The Best Movies of 2020

The Top Ten

10. News of the World (IN THEATERS)

Tom Hanks is like chicken soup for the soul in 2020. Directed by Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, The Bourne Ultimatum), News of the World is a touching and timely western set during Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, when life for many was bereft of joy, tempers still ran high, and Union cadets patrolled most towns for rebel trouble. As a Brit, Greengrass possesses a unique point of view of the United States in his tale of a war vet traveling the country, reading the news for those who can’t read or don’t have the time or patience. We’re still fighting the same battles today, as echoed when Hanks’ Captain Kidd faces a bigoted egotist and opportunist threatening him over refusal to read aloud an unscrupulous local paper to his populist workers. “The fighting has to stop some time,” Kidd expresses wearily, followed by the bigot’s proclamation that people like him (white supremacists) will not yield until the country is “ours and ours alone.” It’s a chilling moment suggesting the Civil War never ceased fire, or simply went into hibernation until recently. Kidd is a widowed man beset by grief over a woman he left to fend for herself, over a war that has left so many penniless and our country so agitated. He finds purpose when he discovers on the road a young Indian girl twice orphaned. What begins as an obligation to deliver her from evil, to whisk her to the questionable safety of distant relatives, becomes an unbreakable oath and a familial bond between them that defies the barriers of language, blood, or cultural differences. News of the World is both a thrilling, classical example of the genre and an affecting examination of America’s forever ills.

9. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (NETFLIX)

The older you get, the more you realize how true the adage of “history repeats itself.” You realize it’s no longer just a pithy catchphrase but a reality of life as we know it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 was clearly intended, to some extent, to echo the trials and tribulations of the present. Little did Sorkin and co. know just how relevant their 1960’s period drama would turn out to be. Chicago 7 is both a Sorkin courtroom drama, focused on the searing broad strokes of such a monumental case, and a protest film designed to show us the moving chess pieces of an ongoing, decades-long culture war between the conservative right and two factions of the left: the progressive revolutionaries like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), focused on change through disruption, and the pragmatic Democrats like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), focused on change through winning elections. Sorkin’s sophomore film proves he’s quietly improving as a director. We all know his mastery of dialogue, words which flow like musical lyrics, but his command of meaningful, galvanizing editing has gone mostly unsung, and it’s an essential tool here in conveying the scope of history. As Bobby Seale, a Black Panther on trial, Yahya Abdul-Mateen is the angriest and most sympathetic person on screen, his seething rage palpable and relatable in this new age of racial tensions in America. Otherwise, the most powerful moments belong to Mark Rylance and his growing rebellion in the face of unending injustice. Chicago 7 is an urgent, entertaining call to arms against the auspices of American authoritarianism, and a call for peace between opposing left-wing points of view.

8. Promising Young Woman (IN THEATERS)

A firecracker of a Me Too feminist revenge film featuring a near-career-best performance by Carey Mulligan as a thirtysomething woman bent on making every douche and fake nice guy pay for their shady and predatory ways, all in the wake of a traumatic event years ago that recalls the very real Maryville’s and Steubenville’s of our world. Promising Young Woman signals an exciting new filmmaking voice in Emerald Fennell, somebody who’s not afraid of going for the jugular, of eschewing black-and-white moralizing for something more akin to Taxi Driver. This is a pitch-black rom-com and wicked thriller painted with pink, yellow, and bubble-gum blue, that gives new meaning to so many terrible stories and awful crimes committed in recent history. The title itself is an amusing riff on the label bestowed upon so many boys, the rapists who are often referred to as “promising young men” and therefore, according to our justice system, not deserving of prison time or other consequence that might “ruin their lives.” Fennell uses likable actors like Adam Brody and particularly comedian Bo Burnham for subversive ends, a narrative trap for the audience not unlike the one that Mulligan’s Cassandra sets for her bro prey at nightclubs and dance studios around town. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, with Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Allison Brie, Connie Britton, Sam Richardson, and Christopher Plasse providing ample comedy and, in some cases, surprising pathos. Sharply written, colorfully lensed, and sure to rankle more than a few who stumble upon it unexpectedly, Fennell’s debut film is a funny, gripping, musically uproarious (what a soundtrack!) catch for those willing to submit to its razor wit and frequent charm.

7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (NETFLIX)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an actor’s showcase and proof that stage directors can make that difficult career-death-defying leap from theatre to film. After a few disappointing outings, George C. Wolfe levels up and delivers unto us a powerful, glistening spectacle of wordplay and wonderful performances, musical and otherwise. You’ve already heard so much about Chadwick Boseman’s final screen performance, a livewire act of fire and brimstone and fierce confidence in himself that belies a tortured heart. A centerpiece monologue where he bellows at the heavens, daring the God that has forsaken him to strike him down where he stands, is the stuff of actor’s dreams, and Boseman’s ferocious commitment to such a moment speaks to what might’ve been itching in his very soul, screaming to get out somewhere. You haven’t heard as much of Viola Davis as the titular singer, and you should have, for she matches Boseman in dedication and startling charisma. Unlike Chadwick’s Levee, a man who chooses to smile his way to success (or try to anyway), to slyly kiss up to white folk for the opportunity at a future pittance, Ma Rainey is a freight train of talent and ego bulldozing her way to the top. She knows the only way to command respect from white society is to demand it, a lesson Levee must learn on his own. Davis lights up the screen, making us root for her and laugh with her even as her diva ways threaten to derail her. She delivers the greatest leading lady performance of 2020.

6. Swallow (HULU)

My gag reflex is notorious for anybody who’s ever called themselves my dentist or doctor. There’s a strong resistance to the very thought of gagging, a powerful notion that induces the feeling itself when provoked, even by imagery. So it goes that Swallow, the excellent feature directorial debut from Carlo Davies, is such a provocateur. An astute psychological thriller, Swallow announces Davies as clearly a director to keep an eye on for the foreseeable future. His little film gets under your skin and, once it’s found a creepy home for itself, reveals itself to be a stunning character study about gender roles, marital suffocation, and hereditary trauma. Haley Bennett is Hunter, a kept woman whose only purpose to her insensitive, distracted husband seems to be cooking, cleaning, and bearing a child. With family baggage of her own in tow, it’s no wonder she succumbs to pica, an eating disorder that compels her to swallow inedible and inanimate objects. The suspense is nearly unbearable watching Hunter slowly decide to and then swallow a marble, and eventually much worse. Bennett is a revelation, capable of moments that are subtle and showy, sobering and harrowing. When Hunter finally chooses herself and uncovers her own trauma, it’s some of the most riveting cinema I’ve seen all year. A duet scene with Denis O’Hare is unexpectedly stirring, as she seeks out a man from her mother’s past who might have the answers she’s looking for. The film’s final shot, a feminist statement so simple yet so invigorating, is an ode to women everywhere.

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