Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year) – Honorable Mentions

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!

Honorable Mentions

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.

The 93rd Oscars – Best Actress

In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.

The Nominees

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend.  Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.

Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)

Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)

The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) 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. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!

Snubs and Other Performances

In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.

Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.

Conclusion

Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand

This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.

Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby

I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan

As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.