A friend of mine shared a mantra with me recently that 2020 shouldn’t be the year where we dwell on what we’ve lost, but rather appreciate what we may have taken for granted. I feel that way about my year-end lists. Year after year, I offer a handful of sarcastic remarks about Top 10 lists and how trivial they are in summarizing the year in review. I will never ever ever say another bad thing about Top 10 lists ever again, because in addition to my social life, peace of mind, and general sanity, my Top 10 movies was yet another thing I had to say goodbye to in 2020 because I legitimately did not have enough movies to fill my Top 10.
I know, shocker. Hundreds of canceled premieres and rescheduled movie releases, you’d think something would pop up from all of the Netflix and chilling I’ve been doing this year. Sure, I could populate my list with the few blockbuster movies I caught earlier in the year, including The Call Of The Wild, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Bad Boys For Life (which actually wasn’t that bad for a threequel that nobody asked for). Unfortunately, I am a stickler when it comes to my lists, and I don’t rank a movie unless it truly deserves it, even if it’s during a pandemic.
Although many films were shelved this year due to theaters closing and movie releases being postponed, 2020 wasn’t completely barren. The remake of the horror classic The Invisible Man, for instance, ingeniously updated its material for the 21st-century with a feminist message that felt neither preachy nor on-the-nose, and Leigh Whannell offered some genuine scares through his brilliant use of framing and sleight-of-hand. Elizabeth Moss, likewise, offered a very impassioned performance that felt like she was experiencing a nightmare scenario from “The Handmaiden’s Tale.” Hell, even off-camera she still might have been.
Another film that was released in theaters before they were shut down was Pixar’s first fantasy adventure Onward, which tells the story of a pair of elven brothers venturing out to revive their father to share one last day with him. If Soul didn’t come out in December, I would have said Onward was the best animated film of 2020 and still think it’s a serious contender for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards next year (whenever that’s supposed to take place). It was nice to see Tom Holland and Chris Pratt share the screen again, especially after their triumphant return in last year’s Avengers Endgame.
But that wouldn’t be the last time I would see dear ol’ Tom as he would later return to my living room in the grim and eerie crime thriller The Devil All The Time. This phenomenal film directed by Antonio Campos featured Tom Holland in an all-star cast including Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska and several others as its characters pursue their versions of peace and enlightenment through extremely harrowing and violent methods. The film is based on a 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, but the film is so haunting and deeply disturbing that it feels like it was penned by Stephen King.
Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated science-fiction thriller Tenet released in theaters that same month to positive response but with sadly dismal box office numbers (again, thanks a lot coronavirus). And sure, while Tenet’s upside-down premise is literally and figuratively backwards and more confusing than a Darren Aronofsky picture, the visual effects were dazzling and had my jaw dropping more than a few times throughout the picture. I enjoyed getting to experience the fun of summer moviegoing again with Tenet, even though it was well into September and it wasn’t so much summer as it was a suffocating, masked-up fall.
Two war movies especially impressed me this year for very different reasons. The Outpost was a gritty and teeth-grinding retelling of the Battle of Kamdesh in 2009, and this pulse-pounding war epic was so high-octane and heart-racing that no other action thriller this year could match it (partially because the movie was so brilliant, partially because there were no action thrillers released this year). Special praise goes to filmmaker Rod Lurie, who hasn’t directed a high-profile production like this since 2011’s Straw Dogs remake, and Caleb Landry Jones for his heartfelt and soul-bearing performance as real-life specialist Ty Carter. If he doesn’t get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, next year’s already-delayed Oscars deserve to be boycotted.
The other war drama released this year was Spike Lee’s thought-provoking and moving war epic Da 5 Bloods, which shows its five black soldiers fighting two wars both in Vietnam and back in America. Spike Lee once again delivers a stylish and visually dazzling picture filled with emotion and gravitas, while Delroy Lindo provides a career-best performance as a veteran struggling with grief, regret, and PTSD. This movie is especially notable because it features Chadwick Boseman in one of his last film appearances before his tragic passing in August. He’ll be known to many as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and King T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. But for me, Stormin’ Norman will be one of his last great performances that I will admire deeply right alongside the others.
And amazingly enough, this year was also a great year for documentaries as well. Not only did The Social Dilemma give a brilliant breakdown on the many detriments of social media and Good Trouble gave an affectionate tribute to the late John Lewis’ civil rights history, but “Tiger King” gave us all a hilariously bizarre inside look at the life of tiger conservation and the very strange people and conspiracies surrounding that industry. I gotta say, when I heard the name “Joe Exotic” in 2016 before he announced his run for Oklahoma governor, I thought I would never hear his name again. 2020 showed me otherwise.
But of all of the movies streaming this year, my favorite undoubtedly goes to the historical courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, which shows Academy Award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin take a stab at the director’s chair in a brilliant and mesmerizing fashion. Sorkin directs an amazing all-star cast that includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an assortment of real-life figures that emerged during the Vietnam War protests in 1968. The movie isn’t just brilliant because of its smart writing, witty dialogue, modern parallels to current events, and great exercise of character development: the movie is also just plain entertaining. The fact that the movie can juggle so many tones of humorous, serious, and historical all at once and pull them all off so magnificently shows Sorkin’s potential as a director in his own right. If I were doing a formal Top 10 list as usual this year, The Trial of the Chicago 7 would be my number one hands down.
Other movies, of course, are trickling in through the streaming services this holiday season, whether it’s Soul with Disney+ or Wonder Woman 1984 with HBO Max. But really, the movies are changing in drastic ways right now to adjust to the time we’re living in, just like the rest of the world is. Hopefully next year will deliver some resemblance of normalcy and return to movie theaters, miles away from my couch and refrigerator.
– David Dunn