The Best (and Worst) of 2020, Way After the Fact

Let’s just state the plain and honest truth. 2020 was the shittiest year any of us have experienced. Everything closed, Donald Trump tried to lead an insurrection, and 1 out of every 1,000 Americans died from a virus that could have been mitigated – if not contained – if we had a competent government response and a citizenry not filled with entitled assholes. Most of us can count on one hand the number of things that went right, and if we tried to list everything that went wrong, we’d all commit suicide before we got to August.

Though it obviously pales in comparison with so many worse things, one of the biggest blows for me was the loss of the movie-going experience. I lost my favorite activity for basically the whole year, and I haven’t gotten it back yet. It may still be six months or more before I do, and when theatres do come back, who knows how they’ll operate or what the business model will be to keep them going? My best hope is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will keep their word and rescind the streaming eligibility for films once the pandemic abates, forcing studios to keep the theatre system going, rather than the crass moves some have made of late to shift their entire slate to online platforms in order to destroy transparency and maximize profit.

Everything got pushed back last year, and in doing so, I spent most of 2020 playing catchup. With no theatres to go to, and no real incentive to watch streaming content, I found myself constantly on the back foot, trying to find what was worth watching and time to review before the next thing popped up to steal my attention. It was all I could do to cram several films into the last week of the calendar year just to hit a solid 50 as far as viewership. Contrast that with the 111 movies I saw in calendar year 2019.

Because of all that, and because I wanted to get full reviews out for everything I saw before I did anything else, I’m only just now able to do my requisite recap of the year in film. This was the most incomplete year I’ve had in a while, even before I started the blog, mostly because with the Awards Season schedule delayed by two months, many of the films coming out now are vying for the Oscars, as well as some truly late entries we won’t get to see until late February or March.

In a typical year, I see all I can, and then fill in gaps once Oscar nominations come out in mid-to-late January. This year, however, will be the most insane Blitz I’ve ever attempted, and I’m dubious about my ability to complete it once we know the slate of contenders. Will ShortsTV continue to distribute a presentation of each short film category if there are no theatres to show it? Will we get any access to International Feature entries at all? The Academy’s rules state that contenders need only screen in their home countries for eligibility. There is no obligation to show them in the States in any form. In a year when the Academy has gone to great lengths publicly to announce new inclusion and transparency programs, this year’s ceremony may by necessity be the most insular in the modern era. There are just too many variables.

What we do know is that the deadline for specialty categories (Animation, Shorts, Documentaries, International) passed on December 1. Normally it’s October 1, so this is in line with the 60-day pushback. By that metric, any day now we should be getting word from the Academy as to which films have been submitted. The overall screening deadline for the general ballot is February 28, which is why the awards bait films are coming out now.

My basic strategy going forward will be thus. The next few films on my slate to review are ones I’m assuming will be contenders for Awards Season, or at least hopefuls. Most of these movies (News of the World, Judas and the Black Messiah, One Night in Miami, etc.) were actually released in some form in calendar year 2020, so there’s no conflict there. As we get closer, other candidates like Nomadland or Minari will also be added to the 2020 slate. However, other works I review will be filed under 2021 unless I get word that they’ve been submitted to the Academy for 2020. This is more an organizational bit of housekeeping on my end, but it’ll help clarify and de-clutter the next few months as the world hopefully returns to normal.

It also means that, sadly, the “Best Of” recap for 2020 will be a bit lacking. As I said, I only managed to see 50 new movies released last year, not counting the side work I do for my friends at Behind the Rabbit Productions, as that involves independent films that have not been released to the general public. No point in reviewing stuff here if you all can’t go and see it, after all. I’m still going to go over the best and worst of the year, but it’ll be truncated. Instead of a Bottom 10 and a Top 20, we’ll cut those in half, for example. I’ll keep things as brief as possible, because honestly, I want to put this year behind me just as much as you do. If there’s one plus for 2021 so far, it’s that we’re already almost through January, and apart from an armed assault on our Capitol incited by the outgoing President, the month has gone by pretty quickly. Whereas last year every day felt like a millennium, this year we’re already 1/12 through it, and it’s flown by.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into the best and worst of the worst year ever!

