Tomorrow, I will finally reveal the list of my ten favorite films from the past year. However, before we get to the Top 10, it is worth discussing the five films that just barely missed out on cracking that list—these films are stellar and deserve attention. Let’s go!
No. 15 – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
In Birds of Prey, the eighth installment in the DC Extended Universe, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)—fresh from her breakup with Joker and now roaming Gotham without his protection—joins forces with a squad of badass women to take on the city’s criminal underworld, namely crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists, the folks at DC Films have immensely underwhelmed (with very few exceptions) in an effort to compete in the modern comic-book film space. With that said, DC continues to strike absolute gold with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Robbie was the best (and maybe only decent) part of 2016’s Suicide Squad, and her return to this character is triumphant. (I can’t wait to see her embody the role for a third time this summer in The Suicide Squad.) Harley is a violent, foul-mouthed, badass superheroine, and Robbie brings the character to life with extravagant style and colorful passion. Ewan McGregor is also fantastic in this film as the egotistical antagonist, as are Harley’s titular Birds of Prey (played wonderfully by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez). Birds of Prey is definitely a fun, stylistic cinematic ride. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 14 – Soul
Soul, Pixar’s most recent release, tells the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher in New York City with bigger dreams of becoming a professional jazz pianist. After Joe finally gets his chance to impress jazz legend Dorthea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett) with his skills, Joe falls down a manhole, entering a queue of “souls” headed for the “Great Beyond” (i.e., the afterlife). Not ready to die yet, Joe navigates his soul to the “Great Before” (i.e., the beforelife), and with the help of 22 (a beforelife soul still looking for her “spark” of life, voiced by Tina Fey), Joe works to reunite his soul with his body on Earth. As you can see from the basic description of the film, Soul explores a number of heavy themes, but that is what attracts me to this movie so much. What sets Pixar apart from all other animation studios is both its willingness to explore complex adult themes and its thriving success in doing so. (Although here, I am still a bit uncertain how a more youthful audience can connect to this movie, as it is the adultiest of Pixar’s more adult films.) Like Coco before it, Soul centers around death and the afterlife, but taking it a step further, Soul also explores the idea of a beforelife (or pre-existence), which is truly magical to watch. Not only did I genuinely love and feel emotionally affected by the story itself, there are a number of other highlights. First, the voice acting was stellar—Jamie Foxx is great as Joe, Tina Fey is wonderful as 22, and Graham Norton was hilarious as one of my favorite characters, Moonwind. Second, the jazz music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste is some of the best Pixar has ever done. Representation in movies (especially children’s films) matters, and I have really appreciated Pixar’s efforts to offer more diverse stories—the first Pixar film to feature an African-American lead is delightful. Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+.
No. 13 – Blow the Man Down
Written and directed by relative unknowns Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down (which is set in a fishing village off the coast of Maine and gets its title from the sea shanty of the same name) is a dark comedy that follows Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly, two sisters who have just lost their mother. After an unfortunate set of circumstances results in Mary Beth killing a man, the sisters are forced to cover up the crime, which then opens up Pandora’s box to reveal more nefarious secrets about the town and its matriarchal figures. This movie was released right at the very beginning of lockdown, and it quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Morgan Saylor and Sophia Lowe were fantastic as the Connolly sisters, and the film also features wonderful supporting performances from acting vets like Margo Martindale (who is utterly fantastic as Enid, a local brothel owner), Annette O’Toole, June Squib, and Marceline Hugot. Blow the Man Down is equal parts thriller and black comedy, and these young filmmakers brilliantly blend the two genres to craft an entertaining story that catches your attention and doesn’t let go. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 12 – Nomadland
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (the presumptive favorite to win four Oscars this year, including both Best Picture and Best Director) tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant she used to work at in her hometown, makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Nomadland is an incredibly beautiful story and a remarkably scenic film, with the veteran McDormand deftly portraying her character within the confines of Zhao’s picturesque backdrop. The film almost feels like a documentary in that Zhao utilized a number of non-actors (and real-life nomads) to fill out the cast and cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s camera moved with impulsive fluidly—it absolutely works here. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 11 – The Climb
For me, the biggest surprise hit was The Climb, a film directed by Michael Angelo Covino and produced, written, and starring Covino and his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin. The film, divided into seven chapters (I’m Sorry, Let Go, Thanks, It’s Broken, Stop It, Grow Up, and Fine), follows the many ups and downs of lead characters Mike and Kyle’s relationship after a woman divides the two lifelong friends. This movie is hilarious, but not in any manner resembling slapstick or traditional comedy—it’s immensely dry, which fits these filmmakers’ personalities perfectly and adds to the movie’s overall charm. The funniest scene in the entire movie is a funeral speech in Chapter Two that does not disappoint. I also really enjoyed the cinematic style of The Climb, which features a number of continuous shots, including an 8-minute long take featuring the two leads riding bikes together to open the film. This is simply a delightful film. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.