by Philip Price
First up is the movie that took me the most by surprise this year; my most unexpected, but one of the most stunning experiences of the year: Jessica Swale's “Summerland.” In a year that saw an uptick in LGBTQ friendly shows and films from Netflix docs like “A Secret Love” to Netflix original films and shows like “The Boys in the Band,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and “The Half of It,” to Hulu's “Happiest Season,” Amazon's “Uncle Frank,” and not to mention the likes of “Ammonite” and countless others I'm likely forgetting, but it was “Summerland” that somehow flew completely under the radar. The point is, there was a bounty of representative content available this year, which is fantastic, but I highlight “Summerland” almost as a way of simply notifying those interested that they may have missed a real gem. As a sucker for these small, stuffy little British dramedies it's possible my pick comes with a certain amount of preference, but the film honestly caught me off guard with how much it impacted me on an emotional level. Set during World War II, the film follows an Englishwoman, Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), as she opens her heart to an evacuee after initially resolving to get rid of him in this deceptively simple wartime drama/romance that deals in life and if the risks taken and heartbreak endured along the way were worth the moments of magic.
9. The Invisible Man
Though it might not be saying as much as it would in your typical movie-going year, “The Invisible Man” was far and away my favorite theater-going experience of the year though this isn't the sole reason it lands in my top 10. Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s (“Upgrade”) contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic monster movie casts Elisabeth Moss in the lead as a suppressed, but capable woman stuck in an abusive, controlling relationship who - even when she escapes her brutal fiancé - has a difficult time accepting this freedom due to the nature of her life as it was. Moss' Cecilia Kass sees her worst fears come true as her fiancé continues to terrorize her even after it's been reported he killed himself. Slowly cutting ties with every person in her support system and painting Cecilia as a psychotic, “The Invisible Man” is most frightening as a critical look at manipulation in a relationship and the power this allows not only for one person to have over another, but how this sense of control manifests in other’s perception of who you are: leaving Moss' character in particular with large amounts of self-doubt and a severe lack of trust. “The Invisible Man” might not break any new ground as far as story or scares go, but it does what it intends so well that it's difficult to deny the effectiveness of the monster or the message.
Though arguments will be made over how to classify Steve McQueen's “Small Axe” anthology series there is no denying the first track of the record, “Mangrove,” is feature film through and through and not only that, but it's easily one of the best films of the year. Each of McQueen's entries in this project have something unique to offer, but it's truly a shame Shaun Parkes won't be taking home an Oscar for his performance here. Never mind the fact the entirety of the performance is mesmerizing, but the man deserves a statue for the single shot that remains on his Frank Crichlow as the jury reads the verdicts for both him and the remainder of the Mangrove Nine. It's astonishing, breathtaking, and all the adjectives that might hope to accurately describe the greatness that can't truly be captured with words. Chronicling the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police, “Mangrove” is every bit as much a call for justice as it is a commentary on the explicit inequalities of the world. Despite being one part of a larger series, “Mangrove” conveys its vitality with the quality and skill of any other Steve McQueen film. The cast is first-rate, the period detail is on point, with as much being true of every other contributing department, but it's the antithetical tone of the environment within Crichlow's Mangrove restaurant that populates the first half of the film and that of the tone inside the courtroom throughout the second half of the film that is most effective in defining McQueen's central thesis which is more a question of why it's so hard for those with all to make room for those with less.
7. The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson's audacious debut made the festival rounds last year, but after debuting on Amazon Prime on May 29th of 2020 it quickly became the first big streaming hit of quarantine and a staple of a year not soon to be forgotten. Made for less than $1 million in true DIY-fashion, Patterson’s film draws inspiration from the likes of “The Twilight Zone” and ‘50s science fiction staples like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “The Vast of Night” unfolds over a single night as town folks root for the home team at a high school basketball game, while our two brainy leads, radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), band together to track down strange, unidentifiable noises, arguing about whether they’re alien or not. I’ve watched “The Vast of Night” three times now and besides Patterson’s impressive control over his narrative, his characters, and his camera what continues to be the most impressive and haunting aspect of the film is its ability to deal in the sorrows of loss and mythical and mysterious places our minds can take us in our loneliness. The extended scenes of dialogue bring us into these worlds where partial ignorance is bliss for, to have full clarity, is to recognize the inability to go on with purpose or a sense of relief. As stated, it's a haunting series of scenes that will mesmerize some and completely bewilder (or possibly irritate) others, but I'm firmly in the former category.
