The Independent Critic's "Best of 2020!"
There's almost no doubt that 2020 has been the year that changed cinema. It's yet to be determined if that change is for the worse or for the better, but with a worldwide pandemic not yet in our rear-view mirror this is the year when streaming releases became normalized and a good number of this year's best films made no more than a few bucks in theaters while most of us sat on our butts and watched them in the comfort and safety of our homes.
If you're a regular reader, then you already know that I began my own year in rehab from a major illness and limb amputation that kept me mostly down and out until mid-March of this year. It was only a couple of weeks later that the COVID-19 pandemic hit America full force and shuttered a good majority of the nation's theaters. I saw a handful of films while I could and have seen a couple since in controlled situations, but for the most part my "Best of 2020" list comes from those films I watched via streaming, screeners, or my own hard-earned bucks.
I'm an "indie" critic anyway. It's not particularly unusual for me to watch a lot of films at home. It's also not particularly unusual for at least half of my year-end review to come from films even my peers in the Indiana Film Journalists Association haven't seen. In fact, what may be most surprising this year is that my year-end list is rather ordinary in terms of it being films that we actually all did see or at least have the ability to see.
There are those filmmakers who thought they could defy the odds. I'm looking at you Christopher Nolan! They were, for the most part, wrong. With a vaccine slowly making its way into our lives, I have complete faith that something resembling normalcy will return. I'm not entirely convinced that moviegoing as we knew it will return. I'd love to think this means we'll see a return of more modestly budgeted films not dependent on bigger screens. I'd also love to think that this means movie theater owners will return to actually emphasizing the moviegoing experience.
For now, this is my "Best of 2020" year-end review. Unlike some years when you likely hadn't seen a good majority of my list yet, many of these films either have or will be playing in your living room in the near future. You should check them out.
Oh, and thanks for continuing to read The Independent Critic through this really weird year. I entered the Top 10 of film review sites this year and have stayed there the entire year. Earlier this year, I finally sought and was approved for Rotten Tomatoes. I also produced my second short film, "World Through a Window," and earned my first IMDB credit. So, despite everything, I've had a pretty amazing year.
This is what happens when you weave together the integrity and sharp precision of a Spike Lee Joint with the messaging and artistic wizardry of David Byrne. I'd read Byrne's book of the same name not long before checking this out and both productions, the book and this film, are among my year's favorite artistic efforts. The Indiana Film Journalists Association didn't quite know what to do with this film as we don't recognize stage adaptations. While I agree with the rule, the tragedy of it all is that a brilliant film such as this one doesn't get the credit it deserves. I'll admit I wrestled with a few films for my #10 spot, but there are few films that have stayed with me this year like American Utopia and for that reason it lands in my Top 10 of 2020.
Every year, the Indiana Film Journalists Association meets to hash out our year-end awards. While many critics' groups simply submit ballots and go from there, my beloved IFJA has continued to meet in person every single year. Of course, this year was different and we all gathered on Zoom. If I lament one result from this year, it's the fact that One Night in Miami missed our top ten with The Twentieth Century sliding into the spot. They are both worthy films and I love the unpredictability of IFJA, but I have to admit that I really, really loved this film. Director Regina King makes a powerhouse directorial debut and there's not a weak performance here. Leslie Odom, Jr. deservedly took home IFJA's Best Supporting Actor award and will no doubt snag an Oscar nomination. This film is stunningly written by Kemp Powers and beautifully acted by Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree, and Odom, Jr. When I first started thinking about my top ten, I had zero doubt that One Night in Miami would be on my list.
I'll openly confess to some bias here. The Heartland International Film Festival annually presents the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award to a deserving documentary feature and narrative feature. The award is given in recognition of my own long history of social justice works and honors truly changemaking cinema. 76 Days was the 2020 recipient of the award, which includes both a trophy and a cash prize. The film also picked up distribution by MTV Documentary Films at this year's Heartland. So, it goes without saying that I love this film. More than any genre, documentaries have really thrived in 2020 and I could easily make a top ten from documentaries alone. Crip Camp and Dick Johnson is Dead are also remarkable films, but I'm deferring to 76 Days because of the way that director Hao Wu and his collaborators capture Wuhan and the bravery involved in capturing the story that comes alive here. This is bold, courageous, visionary, and truly human filmmaking at its finest. I saw a world crisis that I'm currently living through a different lens and it deeply moved me and shook me to my core. This is a brilliant film and I believe in years to come it'll be recognized as the truly great documentary to come out of 2020.
It's difficult to describe Kajillionaire, though that could pretty much be said about any Miranda July film. July doesn't make films that lend themselves to quick summarizing or easy understanding. She makes films that require you to engage with characters you might not always like. She does so unapologetically and without pre-judging the characters herself. There are some who simply don't resonate with July films while others, myself included, nearly always consider them one of the best. Evan Rachel Wood does some of her best work here, while the always dependable Richard Jenkins is, well, always dependable. It's always a joy seeing Debra Winger doing substantial work and Gina Rodriguez shines. I resonated with so many of July's messages here and I loved how this ensemble cast brought them to life. I'd hoped that Kajillionaire might gain some traction with IFJA, but in the busyness of awards season a complex film with occasioanlly unlikable characters is a hard sell. The truth is that I like these characters and I appreciated July's invitation to spend time with them.
