small-scale indie “dramedy” makes me feel each time I watch it. I love Gillian Jacobs’ character’s journey, I love her discovery, I love her encounters with everyone she meets along the way, and by the end, I love her. God bless this little film.

4. Spontaneous

You bet I’m including this one! This dark comedy about exploding teens is one of the funniest AND most endearing films I saw all year. It also contains the best ending I’ve seen all year.

3. The Invisible Man

The horror film genre is best used for allegorical purposes. This horror film is as effective in its “gaslighting” commentary as it is tense and entertaining. It takes a lot of talent to make an invisible stalker work the “chill” factor, and director Leigh Whannell has pulled it off–this film gave me CHILLS. Side-note: this was the last great film I saw in a theater.

2. David Byrne’s American Utopia (HBO Max)

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is one of the most joyous entertainments I’ve seen in a while. David Byrne and director Spike Lee have crafted a marvelous, flat-out entertaining, even bitingly blunt experience about both celebrating art and using it to make a statement. And it definitely worked for this Talking Heads fan!

And my personal favorite film of this crazy mess of a year is…

  1. Soul (Disney+)

Big screen, small screen, wherever I would’ve ended up seeing it, doesn’t matter. I still would have called it my favorite film of the year. Disney & Pixar have done it again, and I rank this wonderfully creative, ingenious, moving treasure among one of their best. But probably more importantly, I love what it has to say about living life. Just because you found your dream job doesn’t mean you found your passion. There’s a lovely shade of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to complete this film which is all about reexamining your life. And let’s be honest…that’s exactly what we needed to close out 2020.

I always love this time of year. And even in a messy year such as this, we can still get good movies–it’s just a matter of where you find them.

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