6. Palm Springs
If you've been reading this site for any period of time, you'll know re-watchability is a huge factor for me and in my number six spot is the movie I had the most fun experiencing this year while also being the film I'll likely re-visit the most over the years to come. The feature directorial debut of Max Barbakow, “Palm Springs” is best viewed with no idea whatsoever as to what it's about but given this arrived on Hulu back in early July and - much like with “The Vast of Night” - quickly became a streaming staple of the quarantine summer, the chance one has completely avoided spoilers is slight. Still, in the interest of those looking to lists for suggestions on movies they might seek out we'll keep the synopsis around “Palm Springs” limited. Carefree Nyles (an electrifying and charming Andy Samberg) and a reluctant maid of honor, Sarah (a revelatory Cristin Milioti), have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding where things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. In spite of what you may or may not think of the central "gimmick" Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara use it in such a fresh and exciting fashion that not only conveys the grounded and sobering themes in an effective fashion, but also delivers as a whole a more well-balanced and genuinely heartfelt film than some of these year-end dramas whose entire purpose is as much.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead
Though I'm for one reason or another often hesitant to include documentaries in my year-end top 10 lists, I can honestly say without any reservation this list would not be complete without “Dick Johnson is Dead.” From what I've seen, 2020 turned out to be quite the year for non-fiction filmmaking and while a complete list of the best documentaries of the year would seemingly be easier to make than ever (thanks to the wealth of options, not because there are so few of quality) there's no denying that “Dick Johnson is Dead” would be near if not at the top of those lists as well. Made in order to relieve if not necessarily alleviate Dick's fear of death and his daughter's fear of losing him, “Dick Johnson is Dead” may very well be the most moving film I saw all year. Yes, “Summerland” is stunning, “The Invisible Man” thrilling, Mangrove completely rapturous, ‘Vast of Night’ haunting and inspiring, with “Palm Springs” being exceedingly reaffirming, but as far as sheer power and impact on my own personal life it is Kirsten Johnson's film that will resonate the most and remain a touchstone for the rest of my days. Johnson seems to have wanted to make a film about her father who had been diagnosed with dementia, and tackle conversations with him about his decline and death, while also celebrating his life, all before he was too far gone. It is in the ever-evolving approach and the fact it’s presented with as much transparency and candor as death itself that Johnson's inventive portrait succeeds in keeping a piece of her father alive forever.
Chloé Zhao's “Nomadland” chronicles a year in the life of a woman whose world is dying and her journey to discover a new one. While most will know Zhao's name soon enough for directing Marvel's “The Eternals” it is her documentary-like approach to fictional material that will seemingly carry over no matter the brand she applies it to. What is critical to be noted about this latest endeavor from Zhao however is that her stylistic approach is one that requires a certain level of patience and attention, but as with most things that are worth investing time and effort in if one is able to give those things over to the film completely what it delivers is more than a rewarding experience - it's a cathartic one. Such praise is heaped upon the film with caution, mind you, as “Nomadland” is also a film about both everything and nothing. It's a movie difficult to describe to people in terms of why it carries the weight it does as it would appear to be little more than a road movie from the outside looking in. The film creates this sense of grand discussion and deep reflection while appearing to be as mundane an artistic endeavor as the people it chronicles. McDormand's performance is as reassuring as ever, but its these portraits Zhao paints of those the grind has forgotten that give the film a sense of hope without ever romanticizing its notions.
3. Bad Education
It's been argued my number three pick is a "TV Movie", but this is a feature film among feature films that debuted on HBO after a premiere at 2019's Toronto International Film Festival and it's 2020, so I'll do as I please and I'm begging you all to consider this: Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” is easily one of the best films of the year. Briskly paced and increasingly engaging with every turn, “Bad Education” is a cautionary tale of people with genuine ambition who take real initiatives to implement plans on top of plans to present how successful they are only to convince themselves they deserve more than their annual salaries allow. It's about people attempting to validate themselves within a system that inherently minimizes their overall contribution to the world. “Bad Education” is both a testament to the unsung heroes of the education system and a call to hold those in positions of power responsible for the power they've been granted. What makes the film so satisfying though, is that it somehow manages this balance in an even fashion by becoming a character study of the multi-faceted superintendent Frank Tassone as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Rafael Cassel and Geraldine Viswanathan co-star from a script by Mike Makowsky (who attended the school where the real events occurred). Composer Michael Abels also delivers one of the best scores of the year here.
2. Sound of Metal
The story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a very human, very grounded, and largely - a very cleansing one - but as presented through this veritable style of director Darius Marder and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, Ruben's tale takes on what feel like mythic qualities...turning it into more than just a story, but a parable. While not your traditional parable as told by Jesus in the Gospels, “Sound of Metal” is a rawer approach to that age old serenity prayer that people repeat to remind themselves of the influence they have over the occurrences in their life on earth. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In the film, Ruben comes face to face with a reality he can neither control nor accept. As a drummer for a two-piece metal band seemingly on the cusp of bigger and better things the sense of sound is one of the most critical aspects of Ruben's life. So, when the feedback becomes more consistent, the ringing doesn't stop even after a night's rest post-gig, and the frequency of other people's voices becomes so inaudible that everyone begins to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher he knows he can't ignore the issue and he knows it won't magically go away no matter how much he needs it to. Ruben runs headfirst into the question of how does one preserve the hearing they have left when they can’t preserve themselves without it? The rest of “Sound of Metal” explores as much and presents both a completely devastating yet strangely calming experience around Ruben's plight.
Though only playing in a limited theatrical run at the moment with plans for a wider release in February, “Minari” is my number one film of the year. Based largely on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences of being of Korean descent and moving to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the 1980's in order for his family to start anew and his father to start a farm, “Minari” is a very personal story and therefore undoubtedly includes what must be several specific details that transport Chung back to what he likely remembers as a very brief, but meaningful time in his life. Chung's screenplay and eventual film make sure to include a very specific level of detail while never zeroing in on any of these ultimately allowing the cumulative effect to relay why Minari is not only a story of the American experience as seen through the lens of Korean heritage, but simply a story of the American experience, maybe even the most American of experiences. In short, “Minari” blew me away. Every character is so well-realized, every piece of dialogue so meaningful, with the structure and pacing embodying further perfection. I absolutely loved it...and I promise it has nothing to do with me having lived in Arkansas and having felt like an outsider for the majority of my life. OK, maybe a little bit, but it's still the best movie of the year regardless.
You can read more of Philip Price's reviews at ReviewsFromaBed.com