The 5 Worst Films of 2020

5. Wonder Woman 1984 – Man did this sequel bomb on just about every level. Going into 2020, it was arguably the most anticipated film of the year, a follow-up to one of the most kick-ass superhero movies of the modern day. Finally, the DC Extended Universe had gotten it right. And then we got this, a drab, lifeless churn out that seemed to care more about shoehorned 80s jokes than its actual heroine. Gal Gadot is in the entire movie, but Wonder Woman, as a hero, only got three scenes. Misplaced fan service abounded, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal were utterly wasted as villains, and the less said about the ill-advised “moral” of the story the better. Max Lord’s chintzy catchphrase, “Life is good, but it can be better” proved ironically true. Your life is instantly improved the moment you shut this garbage off.

4. The Last Thing He Wanted – This Joan Didion adaptation is about as pure a botch job as you can get, with the central mystery being solved through flashback scenes that never happened in the film’s real time. Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck lead an ensemble cast all standing in line to phone it in, with the exception of Willem Dafoe, who dusts off his Green Goblin performance for old time’s sake. The movie tries to be a taut political thriller in the vein of the Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan series, but there’s no intrigue, and all the action happens around our protagonist instead of through her. The dangling plot threads and lazy script are such a lost cause that Hathaway spends most of the movie smoking while looking annoyed. I honestly can’t tell if that’s her character’s nature or just candid footage of an Oscar-winning actress clearly cashing a check.

3. Enola Holmes – The film that made me break the cardinal rule of movie discussion. This was so bad, and made me so angry, that I was compelled to at least partially spoil the ending in hopes of warding off future viewership. What starts as an interesting concept – Millie Bobby Brown playing the little sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, who happens to be just as clever and resourceful as her brothers – gets instantly drowned in Young Adult tropes, utterly illogical plot turns, and our erstwhile heroine abandoning reason for a cute boy. It gets so bad that the so-called ending that proves Enola’s worth turns out to be total bullshit, because she guesses wrong and doesn’t actually solve the case, merely having the solution presented to her when she errs, but the movie still gives her credit for being smarter than Sherlock. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is spinning in his grave.

2. All Together Now – Good GOD this was horrible! Moana upgrades from dead grandma to dead mom, and everybody loves her so much because she’s perfect despite being homeless. There’s no direction to basically anything that happens in this depressing version of High School Musical, only box checks. Dead parent? Check. Moralizing addiction and abuse? Check. Utterly flawless ingenue? Check. Token friends from different ethnicities and social standings in the name of “diversity” even though they’re basically props from a knockoff production of Glee? Quintuple check! This whole film is another symptom of the larger problem with modern movies trying to have strong female leads. They don’t get strong leads, they get taylor-made perfect princesses who can’t have any character nuance or flaws, and thus can’t do anything compelling or grow along their journeys. The only good thing about this movie was the dog, and even that nearly got completely ruined by turning it into a Hallmark movie MacGuffin.

1. The Witches – I hate the fact that Anne Hathaway is on this list twice, but she made some horrible career choices in the last year. A remake of a beloved and legitimately scary kids movie that no one asked for, Robert Zemeckis took every ounce of charm and prepubescent terror from the original adaptation from 30 years ago and replaced it with cheap jokes, terrible voice acting, and a baffling relocation to the Civil Rights era South. The only thing that endured the past three decades is the quality of the CGI, which is just shameful. Roald Dahl famously hated all the adaptations of his works, but had he lived to see this one, I’m pretty sure he’d have invented a time machine to go back and burn the unpublished manuscript.

