Monday, December 28, 2020

The best movies of 2020

As has been the case for the last few years, although I wrote a lot of articles and reviews about a lot of movies in 2020, I didn't have an outlet for a traditional top 10 list. So here are my favorite movies (plus some favorite performances) of a very strange year for cinema, in which theaters were mostly closed but I probably saw more new releases than I ever have before.

1. Dreamland I remain surprised that this movie hasn't become a major awards contender, but I don't want to turn people off by describing it as typical Oscar bait. The Depression-era drama about an intense but doomed connection between a fugitive bank robber (Margot Robbie) and a troubled dreamer (Finn Cole) explores elegiac themes about the lost American dream, with a strong Terrence Malick influence (albeit more accessible than anything Malick has made in quite some time). Gorgeous cinematography, haunting score, careful pacing, evocative use of cross-cutting, and a great performance from Margot Robbie make this easily my favorite movie of the year.

2. Selah and the Spades Tayarisha Poe makes a striking debut with this gorgeous, clever and totally original take on the high school drama, with what should be a star-making performance from Lovie Simone as the title character, who runs the mafia-like underground at an elite prep school. Poe combines the plot elements of a crime thriller (threats, betrayal, rival factions) with the environment and activities of a typical high school (the major showdown is over the prom). The visuals and the dialogue are heavily stylized, immersing the audience in a world that is both unique and entirely familiar. More thoughts in my CBR review.

3. Gretel & Hansel I saw Oz Perkins' third feature in a mostly empty movie theater back in January, when people weren't staying away because of pandemic restrictions, but because apparently nobody cared about this movie. But they missed out on another haunting, atmospheric horror movie from Perkins, who has established a distinctive impressionistic style in his three films. His take on the classic fairy tale is moody and artistic, with a surreal narrative, gorgeous production design, and great lead performances from Sophia Lillis (as Gretel, a young woman tempted by dark power) and Alice Krige (as the witch who attempts to bring Gretel under her spell). More thoughts in my Piecing It Together podcast appearance.

4. The Invisible Man This is another horror movie I got to see in a theater before the pandemic shutdown, although I watched this one with a full house, and that probably added to my enjoyment of Leigh Whannell's delightfully suspenseful reimagining of the iconic Universal monster movie. Elisabeth Moss is predictably great as the victimized woman standing up for herself against a literally invisible abuser, making the somewhat absurd scenario completely believable and emotionally devastating. And Whannell creates such a convincing narrative that he manages to generate tension just by pointing his camera at empty spaces. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

5. Banana Split There were quite a few charming teen coming-of-age movies this year, but this delightful comedy from co-writer and star Hannah Marks was easily my favorite, with its story about the bonds of teen-girl friendship transcending any romantic entanglements with boys. Marks and Liana Liberato have fantastic chemistry as two teenagers who should be fighting over the same guy (one is his ex, one is his current girlfriend) but instead discover that they love hanging out together far more than they care about who's dating whom. It's joyous and funny while tackling real, complex emotions. More thoughts in my Crooked Marquee capsule review.

6. The Assistant The scene in which Julia Garner's title character attempts to report her boss' serial sexual harassment and abuse to her company's HR department is the best (and most uncomfortable) scene I saw in any movie this year. Kitty Green's movie is full of those mundane and yet horrifying moments that add up to a portrait of the dehumanizing cost of being a low-level female employee at a corporation full of entitled men who never face consequences for their actions.

7. Bad Education I loved director Cory Finley's first film, the dark teen comedy Thoroughbreds, and Bad Education (which he directed but didn't write) is a very different kind of story. But it's sharp and funny and wonderfully acted by Hugh Jackman (in possibly his best-ever performance) and Allison Janney, among others, taking a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal and turning it into a meditation on the costs (and benefits) of institutional corruption. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

8. Palm Springs This rom-com riff on Groundhog Day is far more than that high-concept pitch suggests. It's a smart take on the time-loop formula, a hilarious comedy about the soul-sucking experience of attending a destination wedding, an existential musing on the nature of identity, and a giddy romance between two soft-hearted cynics played by the dynamic team of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

9. Shithouse This is a frighteningly assured debut from 23-year-old writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, who finds honest, vulnerable ways to tell a familiar story about two young people (college students played by Raiff and Dylan Gelula) discovering a thrilling, unexpected connection. The story struggles a bit after the heady first night the two characters spend together, but it's still a sweet romance and a sensitive look at the difficulties of being away from home for the first time.

10. Boys State I don't watch nearly as many documentaries as a lot of critics (or my Awesome Movie Year podcast co-host Jason Harris), and I tend to prefer nonfiction films that play more like cinematic narratives. So this character-driven documentary about a mock-government retreat for Texas teens works perfectly for me, making incisive (and scary) points about the political future of our country while remaining focused on its engaging central personalities.

Honorable mentions: The Dark and the Wicked, The Devil All the Time, Driveways, The Platform, Sea Fever, Swallow

Top five lead performances: Julia Garner, The Assistant; Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man; Hugh Jackman, Bad Education; Margot Robbie, Dreamland; Christopher Abbott, Possessor

Top five supporting performances: Brian Dennehy, Driveways; Allison Janney, Bad Education; Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs; Rene Auberjonois, Raising Buchanan; Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7