(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Movie Dearest's Top 10 of 2020

No doubt about it, 2020 was a long, trying, heartbreaking, infuriating, bewildering year. Yet amid all the social, political and cultural turmoil, I found comfort in "escaping to the movies", even though that generally meant relocating to the couch and firing up the Roku. I was rewarded with a myriad of cinematic delights, from a diverse array of filmmakers, ranging from eye-opening documentaries and eye-popping animated films to boundary-pushing dramas and subversive comedies.

Yes, 2020 will be remembered for many things (good, bad and very, very ugly) but, for me at least, I will hold the memories of my favorite movies from this past year close, and cherish them for offering welcome respite from the perils of reality.

Note: Although the Academy and several other awards groups, not too mention critics, have extended their eligibility dates into 2021, I decided to include below only films that were released - either wide or limited, theatrically or digitally, or any combination thereof - within the calendar year of 2020.

Road Trip

1. Nomadland - ChloĆ© Zhao accomplishes a rare feat here, creating an intimate experience – about a woman (a sublime Frances McDormand) who has lost everything, struggling to survive as a literal "nomad" in contemporary America – within a larger message (how this country can fail its people) that never turns sentimental or didactic. A truly beautiful film that will stick to your soul for some time.

Female Trouble

2. Promising Young Woman - Carey Mulligan, irresistibly magnetic as the post-promising femme of the title, is on a mission in this blistering, darkly comic deconstruction of male/female relationships and everything that can go wrong therein. Actress-turned-writer/director Emerald Fennell goes far afield from her Call the Midwife past with this, her feature film debut. Challenging, chilling and shockingly cathartic.

Brian's Swan Song

3. Driveways - One can find kindness in unexpected places, a truth for the characters in this quiet drama from director Andrew Ahn as well as for those thankful viewers who have stumbled upon this "hidden gem" of a film. The late Brian Dennehy, in one of his last performances, shines as an unexpected grandfather figure to the lonely boy next door (Lucas Jaye). A simple, lovely story of love, loss and acceptance.

Eight is Enough

4. My Octopus Teacher - When one thinks of a nature documentary, words like "personal" and "intimate" hardly come to mind, but such is the case with this moving exploration of man's relationship with nature, specifically one man (documentary filmmaker Craig Foster) and one animal (the titular mollusc) and the surprising, unique relationship they develop over a year's time, together, in her octupus' garden under the sea.

Strangers on a Trail

5. News of the World - Tom Hanks (in, believe it or not, his very first western) portrays a traveling "news reader" who finds himself charged with returning a young orphan girl (Helena Zengel, in a dazzling debut) to a family she's never known in Paul Greengrass' sprawling, picturesque throwback to John Ford yarns of the past. Through their perilous travels, the two overcome hardships and language barriers to forge a connection beyond words.

Gingers, Snap!

6. Wolfwalkers - Ireland's Cartoon Saloon champions traditional animation once again with this, the final chapter of director Tomm Moore's "Irish Folklore Trilogy" (following the equally beguiling The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea). Filled with richly detailed backgrounds, expressive characters and dynamic action, each frame of this enchanting tale of lasses getting their lupine on is a work of art, a colorful, Celtic feast for the eyes.

The Farmer's Son

7. Minari - The Asian vegetable minari thrives in out of the way places, an appropriate metaphor for the South Korean immigrant family that relocates to rural Arkansas to start a produce farm in Lee Isaac Chung's fond remembrance of his own 1980s youth. As the parents, Steven Yeun and Yeri Han ground the tender story, while young Alan S. Kim and old Youn Yu-jung take turns stealing scenes... and hearts.

In Old Chicago

8. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - The real Ma Rainey was "Mother of the Blues", the "black bottom" was a popular dance in the '20s, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a dramatization of a turbulent recording session wherein Ma (a volcanic Viola Davis) clashes with upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman, simply electric in his final role), is director George C. Wolfe's mesmerizing screen adaptation of the August Wilson stage classic.

The Inspector, Generally

9. The Mole Agent - Meet Sergio Chamy, an octogenarian gent eager to try new things, who is hired by a private investigator to go undercover in a nursing home to find evidence of elder abuse. But Sergio finds something else entirely in this quirky documentary (Chile's submission for the International Feature Oscar) that plays like the oddest, most heartwarming reality show ever. If you're into Bernie Sanders mitten memes, this is the movie for you.

Swimming with Shark

10. The Assistant - As a day in the life of the junior assistant (Julia Garner, quietly riveting) to a New York City film producer of the Harvey Weinstein variety unfolds, we are witness to mundane office tasks, unnerving outbursts and a prime example of how not to conduct a Human Resources meeting. In her narrative feature debut, writer/director Kitty Green teaches a master class on the slow burn.

Honorable Mentions – The Next 10:
Why stop at just 10? In alphabetical order...

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm - Sacha Baron Cohen finally won me over with this razor-sharp, ripped-from-the-headlines satire co-starring 2020 "it girl" Maria Bakalova.

Boys State - The best of this year's many political documentaries isn't even about a real government, a good thing as no real one could be this engrossing and enthralling.

The Gentlemen - Guy Ritchie's rollicking crime caper features delicious turns from its all-star cast, especially Michelle Dockery, Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell.

Mank - David Fincher's homage to/dissection of "old Hollywood" by way of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), brought to life in gorgeous, glorious black and white.

A Secret Love - 2020's best LGBTQ movies were non-fiction, as seen in this bittersweet gem about the remarkable, decades-long romance of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon - Everyone's favorite Plasticine ovine-of-few-words returned for another outrageous outing, taking him to outer space and back.

Soul - Flavored with a heaping helping of NYC jazz, Pixar goes all existential in this imaginative Heaven Can Wait-meets-Nine Lives (?) fable.

Swallow - Haley Bennett is stunning as a woman obsessed with ingesting various knick-knacks as a means to cope with her crumbling psyche in this not-quite-horror horror film.

The Vast of Night - Moody and steadily unsettling, director Andrew Patterson's thrilling debut turns back the clock to a 1950s "Small Town, USA" on the evening of an extraordinary (extraterrestrial?) encounter.

Welcome to Chechnya - A harrowing, horrifying look into the atrocities inflicted upon gay and lesbian people in modern Russia is without a doubt a hard watch but an absolute must-see.

More Honorable Mentions – What the heck, here's another 10 to enjoy:

  • The international true crime/high crimes docs Assassins and The Dissident.
  • Gay faves The Boys and the Band and Uncle Frank, headlined by knock-out performances by Jim Parsons and Paul Bettany, respectively.
  • Gunda: Pigs is pigs.
  • The bittersweet Italian drama The Life Ahead, starring the legendary Sophia Loren and young newcomer Ibrahima Gueye.
  • Netflix and Frills: the fab biodoc Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado and the all-star, all-camp musical The Prom.
  • The charmingly offbeat indie dramedy Saint Frances.
  • Aaron Sorkin's timely take on The Trial of the Chicago 7, featuring a stellar ensemble including Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance and Jeremy Strong.

Streaming Guide:

  • Amazon Prime: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Uncle Frank and The Vast of Night
  • Apple TV+: Boys State and Wolfwalkers
  • Disney+: Soul
  • HBO Max: Welcome to Chechnya
  • Hulu: The Assistant, The Mole Agent and Nomadland (available February 19th)
  • Netflix: The Boys in the Band, The Life Ahead, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mank, Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, My Octopus Teacher, The Prom, A Secret Love, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon and The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Showtime: Driveways, The Gentlemen and Swallow
  • Starz: Saint Frances


By Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

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