Most Overrated Film of 2020Extraction – Apart from one truly awesome chase sequence, this entire proceeding was just standard issue shoot ’em up schlock, with Chris Hemsworth slotting in for any number of action stars. Twenty years ago, this is the type of movie Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal would have made on a coffee break, yet it was sold as some great achievement in action cinema. No. Just, no.

Most Underrated Film of 2020 The Gentlemen – Guy Ritchie’s latest was an early-year studio dump because it was similar in style to his classics, Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but it wasn’t those two films specifically. But just because the man went back to a really solid well doesn’t mean he couldn’t churn out quality. Matthew McConaughey made for a surprisingly chill yet compelling crime boss, and it was really nice to see Henry Golding do something other than “charming hot guy.” Also, Charlie Hunnam and Hugh Grant played off each other beautifully.

Best Scene of 2020 – There were quite a few great ones, some that made me laugh and some that made me cry. But one scene above all others made me raise my fist, scream, “FUCK YEAH!” and applaud. That scene was Joe’s passionate confession of love to Nicky in The Old Guard. I don’t care that it was two dudes, except in the sense that it hadn’t really been done in mainstream cinema before. What really mattered was that the dialogue felt 100% genuine, and Marwan Kenzari’s delivery was note-perfect. Those were the words of someone truly in love, and not just in the way we normally see in movies. It was fantastical, yet grounded in the truth that these two have been together for centuries. Joe and Nicky’s love is beyond romantic, beyond sexual. It is pure and beautiful, and god damn if it didn’t get me pumped for their eventual salvation and reunion. I’m a hopeless romantic as it is, but sometimes you get those absolutely perfect gestures. I felt the same way watching Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding on Steven Universe of all things.

Best Acting of 2020 – In no particular order: Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods, the entire core cast of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Gary Oldman in Mank, Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma., Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Andy Samberg in Palm Springs, Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.

The 10 Best Films of 2020

10. Mank – Gary Oldman makes a strong case for a second Oscar with his brilliant performance as Herman Mankiewicz as he writes the screenplay for the consensus greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. David Fincher’s film is an expert homage to Orson Welles’ magnum opus, offering the intriguing case that the film was more a parallel to Mankiewicz’s life than Welles or William Randolph Hearst.

9. Emma. – This adaptation of Jane Austen’s timeless classic is one of the funniest films of the year thanks to a committed cast and a script filled to the brim with rapier wit. Anya Taylor-Joy is endlessly charming, the set and costume designs are on point, and Bill Nighy steals every scene he’s in.

8. First Cow – The last film I saw before the world ended, Kelly Reichardt’s tale of two opportunists in the Pacific frontier is clever, sentimental, and ingenious. John Magaro and Orion Lee have undeniable chemistry in forming their rapport, and the spot-on use of the 4:3 aspect ratio provides the audience with a cipher for the closeness the characters feel on the screen.

7. Dick Johnson is Dead – I’m still processing this poignant and highly creative documentary, as Kirsten Johnson allows her father to act out any number of means for his own demise as he deteriorates from dementia in real life. It’s one of the ultimate forms of wish fulfillment, to choose how you die and to see how those whose lives you touched would react to your loss. It’s heartbreaking and inspirational all at once, as well as one of the most innovative documentaries in recent memory.

6. Wolfwalkers – Cartoon Saloon completes its Irish trilogy with an awe-inspiring story of friendship and parental love told through the lens of magical beings who bridge the gap between man and beast. The art design between our leads Robyn and Mebh is inspired, and the anticolonial message is delivered about as perfectly as can be done in a children’s film. Also, Sean Bean gets to be a good guy AND live through a movie for once. We’re breaking new ground all over the place!

5. Boys State – Being a former Boys Stater myself, I was instantly drawn to this documentary which acts as a microcosm for our own national discourse. It’s strangely compelling to watch a cross-section of hormonal teenagers acting with the same passion, idealism, and win-at-all-costs fervor that our national leaders do, and it’s all for a simulation. The addition of social media as a tool and weapon creates an aspect to the conversation that wasn’t available when I was part of the program more than 20 years ago, and in a state like Texas, where passions are as heated as they get, it was captivating to watch the next generation of potential politicians get a first-hand look at the highs and lows of our society.

