I've made a Top 10 list every year for about 25 years now, and if I were to line up 2020 in the cinematic pantheon I would call it about an average year for movies. Maybe a wee touch below -- not because we're missing nearly all of the big-budget films that pushed their release to the next year (or streaming platforms) because of "you know." But because the crop of award contenders that arrive in a rush of screeners at year's end severely disappointed me.
I powered through about a film a day during mid-November to mid-December, and the best stuff all arrived right at the beginning. It was a long slog after that.
So by necessity all of my favorite movies were "small" films, though I must say my tastes have been trending that way the last few years anyway. What can I say, getting older and all that. I still can adore the Star Wars and Marvel pictures and whatnot, just not enough to break into my top 10.
What I did not love were the two movies I was most anticipating since springtime, when it became clear only a handful of blockbusters would see their way to wide release. I really, really, really wanted to love "Tenet" and "Wonder Woman 1984." Instead they were among the year's biggest disappointments, not truly awful flicks but a crushing fall from the heights we were used to.
A big notable change you'll see in this list is the inclusion of films that debuted on video-on-demand or streaming services like Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV+. I'll never give up my belief that theaters is the best way to experience film, but this is the way of the new, platform-neutral world.
So here is my Top 10 Films of 2020, along with the usual odd jamble of contenders I considered for the list.
Other than the two mentioned above, I won't be doing a "worst of" or "most disappointing" list this year because, frankly, it's a depressing exercise. And bad movies tend to leave few footprints in my memory... going through my review list this year I'm amazed how many I'd complete forgotten.
- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom -- Yet another adaptation of an August Wilson play swings for the fences, and knocks it over. Denzel Washington's biggest impact on cinema may yet be as a producer rather than an actor. A true ensemble piece with no lead characters, it centers around Viola Davis as a powerful and resentful blues singer and Chadwick Boseman as the ambitious young coronet player who wants to do his own thing. Both buck up against the white power structure but in very different ways. Gorgeous and yet full of ugliness, musical and timeless.
- Mank -- This year's real love-it-or-hate-it flick. Or rather, love-it-or-be-utterly-indifferent to it. Many of my fellow Indiana critics said it left them listless and bored. Which is astonishing to me. I, who constantly complain that so many movies are too long, was never less than enthralled for 131 minutes. Another powerhouse performance from Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the scribe behind "Citizen Kane." (And, somewhat, Orson Welles too.) Great black-and-white cinematography, a surprisingly sensitive portrait of Hearst and Amanda Seyfried wowed me like never before. Old school "Oscar bait" filmmaking.
- Wolfwalkers -- Far and away the best animated film of 2020, so of course it'll lose the Oscar to Pixar's medium-good "Soul." From the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a mythical tale of a girl who encounters were-creatures and wants to kill them, but winds up as their champion. Some soulful voice work by Sean Bean.
- Emma -- Autumn de Wilde has the most ostentatious directorial debut I've seen in a while with this vibrant, colorful, funny and touching take on the Jane Austen classic. No surprise, as she's actually been making shorts and music videos for years. A great cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is surely among the best in her generation of actresses. I read they made this movie for $10 million, which astounds me -- surely the costumes and sets alone cost that.
- Nomadland -- The astonishing stillness of this movie. Not really much in the way of story; the journey mostly takes place inside the soul of Fern, an older widowed woman who has lost her job and home but chooses to travel about in her van. Another sure-fire Academy Award nomination for Frances McDormand, who is quietly making the case to take the throne as America's greatest living actor.
- The Personal History of David Copperfield -- Another musty old British literature classic breathed back to vibrant new life. I liked the multicultural cast where people of all hues and accents play characters without regard to origin or relationships, so a Chinese actor might have a Black daughter and so forth. Dev Patel gets another meaty role after a few years of wandering.
- Desert One -- The best documentary I saw this year from the immortal Barbara Kopple. It examines the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis from all angles -- the captives, the politicians, the Iranians and the members of the failed military mission to come to the rescue. I love movies that take a piece of well-known history and work it front to back to reveal all sorts of perspectives and information you didn't know.
- Possessor (Uncut) -- I've been underwhelmed by a lot of the celebrated horror films of recent years, but this one from Brandon Cronenberg genuinely creeped me the hell out. Thematically borrows from Philip K. Dick in the tale of assassins who invade the mind of regular people to murder others. But what happens when the best agent finds a soft spot in her heart for her latest avatar?
- News of the World -- Another stodgy old-timey piece I liked more than most. What can I say, I'm a stodgy old-timer myself. Shades of "The Searchers" with Tom Hanks as a Union soldier who travels the West reading newspapers to unenlightened frontier folk, and finds himself charged with returning a girl who has been raised by American Indians to her family.
- The Outpost -- A largely forgotten skirmish in Afghanistan was turned into a book by Jake Tapper and then a terrific war movie by director Rod Lurie. If Caleb Landry Jones doesn't get a supporting actor nod from the Academy, a true crime will have occurred.
Best of the Rest
Usually I anguish about the last few spots on my top 10 list, moving them up and down as I decide what will make the cut. Surprisingly, this year it was pretty easy to discriminate. Here are films I respected and enjoyed. In no particular order:
- Call of the Wild -- Go ahead and make fun of the CGI dog -- which I'll contend looks no worse than the critters in the utterly unnecessary "The Lion King" reboot -- but this film contains one of Harrison Ford's finest performances. Really.
- End of Sentence -- The always-terrific John Hawkes plays a diffident dad trying to reconnect with his son just released from prison after his wife has died.
- The Painter and the Thief -- A very different kind of documentary that focuses on the weird but wonderful relationship that strikes up between an artist and the man who stole her paintings.
- 7500 -- Another streaming service movie not enough people saw with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an airline pilot in a hijacking situation.
- Greyhound -- Tom Hanks in the best war picture hardly anybody saw. Some love for the Navy!
- The Secret Garden -- A lovely, sad but uplifting adaptation of the classic novel.
- She's in Portland -- Not your typical buddy road trip story, as the guy who would usually be the asshole antagonist or wingman gets the spotlight.
- Yellow Rose -- Charming story about an illegal immigrant who falls in love with country-western music.
- Beanpole -- The best foreign language film I saw this year, though it both seemed like a weak year and we didn't get as many releases as we normally would. I get the sense subtitled films don't do as well on VOD.