The year 2020 was quite unlike any other in recent history. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about our lives. It shut down sports, postponed the Olympics, and even affected the movies. Following a long summer drought of closed cineplexes and no studio blockbusters, theatres finally began opening up in the fall – thus delaying movie season and pushing back the Oscars by two full months. So, while the timing seems out of place to offer a Top Ten List, we must remember that the timing for everything has been out of place the past year. The Indy 500 in August? Basketball finals in October? So just go with the timing, as I (finally) present my ten best pictures of 2020:
10. “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” is the only documentary on my list – and the only pre-COVID-19 film on my list. Released clear back last February, “Once Were Brothers” tells the story of the iconic American rock band from the perspective of lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, who wrote almost all The Band’s material. While none of his bandmates are still alive to refute anything in Daniel Roher’s documentary, it’s hard to believe there’s anything here worth disputing. It’s true The Band met its fate due (in large part) to the excessive drug use common at the time among rock musicians. It’s true that egos drove some of the members apart. It’s also true that The Band produced some of the greatest music of the early 1970s. Even if you’ve never heard of The Band, “Once Were Brothers” is an interesting trip down memory lane.
9. George C. Wolf’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is superior to Denzel Washington’s “Fences” in that this one doesn’t seem so much like a play. Enough of the action takes place outside the small basement recording studio to eliminate such concern. However, the claustrophobia of the tight space and the hot non-air-conditioned 1927 summer afternoon soon get the best of the talented jazz musicians, and tempers begin to flare. Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman shine in their roles as the diva with the big voice and the trumpeter with sites on fronting his own band someday.
8. Director Aaron Sorkin hit a home run in 2017 with “Molly’s Game.” This year’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t quite as strong, in part because this time many of us are familiar with the history. This is a retelling of the trial against the instigators of the riots which coincided with the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. The serious effort put forth by political activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis stands in sharp contrast to the lackadaisical devil-may-care attitude toward the judicial process of “Yippie” leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Also in the mix is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. The performances are all top-notch, but particularly that of veteran character actor Frank Langella, who almost steals the show as the judge who is obviously in over his head, as he frantically attempts to juggle all the proverbial balls while maintaining some sense of dignity in the courtroom.
7. Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” will always be known as the swansong of character actor Brian Dennehy. But it is so much more. The original screenplay never goes for the obvious cliché, as it imparts a warmhearted story of a crochety Korean War vet who befriends the shy boy next door. Of all Dennehy’s great body of work, this final performance is his best. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the boy celebrates his birthday with Dennehy and his friends at the local VFW. “Driveways” is sentimental without being maudlin.
6. Harry Macqueen’s “Supernova” tells the story of two men on a journey through the countryside of Northern England. One of them (Stanley Tucci) is suffering from the early stages of dementia. His partner (Colin Firth) must come to grips with the obvious changes his life is about to take. For once, the fact that the protagonists are gay has, essentially, nothing to do with the story. “Supernova” would be an intriguing picture otherwise, but the fact that the couple is gay does add an extra dimension.
5. Carey Mulligan gave one of the best performances of the year as a strong-willed woman who toys with horny men in Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” – the strangest film of the year. It’s strange because we’re never sure exactly how far Mulligan’s character will go to get back at the entire male population. We eventually learn her anger stems from a traumatic experience from her college days, and we’re mesmerized every time she ups the ante. “Promising Young Woman” never ceases to hold our interest, but it does require a little investment on our part. This one isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s just off-kilter enough to rank as one of my favorites this year.
4. Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” tell the story of a Korean American family’s attempt to earn a living operating a small, sustaining farm in rural Arkansas. Steven Yeun plays the father, who puts in long hours on the farm while still finding the time to mentor his young, impressionable son. Eventually, his mother-in-law moves in from Korea. Her sharp wit and loving demeanor add a spark to the screenplay and sends the trajectory of the film in a slightly different direction that we expect. Since the parents do argue, and divorce is openly discussed, “Minari” cannot be described as a family film. But it is a wonderful, touching film about a family that ranks as an unexpected gem from this year’s lineup of great movies.
3. While “Supernova” (and “Little Fish”) were 2020 films dealing with dementia, Florian Zeller’s “The Father” takes a completely different approach and shows us mental decay from the point of view of the afflicted. In one of the best performances of his entire career, British actor Anthony Hopkins plays a man who has trouble remembering whether certain conversations occurred just yesterday or years in the past. He has trouble recalling which London flat he’s living in now. At first, “The Father” is a little difficult to follow – until we recognize that we’ll be experiencing Alzheimer’s from a different angle. And I cannot say enough about Hopkins’ performance. Just when we think we’ve seen everything in his playbook, he churns out one of the greatest pieces of work in all his 83 years. This is the best performance of the year. By anyone.
2. After Cassius Clay first won the heavyweight crown in 1964, he spent the evening with his spiritual mentor Malcolm X in a motel room in Miami – along with football star Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke. Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” imagines what their conversations must have been like. And much as with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” enough of the action occurs outside the room that many audience members are unaware playwright Kemp Powers has adapted his own work for the big screen. King scores big in her directorial debut, and while the ensemble acting is superb, Leslie Odom Jr. stands out as the confident, successful Cooke, whom Malcolm X chastises for playing to white audiences at the expense of using his fame to fight for equal rights. “One Night in Miami” is smart, original, and never dull.
1. Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” follows the great American actress Frances McDormand around the American West after she loses her job at a gypsum plant. She makes the conscious decision to live out of her van, and she befriends others who have also chosen such a lifestyle. The characters are unique, and (save for those played by McDormand and David Strathairn) played by actual nomads – not professional actors. Zhao has utilized this technique before, but not to this satisfying an effect. “Nomadland” is a peaceful, quiet tribute to those who go unnoticed, but who lean on one another to create their own sense of family. McDormand is so natural playing against type in this role that it’s hard to discern that she’s even acting. Must as with David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” “Nomadland” is void of an overarching plot. Rather, it’s a series of vignettes – a character study that stays with us long after the curtain falls. In a close call, “Nomadland” is this year’s best film.