4. Soul – In this current era of shitty live-action remakes and forcing people to pay $30 to see them, it largely falls to Pixar to provide the “magic” of the Disney corporation these days, and after the decidedly okay Onward, there was a bit of worry that even Luxo Jr. was losing his touch. Thankfully, Soul put all those worries to rest, with an imaginative adventure on par with Inside Out, exploring what it truly means to be human, to be alive. The fact that this film successfully gave form to that normally indescribable feeling when something resonates just right with your very being is enough to rank it among the year’s best. Add in the highest quality animation the studio’s ever done – to the point that several objects look like live-action props – along with an insanely good score, solid voice performances, and just a really good crack on the Knicks, and you’ve got an undeniably strong film that will have ripple effects for years to come. But seriously, though, fuck jaywalkers.

3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to once again make us question the very nature of our existence with something as simple as an introductory dinner with your boyfriend’s parents. Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis all give some of their best performances in this utter mindfuck that has to be seen to be believed. Another brilliant use of the 4:3 aspect ratio creates a sense of dread for Lucy (if that is her real name), physically manifesting the almost claustrophobic misgivings of her newfound relationship. And of course, just for shiggles, we get a creepy janitor watching high school students rehearse Oklahoma! before the whole thing turns into a hybrid homage including An American in Paris. This is one of those films where everyone who sees it will have a different experience, and each time you look at it you’ll find something new to question. If that’s not a mission statement for film as an artform, I don’t know what is.

2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – This second cinematic take on August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” gives us a triumphant performance from Viola Davis and a bittersweet exeunt for Chadwick Boseman, giving us his finest performance in his final role. There’s so much to love about this film, from the dialogue to the costumes to the production design to the pure grace note that is the whole ensemble coming together to successfully perform the title track. But it’s all overshadowed by the giant we lost last year, and the cinematic legacy he left behind.

1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Like First Cow, this came out right before everything went to Hell, so you’d be forgiven if you didn’t get a chance to see it. But do yourself a favor and see it now. Eliza Hittman’s minimalist tale of a teenage girl seeking an abortion is one of the most heart-wrenching films I’ve ever seen, because it gives lie to the assumption that legalized abortion is a readily available service. From abusive and sanctimonious protesters, to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” that do everything in their power to dissuade a woman from her legal rights, to guys who just can’t take “no” for an answer, Sidney Flanigan’s Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) face so many obstacles and road blocks that it beggars belief at how a system of laws and government could intentionally set itself up to enforce parenthood on those who don’t want it. By the time Autumn finally gets to a clinic and answers a simple questionnaire about her sexual history, the weight of everything is enough to feel traumatic to anyone watching, much less the scared teenager on the screen. It’s brutally honest in the best way possible, putting a face to an issue like few films can, especially works of fiction. And the highest mark of honesty is the fact that we never learn how Autumn became pregnant in the first place. There are lots of hints and suggestions about possible means, but it’s intentionally left ambiguous because it’s none of our business. A woman’s body is her own, and there shouldn’t be any criteria to say one person is more “worthy” of bodily autonomy than any other. When the chance at a normal life is the happy ending the protagonist craves, it is a sad state of affairs, indeed. But it’s an all too real circumstance for so many young women in this country, and after the year we all just endured, it’s almost cathartic to know that after such an arduous odyssey, there is a return to normalcy on the horizon.

* * *

That’s it for 2020, at least for the calendar year. As I mentioned, I’ve got several films to go over in the coming days and weeks that have generated Oscar buzz, but I’ll also be trying to pepper in some films that will truly be a part of the 2021 canon as well. For now though, let’s just relax and be glad that it’s over.

Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite film of 2020? What was your least favorite? Were you able to actually see anything? Let me know!

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