Pixar's Soul is a mighty fine film, though Wolfwalkers is the best animated feature of 2020. The third film centered around Irish folklore from Cartoon Saloon that included the Academy Award-nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is beautifully animated and tells a remarkable story of love and loss. When I think of true soul this year, I think of Wolfwalkers with its honest poignancy and year-best animation. Sean Bean is the most familiar voice here, though it's worth noting that work rivals that of Jamie Foxx's in Soul as the year's best. Wolfwalkers is a film I will revisit time and again, a film with remarkable lessons magnificently taught. It's practically a foregone conclusion that Soul will largely sweep this year's awards, but Wolfwalkers is 2020's remarkable achievement in animation.
Kitty Green's The Assistant was an early year stunner, a not even close to thinly veiled swipe at the Weinstein world with a revelatory performance by Julia Garner that lingers in my mind months after having watched the film. All you have to do is mention the film's HR scene and those who've seen the film instantly remember and instantly agree on its impact. There were certainly more dazzling films in 2020 than The Assistant, but there were few films that had its impact. A primal scream for the #MeToo movement, The Assistant is easily one of 2020's best films. Is it a film that I will revisit time and again? Probably not. It's simply too painfully realized to call "entertaining," but The Assistant is truly life-changing cinema.
Kelly Reichardt is one of those filmmakers who's so good at what she does you don't always realize just how good she is. She creates films that feel real and honest, yet she often avoids those things that scream out "Filmmaking!" First Cow is a remarkable film for a number of reasons including the simple fact that it's not actually a remarkable film. The simple story in First Cow is deceptive because there are universal themes at play here. It's your choice if you want to simply relax and enjoy this gorgeous film or if you want to immerse yourself in its narrative landscape and take home Reichardt's words and lessons. I myself immersed myself in it and I'm a better human being for having done it. This is not a film to watch when you're feeling rushed. It's a weird awards season view because it's a film that requires you to sit back and give yourself to it without thinking about that next film you need to check out. This is one of those films that was both one of the best films of 2020 and also one of my favorite films of 2020.
As simple a film as is Nomadland, it's one of 2020's films that I most aspire to eventually seeing on the big screen. Chloé Zhao's direction is so utterly remarkable that I think it's simply time that we accept she's one of Hollywood's truly remarkable, up-and-coming filmmakers. In a career that has had us repeatedly using the phrase "finest performance yet," Frances McDormand adds yet another finest performance yet. David Strathairn is mighty fine in a supporting performance, but it's the ensemble of true nomads being nomads that makes the difference here. Nomadland is one of the year's finest achievements, a film that speaks to being alone at a time when so many of us have been alone for months or longer and by choice or not. There are probably a zillion ways this film could have gone wrong - it never does. Let's just all agree that Frances McDormand is a national treasure.
#2 - Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Indiana University graduate Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always picked up a Truly Moving Picture Award from Indy's own Heartland Film and became one of my early favorites in 2020. Sidney Flanigin and Talia Ryder do stunning work here and there's not a false note to be found in Hittman's story. Kudos to Focus Features for picking up a film that most studios wouldn't touch (but should). The film also picked up the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at Berlin Film Fest. I was dazzled by other films this year. I was deeply moved by other films this year. To be honest, I could never quite decide where the film would end up in my top ten. However, this is one of 2020's films that entered my top ten and has never left it.
#1 - i'm thinking of ending things
I sat down at my computer to begin assembling my "Best of 2020" and realized that I truly had no idea where the pieces would fall. I had a handful of films that I considered truly memorable, while I had other films that completely blew me away. When I first started writing, I was certain that Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom would be in my top ten. Both films just missed, though they are undeniably incredible films. I've considered multiple films for my top spot along the way, but when it comes down to it there's really only one film that completely blew me away this year with its originality, vision, message, production, and remarkable ensemble. Charlie Kaufman's i'm thinking of ending things is everything I want a film to be. Oh, and speaking of national treasures, can we just agree that Toni Collette is also a national treasure? Jessie Buckley is absolutely one of my favorites of the up-and-coming actresses, while Jesse Plemons reaches a place here that I'd never have expected. David Thewlis? Remarkable. Is this a flawless film? I'm not sure a flawless film truly exists, but Kaufman takes us so many different places that I'm not sure I'd recognize perfection if it existed. All I know is that this film entertained me and moved me and made me laugh and made me cry. There isn't a single moment I didn't love this film.
The Next Ten Best (In No Particular Order)
- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
- Da 5 Bloods
- Sound of Metal
- Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
- Song Without a Name
- Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
- The Other Lamb
- Steve McQueen's Small Axe Anthology
- The Nest
10 Underrated Comedies
- Bill & Ted Face the Music
- Troop Zero
- Hubie Halloween
- Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga
- An American Pickle
- How to Build a Girl
- Big Time Adolescence
- Yes, God, Yes
- Why Don't You Just Die!
10 More Gems I Haven't Mentioned Yet
- The Garden Left Behind (Made my Top 10 in 2019, but actually released in 2020)
- Best Summer Ever
- Promising Young Woman
- Miss Juneteenth
- Blow the Man Down
2020's Biggest Disappointments
- Hillbilly Elegy
- Fantasy Island
- The Jesus Rolls
- The War With Grandpa
- The New Mutants
- Force of Nature
- The Last Days of American Crime
- Honorable Mention: While far from a cinematic disaster, Tenet was quite the disappointment
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic