(This article is part of our Best of 2020 series.)
2020 was strange to say the least. Venturing to the cinema was largely not a thing. Much of the film industry struggled to find solid footing. From delayed projects, to rescheduled premieres, to unprecedented straight-to-streaming releases, and a whole lot of uncertainty, the year still managed to give us quite a few notable titles. Animated films, the comic book cannon, bio pics, period pieces, and all the would-be heavy-hitters still found signs of life. And for that, as move goers, we are grateful. In the end we were still able to piece together a memorable year of motion pictures.
Of course, given all the aforementioned stuff, I didn’t catch as many flicks as I’d have liked. (Still eager to catch Promising Young Woman and Miss Juneteenth.) Even still, there were five movies that stood above the rest for me.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
One of America’s finest modern writers collides with two herculean talents. It should come as no surprise August Wilson’s work lends itself to a damn near perfect film representation. Captured by longtime theatre luminary, George C. Wolf, and anchored by titanic performances from the late Chadwick Boseman (in his career best form) and the incomparable Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is most certainly one of the year’s finest films for both all the reasons you’d expect and for reasons that catch us by surprise.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the lyrical electricity that pops off the screen. The playground of Boseman’s monologue delivery and Wilson’s impeccably grounded, American dialogue curates for us an experience that feels almost as kinetic as it would feel on stage. Davis herself commands the screen in the way that only she can accomplish; shouldering the sense of mythical status within the narrative. And yet, not a single detail is missed. From the tattered floor boards in the band’s practice room; to the perfectly of their time costumes that were just glamorous enough without sacrificing the “I’ve worn this many times” sort of look; to the greater tragedy of the locked door; to the full scale production design — all of it speaks to a greater atmosphere that feels sizable even though we rarely leave the two main rooms of the studio.
A tragedy in three parts between Boseman’s Levee swinging for the fences and getting in his own way; Ma Rainey’s calloused heart from years of industry disrespect; and the haunting legacy of genius black talent falling through the cracks of a system designed to screw them out of every opportunity.
We rise and we fall with the Shakespearean treatment of Levee and his blind ambition. We’re swooned and despaired by the luminous and voluptuous presence of Ma Rainey herself. Though we be but contained to a single studio on a single afternoon, we journey hard through the jazz.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a heart-shattering triumph of raw, American storytelling. A rare triumph indeed.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Perhaps man’s biggest fear isn’t death but rather living an uninteresting life unworthy of love. Terribly bleak but a wildly fascinating truth nonetheless. But, what are we to expect if not that from Charlie Kaufman? As one of the more creatively eccentric writers in Hollywood, Kaufman has fashioned a successful career out of exploring the staggering inadequacies yet subtle yearnings of man. But not just any “man”, more specifically, white men with big ambitions and debilitating self-sabotage. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the latest in the canon of unkempt, quirky Kaufman but, ironically, is carried by the surreal, subversive presence of Lucy … or is it Lucia, or Ames? Either way, Jessie Buckley delivers one of the year’s most staggering performances. Jesse Plemons, as we’ve grown accustomed, earns his weight in true nuanced fashion as well.
What starts as an innocent trip for Amy … (or is it Lousia?) to meet her boyfriend’s family slowly becomes an interrogation of psyche and personal ambition. A thriller of sorts but not in the strictest sense. Thrust in the middle of a violent blizzard, we see these two(?) characters diverge into a series of random(?) and paranoid interactions. Oh, there’s also big musical energy (Oklahoma!) and a sad janitor too. But don’t worry, it all makes sense … sort of.
As a fable (or cautionary tale?) ultimately about his character’s stifling mediocrity, Plemons’ clenched fist yet tender earnestness threads the needle of a flawed, unbecoming protagonist beautifully. We still somehow find ourselves rooting for him through the cacophony of stolen jargon, unoriginal philosophical quips, uneven interactions, disjointed continuity, and seemingly confusing connection. Perhaps the biggest achievement is Kaufman’s ability to curate connection through lengthy scenes of two people in a car. As we’ve grown to love from Kaufman’s bended pen, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not just film but enveloping experience.
Sound of Metal
This movie hurt. But not in the way you’d expect.
Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben; a heavy-metal summer who doesn’t have much. Low on money; a less than pristine RV; and suffering from hearing loss. What follows is a slow, gripping descent into deafness and a desperate desire to belong.
On the surface it’s easy to see this title as another indie character study. From the first frame to the breathtaking closing shot, there’s no doubt who the film belongs to. Riz Ahmed anchors the narrative with such raw, tender humanity it teeters on the edge of being too fragile, but never loses focus. A role that’d be too showy and too shallow in the hands of many others. His venture, however, is a masterclass.
But what breaks the viewer is the loss of community. Underneath the gritty moments of unhinged emotion, the grainy camera tones, and the hefty silence rests an unyielding search for communal connection. In true devastating fashion, Ruben loses his footing just as he’s awakened to a new, profound identity. And that moment of shattering discovery; the moment of irreparable loss, not of the hearing but of losing his people and newfound sense of self, delivers a hell of a blow. Not with a shout, mind you; but with a subtle look of bitter defeat and the silent sounds of a saddened mentor signing “goodbye”.
Sound of Metal is a textbook experience in one sense and a stunning display of honest filmmaking in another. Either way, it’s one that, for all the right reasons, won’t leave you easily.
Birds of Prey
Harley’s breakfast sandwich sequence alone is worthy of an Oscar. That single moment captures the wild but true-to-form characterization alongside the exaggerated but tactile tone that makes Birds of Prey so wonderful. The lead-up; the longing gaze; the anticipation that this singular thing will be perfect; the camera work; the “you can almost taste it” factor; the slow-mo; and the bitter, bitter heartbreak. It’s all there and it’s all so perfectly Harley.
And, of course, hijinx of the dirty and bloody persuasion ensue.
In a cinematic season marked by disruption and disappointment, Birds of Prey offered us a balm of sinister, campy, prestige level comic book fun. A title packing as much laughter as incredible action sequences. A wild testament to an archaic infamous character and her crew of equally bad-ass, devilish divas. Cathy Yan toed that balance to a near flawless degree. We journey with Harley and her pet hyena on a journey of off-kilter self-discovery and community. Also, a lot of people die. What more would we want from the likes of one Harley Quinn?
Birds of Prey succeeds where many comic book flicks fail — capturing a unique blend of self-awareness meets high octane entertainment. Just enough of a wink to the audience that we’re in on the joke but never sloppy and always engaging to the nth degree. Pound-for-pound, this one is every bit as good as it’s top-tier comic counterparts. And, it gave us Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor facing-off in fabulous fashion. So, yes, Birds of Pretty is absolutely Top 5 worthy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to grab a breakfast sandwich.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is an all-or-nothing director. In terms of messaging, there’s never any doubt what he’s aiming for … and that’s why we love him. He sets at the intersection of bringing unacknowledged truth to light thru the impaired vehicles of operatic displays and greek tragedy. The corner of grand and honest is his cinematic neighborhood.
When we remember that, Da 5 Bloods begins to take shape. Thru the lens of the Vietnam conflict, Lee crafts not so much a war film as a sweeping exploration of personal demons and the bonds of friendship that put those demons to test. Through vivid memory, fractured reality, and a guttural sense of purpose, Da 5 Bloods interrogates the notion of the “American dream”. And, as expected, all the vintage Spike Lee notes are hit.
As an ensemble, the film holds nothing back. From the late Chadwick Boseman as the fallen but not forgotten troop leader, to Jonathan Majors’ keen sense of ruffled innocence, to Delroy Lindo’s titanic display, the cast represents perhaps the best collection of talent of the year. Especially with Lindo in full emotional form, we’ve been gifted a tragically fascinating character arc that may be unmatched throughout the decade. His turn as the deeply wronged but dangerously prideful Paul is the sort of rare achievement most careers aspire to find. Brilliant by every account.
Though the dialogue suffers from unnecessary moments of heavy-handedness, the energy cuts deep; the relationships fluctuate in kinetic fashion; and the overall impact of the film lingers. It may not be Lee’s finest, but it delivers in grand, visceral fashion. And the force of Delroy Lindo is enough to vault Da 5 Bloods into must-see status.
How does this list stack-up? What titles from 2020 crack your Top 5?