2020 kept us on our toes. Adapting became a way of life—especially for films and their fans. Part of the adjustment movie lovers had to make was viewing films on VOD and streaming services while only a few enthusiasts ventured out to near-empty theaters.
Within that context, here’s a look at the best and the brightest in films—no matter where you saw them.
The Closet (***) – Bless the demon children in this atypical genre film. Better yet, bless the young actresses (Yool Heo and Si-ah Kim) who play them for crying and screaming like they’d just been told there’s no Santa Clause. Korean director Kwang-bin Kim gives this cautionary tale about abused and neglected kids a home in a horror movie that beats out all the other contenders (and there were many) that graced fright screens this year. A stormy cloud of reality, mysticism and intrigue presses all the right buttons and makes you scared in the right ways.
Hamilton (****) – Broadway is not dead. It’s moved to Disney+. This stirring film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s signature theater piece reveals why so many think he is an artistic genius. He is. That’s evident in the very original premise, historic characters, vibrant storylines, catchy songs and enlightening dialogue. Daveed Diggs’ fiery performance, Leslie Odom’s smooth vocals, Renée Elise Goldsberry’s dignity, Anthony Ramos’ innocence and Miranda’s intelligence shine bright like they’re under a center stage spotlight. Gorgeously written and shot, with expert direction by Thomas Kail.
Lingua Franca (***1/2) – This story has never been told before, communicated in this way or created by such an astute and perceptive writer/director/actor as Isabel Sandoval. Olivia (Sandoval), a trans woman from the Philippines, is a paid, live-in caregiver for Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She’s overstayed her visa, is terrified ICE will deport her and eyes an iffy solution: a marriage of convenience to Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren)—an ex-jailbird/drug addict. Part perilous immigrant nightmare, part awkward love story and always fully compelling. As a director, Sandoval provokes strong acting from her entire cast and composes each scene impeccably. As a writer, her story reveals the indignities trans women and immigrants face. As an actor, her interpretation of Olivia is one of the most textured performances of the year. The sublime musical score is totally exquisite and underlines Sandoval’s supreme taste.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (***1/2) – The spirit of playwright August Wilson lives on in his American Century Cycle series of plays. This one gets a special lift from the strongest ensemble acting of the year. Ma (Viola Davis) comes to Chicago to record an album. The tough-as-nails blues singer and her band (Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts) are having ‘creative’ issues. Superb drama and electrifying performances from all. It’s a movie that still feels like a play, but the rewards are so abundant that it’s forgivable.
Minari (***) – The U.S. is a mosaic of various cultures, mixing together all over the land. Case in point: A Korean family moves to Arkansas in the ‘80s to start a farm—with no previous experience. They’re getting their hands dirty and playing out the American dream. The premise, by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, plays out with surprisingly little culture clash but lots of friction between a pipe dream-loving husband Jacob (Steven Yeun, Sorry to Bother You), his pragmatic wife Monica (Yeri Han) and a doting grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn). This small but touching family drama perfectly evokes the times and rural setting. The couple’s struggle is as distressing as it is inspiring.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (****) – This is an odyssey no adolescent wants to go on, but if necessary, it would likely play out like this. Writer/director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) sensitively fathoms and realistically examines the journey of a teenage girl, Autumn (brilliantly played by Sidney Flanigan), who finds out she is pregnant, late. She’s making the biggest decision of her life on a trip from rural Pennsylvania to the mean streets of NYC’s Time Square. Hittman’s invasive filmmaking takes you through every aspect of the kid’s tough decisions. An enlightening script, expert ensemble acting and the most revealing film ever made about a young woman’s right to choose.
The Outpost (***1/2) — It was somewhere between a call of duty and a suicide mission. A small unit of U.S. soldiers cornered and outnumbered at a combat outpost in Afghanistan. This retelling of the Battle of Kamdesh, the bloodiest American engagement of the Afghan War, scrapes the sheen off war. It’s a true-life story, masterfully directed by Rod Lurie who instinctively captures the danger, risks and moments of desperation and humanity of the event. Heart-pounding action scenes. Memorable young cast (Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Jack Kesy). It’s completely believable and transfixing for 122-rivetting minutes.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock/Mangrove/Red, White and Blue (****) – Grouping these three films, which are part of a five-part series, into one ‘Best Film’ entry is an adjustment worth making. Their focus is on West Indian life in England from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. Director extraordinaire Steve McQueen helms them and co-wrote all. Lovers Rock is a party, Mangrove is a courtroom drama and Red… is about reforming the police. Actors Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, John Boyega and Letitia Wright give searing performances. Illuminating on so many levels
Sound of Metal (***1/2) – This very simple, cinema verité look at a drummer (Riz Ahmed) going deaf could have been a small observation on what it’s like to lose hearing. Instead, thanks to the lead actor, the audience can place themselves in his harrowing transition and feel his emotions in the most primal way. Not every actor could turn this role into a tour de force. But Ahmed takes it there and deserves an Oscar nom. Perceptive writing and direction by Darius Marder.
Tenet (***) – While other films were taking the streaming way out, this visually stunning espionage action thriller was playing to a few patrons in theaters with hundreds of empty seats. Seeing it on Imax is the way to go if COVID ever leaves town. Otherwise, TV screens will do. John David Washington steps into superstardom as a character out to thwart mass murder. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh and Himesh Patel fill out a stellar cast. Special effects and cinematography are OMG crazy. Director Christopher Nolan is at the top of his game. His sometimes-befuddling script and a not-easy-to-discern audio track are the wrinkles in an otherwise smoothly cool movie.
Best directors: Eliza Hittman (Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always); Rod Lurie (The Outpost); Steve McQueen (Small Axe: Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Red, White and Blue); Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca); Christopher Nolan (Tenet).
Best first films: Channing Godfrey Peoples (Miss Juneteenth; Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version); Heidi Ewing (I Carry You With Me); Tayarisha Poe (Selah and the Spades); Florian Zeller (The Father).
Best foreign language films: Another Round; I Carry You With Me; The Life Ahead ; Night of the Kings; The Traitor .
Best documentaries: All In: The Fight for Democracy; Collective; There’s Something in the Water; Time; The Way I See It.
Best actors: Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal); Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom); John Boyega (Red, White and Blue); Anthony Hopkins (The Father); Steven Yeun (Minari).
Best actresses: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom); Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always); Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman); Rosamund Pike (Radioactive); Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca).
Best supporting actors: Eamon Farren (Lingua Franca); Caleb Landry Jones (The Outpost); Shaun Parkes (Mangrove); Keegan-Michael Key (The Prom); Glynn Turman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
Best supporting actresses: Lynn Cohen (Lingua Franca); Olivia Cooke (Sound of Metal); Loretta Devine (Spell); Talia Ryder (Never Rarely Sometimes, Always); Amanda Seyfried (Mank).
Best screenplays: Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval); Minari (Lee Isaac Chung); Never Rarely Sometimes, Always (Eliza Hittman); King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus); Sound of Metal (Abraham Marder, Darius Marder).
Best cinematography: The Forty-Year-Old Version (Eric Branco); Mank (Erik Messerschmidt); Mulan (Mandy Walker); The Outpost (Lorenzo Senatore); Tenet (Hoyte Van Hoytema).
Best animation/CGI: Soul; Wolfwalkers.
Other great films: Bad Boys for Life, Bad Education, Black Is King, Blue Story, Bull, Charm City Kings, Da 5 Bloods, The High Note, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, The Last Tree, Mank, Mr. Jones, Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, Mulan, Nomadland, The Old Guard, The Photograph, The Prom, Radioactive, Sorry We Missed You, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Tripping with Nils Frahm