2020 is over, and though it wasn’t the best of film years, it wasn’t the worst of film years. There were many diamonds in the rough of our relatively lacking pop culture landscape.
Disclaimer: I have yet to see Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, so many thanks go to Searchlight and their Oscar-hungry choice to release it in late February. One of my wishes for this new year of our lord is that studios treat moviegoers, not movie critics (whether it’s people like myself or people with more clout), as the preeminent audience for their baity products.
The Honorable Mentions
14. Love & Monsters (ON DEMAND)
Love & Monsters filled a void I didn’t know was there at the time: the light-hearted science-fiction fantasy epic full of funny moments, romance, and plenty of feels. If Maze Runner didn’t already make it clear, Dylan O’Brien asserts himself here as one of the most appealing leading men today with a creative, incredibly likable performance that isn’t quite a one-man show, but it comes close. Aided by a stellar, intermittent supporting cast including Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, and Ariana Greenblatt, O’Brien and South African director Michael Matthews ground and enliven what could’ve been another post-apocalyptic YA piece of fluff. Instead it’s a moving, enthralling boy-and-his-dog adventure (and boy-and-his-long-lost-love story) with emotional depth, great special effects, and some of the creepiest, most realistic on-screen monsters in some time. There are gargantuan creatures based on frogs, fire ants, slugs, and fierce centipedes, as well as other mysteries like “sand gobblers.” Fingers crossed every which way that this would-be blockbuster eked out enough moolah on-demand to deliver us a much-needed sequel. There’s a brief glimpse of a pock-marked hive on the face of a perilous cliff, so give me some giant wasps in the next film and pronto.
13. Buffaloed (HULU)
A blue-collar, female-first Wolf of Wall Street, and nearly as good as such a comparison might imply. This, not Palm Springs nor Eurovision, is the funniest movie of the year. Zoey Deutch proves herself a powerful comic performer and legitimately great actress as Peggy, a hustler in Buffalo, New York with designs on a brighter future outside of her run-down hometown. A bit of trouble begets crippling debt, and so the greatest hustler in Buffalo becomes the greatest debt collector this side of the Falls, utilizing her gift for gab to improve her precarious station in life, even if it means taking advantage of poor folk just like her former self. Prolific Judy Greer is given some meaty poor mother blues to chew on for once and Jai Courtney has apparently found his groove as a squirrelly character actor who takes to surly scoundrels, here riotous as a smarmy, sexist rival of Peggy’s on her way up the collector ladder. Deutch is a fiery ball of energy, lightning in a bottle that would be powering this entire enterprise were it not for some stylish directing on display by relative newcomer Tanya Wexler. Buffaloed is an excellent, incisive takedown of late stage capitalism through the lens of East Coast debt empires, a subculture that feeds on the hungry.
12. The Gentlemen (ON DEMAND)
Guy Ritchie had sold his soul a wee bit when tackling the mediocre re-imagining of King Arthur or the terrible reboot of Aladdin. The Gentlemen is a welcome return to form, a return to quick wit, scintillating dialogue, quirky Cockney comedy, and splashes of violence. This is the Guy Ritchie where men and women, great actors and cool character actors, preen and mug for screen time in the best way possible, where energy and affable monologues come together to produce criminal drama that almost rivals the best of Quentin Tarantino. Tackling the marijuana biz, a money machine threatened at the precipice of legalization, Ritchie has corralled a charismatic band of global thespians with such clout and on-screen chemistry that we’re riveted in spite of familiar genre trappings. How do you frown at Colin Farrell, finally allowed to bellow his Irish brogue, easily dispensing with a gaggle of local hooligans? How do you sneer at Hugh Grant having the time of his life as an unscrupulous PI trying to wiggle his way into some millions of dollars, gifted an entire script’s worth of enjoyable banter with Charlie Hunnam? Apparently, plenty of critics who aren’t quite taken anymore with such masculine brouhaha. Add Matthew McConaughey, Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery to the mix, and you’ve got a muscular exercise in frivolity and one of the best gangster pictures in years.
11. Da 5 Bloods (NETFLIX)
Da 5 Bloods is one big welcome-back for one of Hollywood’s most under-sung, an ode from Spike Lee to one of his oldest friends, Delroy Lindo, and a hair-raising tale of war-time trauma, capitalist encroachment, and what decades of disappointment can rain upon men at their worst. Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr, and Norm Lewis are a cadre of Vietnam vets traveling to their old shooting grounds in search of buried treasure and to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. Tackling PTSD, colonialism, and Trumpism, Lee is wondering aloud about what happens to veterans, specifically black veterans, when they’ve grown old and discovered their glory days were all for nothing? Lindo’s Paul is his answer, a MAGA hat-wearing wild card whose resentment has metastasized over the years into something resembling a mental break. Paul’s journey is heartbreaking and eventually leads to an extended, lonely monologue through the jungle that instantly places Lindo on the shortlist for Best Actor. Bloods is also an elegy in hindsight for the late, great Chadwick Boseman as a brash, honorable, well-spoken troop leader who for these men was Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in one body before his untimely fate. Boseman is a beacon of light, a charismatic memory of what was and will never be again. He speaks as if channeling heaven itself, and might be more impressive here than in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
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