In advance of tomorrow’s 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, it is time to reveal my ten favorite films from the COVID year in cinema!
My Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year)
No. 10 – I Care A Lot
The Netflix film I Care A Lot (written and directed by J Blakeson) is a very, very dark comedy, which follows Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a charismatic (yet incredibly brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. The movie’s plot takes off when Marla rips off the mother of a dangerous crime boss (Peter Dinklage). Although I Care A Lot has been fairly well received from critics (its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is 80%), it has received surprisingly negative reviews from audiences (its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%). One of the main criticisms I’ve read is the fact in this film, basically no character has any redeeming qualities. Most audiences want someone to root for, and I will definitely not shy away from the fact this film lacks that traditionally heroic (or at least ethical) character. But for me, that aspect of the film does nothing to change my opinion—this is a biting and ruthless story, told with an almost jolly tone, and I loved every minute of it. Rosamund Pike is stellar in the lead role, embodying Marla’s sociopathy in haunting fashion. Dinklage is also superb as the film’s more traditional “villain.” Additionally, I was in love with the film’s score—its electronic sound gives off serious Drive vibes. To put it plainly: I really loved this movie. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 9 – Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell (for all you fans of The Crown, Fennell plays Camilla Parker Bowles in seasons 3 and 4), tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a modern-day femme fatale who, 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 in order to ultimately confront those guys and hold them to account for their behavior. Eventually, Cassie directs her revenge at everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Promising Young Woman is such a great film. Although its setup is fairly straightforward, Fennell keeps us guessing throughout the development of the plot, sending the audience on a weaving path full of unexpected twists and turns. A vital story for the times, Fennell deservedly earned Oscar nominations this year for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture—it’s great to see the Academy recognizing the immense contributions by a female filmmaker to the silver screen. From an acting standpoint, the film features a number of great cameos (e.g., Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Alfred Molina), as well as fantastic supporting performances from Laverne Cox and funnyman Bo Burnham. However, the movie truly thrives in no small part because of the amazing performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role. As I pointed out when I reviewed Mulligan’s performance a few days ago, Cassie is an ice-cold character in a darkly comedic thriller, which is staggeringly different compared to the roles Mulligan traditionally plays in bona fide period pieces and hard dramas. Mulligan’s brilliant departure from her comfort zone led to stunning results, and it just may land her an Academy Award tomorrow night. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 8 – The White Tiger
The White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a film set in India that examines the country’s brutal caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), a young man with dreams of escaping poverty and living a life of luxury in the upper echelon of Indian society. This movie was one of the surprise hits of the film season for me—I really only heard about it following the announcement of its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last month. I am so glad I watched The White Tiger. Not only is the movie an important examination of India’s system of social stratification, but it’s also a wildly entertaining story. At the center of the tale is Balram, portrayed amazingly by breakout star Adarsh Gourav. Balram brims with ambition, and he carefully bides his time and strives to get his at all costs, even if it takes a long time to come to fruition—Gourav is wonderful in his portrayal. In addition to Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was remarkable as Pinky, the wife of Balram’s master. Although this is Balram’s story, Pinky plays an important role in inspiring Balram to break out from the shadows, and Chopra Jonas nearly steals every scene she is in—she was truly exquisite. I didn’t know what to expect from The White Tiger when I turned it on, but what I do know now is I was thoroughly entertained. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 7 – Minari
Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. Although the dialogue is prominently spoken in Korean, Minari is absolutely an authentic American tale of hopes, dreams, failures, successes, and, above all, perseverance and familial spirit. This film by filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung is beautiful, in every sense of the word—the scenic landscapes are striking and the overall heart of his story is inspiring. Other than Chung’s methodical filmmaking style and deliberate storytelling, the highlight of Minari (that truly makes it a must-see film) is the incredible acting. As the Yi family patriarch, South-Korean born Steven Yeun is first-rate in his thoughtful portrayal of Jacob’s commitment to providing for his family, flaws and all. Additionally, Han Ye-ri poignantly depicts Monica’s emotional struggles to balance her husband’s ambitions against her own happiness and the well-being of her family. Moreover, the young Alan Kim is adorable and charming as David, the youngest of the two Yi children. For me, though, the standout performance came courtesy of veteran South Korean actress, Youn Yuh-jung. Youn plays Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to stay with the family while Jacob and Monica work, and Youn excels fiercely as a foul-mouthed, blunt, and hilarious character, providing most of the film’s most sweet and funny moments. This is such an emotionally affecting movie, and it is quite deserving of its six Oscar nominations—here’s to hoping it takes home some gold tomorrow night (especially Youn for Best Supporting Actress)! Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 6 – The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is a science-fiction film by first-time director Andrew Patterson, which is set in New Mexico during the 1950s and follows two teens—Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ for the local radio station—who search for the potentially extraterrestrial source of a mysterious radio frequency. The Vast of Night has easily become one of my favorite sci-fi films, and yet, it was completely devoid of any expensive Spielberg-esque special effects or set pieces. This film is vastly different than your traditional alien flick in that it focuses almost exclusively on the characters and the mystery of its storyline, rather than on any larger-than-life depiction of extraterrestrial beings. Of course, Patterson had no choice, as this film was made with a budget of just $700,000. It feels almost impossible that a filmmaker could create a worthwhile modern science-fiction thriller on such a shoestring budget, but here, Patterson has done just that. He defied the odds and delivered an edge-of-your seat cinematic experience unlike many others in the genre. In addition to his captivating storyline, I was quite taken by Patterson’s filmmaking style. He utilized a long, fast-paced tracking shot in the opening scene, which gives the audience the lay of the land in this mid-century New Mexico town, and a brilliant long take of Fay frenetically working the switchboard. It’s incredible filmmaking, which makes it even more hard to believe this was Patterson’s debut. If you like sci-fi movies, this one is absolutely worth your time. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 5 – Palm Springs
Palm Springs, written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow, is a romantic comedy that follows Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), two guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who are stuck together in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. If you read that plot summary and watch the trailer, you’ll likely get vibes of Groundhog Day—but Palm Springs is so much more than that. This is a brilliant film, which strikes the perfect balance of comedy, romance, and drama, all without falling victim to the traditional clichés in similar genre flicks. We learn early on that Nyles has been stuck in this time loop for a very, very long time, while Sarah first enters the loop during the early part of the film. Nyles is resigned to simply not giving a fuck anymore, accepting the time loop is now his life and refusing to care what anyone thinks of him at the wedding. On the other hand, Sarah is a newbie to this time-warped situation and constantly seeks a way out, as if Nyles hasn’t already tried that. (There is a section in the middle of the film where Sarah creatively tries out a number of new ways to die, in hopes that it will break the loop, and it is one of the best and most hilarious sequences in the movie.) Barabkow and Siara have together made a movie that explores some very deep themes in such a charming, comedic, and heartfelt manner. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are wonderful together as the two leads, playing off each other entertainingly and demonstrating a beautiful chemistry, which lends to the film’s emotional hook. Palm Springs is the only out-and-out comedy on my Top 10 list, but it is more than deserving of its high ranking—a surprise hit! Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 4 – Tenet
Christopher Nolan’s newest movie Tenet follows The Protagonist (John David Washington), a secret agent who must undertake an incredibly risky and life-threatening assignment (which involves people and objects with inverted entropies moving backward through time) to prevent global annihilation. This past year, Tenet supplied me with one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. At the end of last summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I masked up, sat down in my local socially distanced AMC theater, and watched (in a near-empty screening room) the blockbuster I had been anticipating for a year in glorious IMAX—and for me personally, despite the criticisms it has received, Tenet lived up to the hype. Through his films, Christopher Nolan continually demonstrates why movie theaters are absolutely, unequivocally needed—at least for the traditional big-budget action movies. In Tenet, Nolan expertly delivers a product that is equal parts spy thriller, cerebral sci-fi flick, and gigantic action extravaganza—visually, it is truly a sight to behold. Some of the film’s highlights include an action-packed opening scene at a Ukrainian opera house that punches you in the mouth (setting the tone for what the audience is in for throughout the rest of the film), a wild bungee jump onto a high-rise in Mumbai, a set-piece involving a real Boeing 747, a mesmerizing car-chase spectacle, some fantastic fight scenes, and an immense battle sequence. Again, visually, no one is consistently better than Nolan. It is also worth mentioning that Ludwig Göransson, who won an Academy Award for Black Panther, composes the score, which is phenomenally pulsating and sets the perfect vibe for the movie. Critics and audiences have complained about a number of things in this film, most notably its sound—and these criticisms aren’t invalid, as there are some parts involving vital exposition that are hard to hear in light of Nolan’s (likely very intentional) sound mix. Ultimately, the film’s occasional flaws do nothing to bring its overall value down in my mind. This is by far one of my favorite Nolan movies (probably his best since Inception), and Tenet will always have a special hold over me personally for the experience it gave me during the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 3 – The Invisible Man
Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (the most recent film adaptation of the acclaimed 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name) follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who leaves her life of luxury to escape from her abusive, gaslighting boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Cecilia believes her nightmare might finally be over when it appears Adrian commits suicide, until a number of strange events occur, leading Cecilia to believe Adrian has created a technology which makes him invisible. I am a bit surprised myself to find this jump-scare filled horror film so high on my list this year, but it is simply a testament to just how good The Invisible Man is. My initial interest in this movie was the filmmaker behind its creation, Leigh Whannell. Just two years ago, my No. 7 favorite film of 2018 was Upgrade, a visually stimulating sci-fi horror action thriller written and directed by Whannell. From that moment on, it was abundantly clear the degree of skill this filmmaker possesses. Here, Whannell puts his experience and background in the genre to good work (Whannell previously penned the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all four Insidious films, the last of which he also directed), creating one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Whannell builds up the suspense in The Invisible Man with perfect pace, and the pay-offs are worth it. In conjunction with Whannell, lead actress Elisabeth Moss delivers a performance that is nothing short of sensational. As I discussed a few days ago (when I argued for why Moss should have received an Oscar nomination for this role), Whannell’s rendition of Wells’s classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims—Moss is the perfect vessel through which to tell that story, using her immense acting skill to portray her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion throughout the film. Cecilia is constantly living a nightmare, haunted by a man who simply cannot accept her leaving him, and Moss’s intense, yet meticulously subtle, portrayal of this dynamic is enrapturing. Between Moss’s incredible acting and Whannell’s spine-tingling filmmaking, The Invisible Man has secured a place in horror history. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 2 – Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of Fred Hampton (the titular Black Messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya), the real-life chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was gunned down by law enforcement in 1969, and William “Bill” O’Neil (the titular Judas, played by Lakeith Stanfield), the criminal-turned-informant who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s behest. On the day Judas and the Black Messiah was released on HBO Max (for its 31-day streaming release in accordance with the HBO Max/Warner Bros. deal), I watched the film twice. And even after that, I routinely went back to it to relive some of its best scenes, as I just simply couldn’t get enough—it’s truly incredible filmmaking. This movie is so very important and should be required viewing as a remarkable depiction of the underlying racial, societal, and political forces which both brought Fred Hampton to prominence and resulted in his assassination by the Chicago police. This story, like so many others in the history of the African-American experience in this country, deserves to be told, and my hope is that folks without a good idea of who Fred Hampton was (or what the Black Panther Party at its core truly believed in) see this movie and gain a greater respect for these freedom fighters and the immense challenges they faced. Aside from the imperative story of the civil rights movement at the heart of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah should be used as a tool in every single acting class. As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying. The film features a number of scenes depicting rallies and speeches, as Hampton was a commanding orator during the civil rights movement, and this is where Kaluuya succeeds the most (although he is also impressive in his character’s quieter, more intimate moments). The church speech alone makes this film one of my favorites of the year, as Kaluuya demonstrates a true embodiment of Hampton’s real-life role as a revolutionary—it is definitely one of my favorite scenes in movie history now. In addition to Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield is extraordinary as the controversial Bill O’Neil. This film is at its root a story about O’Neil (for which Stanfield should have been nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor), and Stanfield was stunning in his nuanced portrayal of an incredibly complex figure—he delivers the performance of his career with unmistakable precision. Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).
No. 1 – Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder and written by Darius and his brother Abraham Marder (who also composed the film’s score), tells the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band, who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. The tagline for this film is, “Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.” This is a perfect description of the film because although Ruben’s hearing loss is set up early in the movie, the heart of Sound of Metal firmly resides in his experience learning to live with his new circumstances. Sound of Metal is an amazing movie and unique cinematic experience, saying so much in the film’s many moments of silence. The story and acting performances go hand in hand, as the performers masterfully breathe life into their characters and capture the audience’s emotions. At the center is one of my favorite acting performances in recent memory from Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Ruben’s arc is complex—he’s understandably overwhelmed by the sudden unrelenting silence in his life and spends the film fighting against addictive-like urges to seek out quick fixes to his circumstances—and Ahmed portrays the character masterfully in heartbreaking fashion. Ahmed delivers an absolute master class in acting. In addition to Ahmed, Paul Raci gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as Joe. As I pointed out a few days ago when I reviewed Raci’s performance, the actor is not deaf, but he has a deeply personal connection to the story, as he is a C.O.D.A. (i.e., child of deaf adults). This fact about Raci, in conjunction with his fluency in American Sign Language, provides an authentic context to the story, which results in Raci’s magnetic performance as the stoic, yet kindhearted, Joe. Had Daniel Kaluuya’s performance not existed this year, it’d be hard for me to accept anyone else taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor other than Raci. Overall, Sound of Metal is a beautiful and emotionally affecting movie, and it is the single best film I saw this past year. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.