In the calendar year 2020 I only visited the theater five times but, despite closures, 2020 did bear some fruit. I have curated a list of my ten favorite films to release last year, going into detail on the top five. I have decided to extend my consideration of a “2020 movie” into early 2021 to make up for the many delays that pushed a bulk of the award-contending films out of late 2020. With that said, here are 10-6: The Way Back, The King of Staten Island, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Invisible Man, and Judas and the Black Messiah.
- One Night in Miami – The directorial debut of actress Regina King imagines a night of conversations between historical black figures Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. The script is strong and so is the cast, who ruminate on the struggles and responsibilities of being a prominent black celebrity during the civil rights era. King makes a story that takes place primarily in a single location, a hotel room, feel dynamic, conveying the deep and existential conflict existing within each man. The film is fun, intense, and explosive.
- Nomadland – A truly stunning look at modern America: director Chloé Zhao tells the pensive tale of Fern, a widow adrift in the United States after her mining town was shut down during the Great Recession. She becomes a “nomad,” traveling the country in her van, taking odd jobs, and weaving in and out of the lives of other travellers. This film utilizes non-actors—real-life nomads who play themselves. Their retelling of personal tragedies and why they choose this life are emotionally riveting and make for an intensely sympathetic look at a corner of America unfamiliar to most. It is beautifully filmed and has a powerful message.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 – The second film to be written and directed by one of the greatest living screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin, this real-life tale of seven countercultural protesters wrongfully convicted of conspiracy in 1969 resonates more today than perhaps it ever could in the past. With a stacked cast and Sorkin’s distinctive wit, the film is not only poignant but immensely entertaining. Every scene is energetic, whether the cast bounces lines off each other or the visceral protest sequences. Its message also feels even more pertinent in light of current events. It’s certainly not Sorkin’s best work, but it works nonetheless.
- Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – The first Borat film is simply one of the best ever made. Sacha Baron Cohen proves with this 14-year-later sequel that the bumbling Khazak journalist is just as relevant today. While the 2004 film used the character as a surrogate to shine a light on the disgusting underbelly of American culture, the followup only needed to press record to display such outlandish racism, anti-semitism, and every “ism” in between. Cohen is once again outstanding in the role and along for the ride is Borat’s daughter, Tutar, played in a star-turning performance by Maria Bakalova. Borat aims to reveal who people truly are, whether its the kindness of a Holocaust survivor or the grossness of a high-level political official. He is successful in doing so and makes it pretty dang funny too.
1. Sound of Metal – Rookie director Darius Marder stuns in this immersive and unforgettable film. Ruben, a punk-rock drummer, played by the exceptionally talented Riz Ahmed, becomes entirely deaf in a matter of days and grapples with how to continue on with his life. A recovering addict, it seems his music and committed girlfriend are the only two things keeping him clean. He is separated from both of them when he goes to stay in a deaf community to learn how to manage going forward. The community is led by Joe, a deaf Vietnam-veteran played by Paul Raci, a 72-year-old unknown who turns in the best performance of the year. This is a very quiet film, not necessarily auditorily, but in action and scope. The camera is almost always on Ruben and the audio drifts between the muffled noise he hears and what is actually occuring. These moments are made powerful by the exceptional sound design and Ahmed’s tour-de-force performance. It is deeply emotional and frankly educational to experience, in any way, what this character is going through. If you have Amazon Prime, do yourself a favor and watch this film.