The 10 Best Movies of 2020

This decade can only go up from here!

Behind the Scenes still from Mank

The day was Saturday, February 15th. I had made my way into a rather weird, sold out screening of Sonic the HedgeHog. I justified these actions by wanting to support the CGI artists who had to change Sonic’s entire look after the internet cyberbullied the initial Sonic look. When the lights came up, and the facade faded, little did I know that would be the last time I set foot into a movie theater until the end of August. 3 weeks later, the harsh and traumatic reality of the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the United States. Movie theaters all across the world were shuddered for the foreseeable future. The movie business was in limbo. Distributors had no idea what to do with their smaller movies or giant tentpole movies. Delay them until it’s safe to go back into a movie theater, or dump them on demand? Due to the overwhelming nature of the pandemic, some of the potential best movies of 2020 were delayed until 2021: Dune, No Time to Die, The Green Knight, Zola, etc.

However, even with the downright awful year that was 2020, it was still capable of giving us some great gems. From 2 movies where Pete Davidson played himself, to Adam Sandler playing yet another version of himself, movies were able to survive somehow. Now since The Academy pushed back the submission date til the end of February for the 2021 Oscars, I was unable to view some of the better movies of 2020 since I am not good enough for private screeners. Because of this, I am breaking my “only movie role” and in doing so, added in anything that was published on Letterboxd in 2020. So, that includes TV specials, made for TV movies, and so on.

Without further ado, here are my 10 Best Movies of 2020!

*SPOILERS FOR ALL MOVIES MENTIONED*

  • ALSO I HAVE TO REPEAT MY MESSAGE EVERYWHERE: DO NOT MAKE A WORST OF LIST, THEY ARE POINTLESS AND STUPID. THAT DOESN’T FURTHER THE CONVERSATION OF THINKING CRITICALLY OF MOVIES, YOU ARE JUST A BAD PERSON*
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10. Boys State

Directed by Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine

Don’t ever worship politicians. They are not there to help you. They do not care about you. Politicians are given a position in power because large companies buy them over with PACs and SUPERPACS. Their best interests are what lies in wherever large sum amounts of money come from. Bernie Sanders is not a lovable grandpa. Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer, but he is still someone you shouldn’t list as a personal hero. Look at the past year during the pandemic. These politicians knew very well, better than the general public, what was coming. And they did nothing. While they made a full salary (and then some!), Americans struggled to provide a single meal for themselves.

If you want the best look at the current and future times of American Politics, look no further than Boys State. What is the Boys State however? In a sense, it there are two separate categories: American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State. They are summer leadership and citizenship programs for high school juniors, which focus on exploring the mechanics of American government and politics.

Instead of having commentary on the topics that are talked about, Boys State shows the more toxic side of getting into positions of power. Themes of sabotage, influence, and morality are all evident. Sometimes it’s not even what they’re saying that’s important, it’s about getting into the heads of their audience and manipulating them into agreeing with what they have to say. There’s one boy in particular that stands out because he seems to be the only one who grasps the true, underlying concepts about how to become a true politician. Throughout his campaigning, he gains the trust of the more conservative side of the event by explaining how he is pro gun, anti abortion, and is pro capitalism. During one of his interviews, he explains how he views the American political spectrum. He said in order to get into politics, you have to lie about your beliefs. He confesses most of his conservative views were outright lies. In a complete 180, he says he is actually pro gun control, pro choice, and agrees with certain concepts about socialism. The kid realized the audience (deep in the heart of red Texas), and manipulated and lied his way to the top.

There are certain liberals out there that see this movie and say “this gives me hope for American politics”. In actuality, it shouldn’t. The only two redeemable boys featured in this doc, Steven Garta and René Otero end up as losers. They lost. The conservative boys who fear mongered and used Trump like tactics one. The good guys never win. In a world where that generation is being viewed as “the ones that will redeem American politics” and still end up losing should strike fear into most Americans. The influence Donald Trump has had on American Democracy is palpable. It’s far reaching, touching every generation from your grandparents, to the up and coming teenagers who are looking to make it in Washington DC. This is a pessimistic view into the future of American politics, a horror movie about what is to come.

9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Directed by Eliza Hittman

The way men are portrayed in this is thoroughly through the lense of the main character, Autumn. Silence speaks volumes, but only to those who understand the language. The men who take up space in Autumn’s world don’t speak it. They judge her silence, project meaning on to it, but they don’t meaningfully interpret it how her cousin, her mother, and her medical professionals do. No monolithic experience of womanhood exists, but there is common ground that women walk on as they move through life. Autumn throws out a familiar set of vague answers to the variety of questions that come her way — not a particularly talkative character in any moment of her life. Her silence, though, is an active one. It exists under pressure, under an intense weight: the fear of apathy in response to vulnerability. Her silence is glaringly obvious to those who understand it, and I cannot tell you how emotionally satisfying it is to see that expression be understood. She doesn’t answer the question, yet the answer is understood.

On the contrasting side, the majority of women Autumn comes across in this movie are an antithesis to the males. When they boomed up to show a counselor holding autumn’s hand, or gently stroking her cheek, or brushing her hair out of her face.. i was so overwhelmed my eyes kept filling up. and then autumn absorbing that as a form of comfort & offering her cousin her hand when she needed it, out of sight but still making her presence known. a sign of “you are safe”.

The movie apprehends the authenticity of a populated city, and Hittman’s prudently passive tones that preside over the length and breadth of its runtime to the work of cinematographer Hélène Louvart facilitates the rough and uneven world. Flanigan’s excellent performance, and also that of Talia Ryder as her cousin Skylar, make the movie genuinely poignant and their exchanged glances are indicative of the depths of their friendship. This is a movie which harnesses its incendiary political topic and weighty subject matter triumphantly.

8. Soul

Directed by Peter Docter

There’s a barbershop scene in this movie and it’s the most Beautifully animated piece of art ive ever seen in my life. Holy shit

In his review, David Ehrlich said this movie is “fun and clever in a ‘Pixar wants what Don Hertzfeldt has’ kind of way” which is ironic because Dan Hertzfeldt has built his career on trying to achieve what Pixar has created (most specifically Pete Docter). I like Hertzfeldt a lot, but just because something is more abstract and pretentious doesn’t make it better 😌. I could continue this shit post about why I think David Erhlich is everything that’s wrong with modern art criticism, but the power this movie has is far better than anything Erhlich could ever write about. The animation is beyond words, the themes rich with acceptance of oneself, and your very own passions. What many modern Pixar movies lack is a type of soul. A good story is there but it’s main priority is to tug at one's heartstrings. This is……something that is top tier Pixar. Right when i think the company was over the hill, they pull me right back in. This is a stellar piece of filmmaking, and the best animation movie since Spider-Verse.

Soul is an experience, a revelation, a declaration of love for the things that matter. The entire movie lulled my senses and took me on a journey. A movie so warm that its wonderful score and unique animations can only make you smile, and a story that shows you that even the very smallest things in life make it special. The movie is like a motivational quote on a mug added to a great whole, and shows once again that animated movies can show more than real-life adaptations.

A common criticism that I’ve seen surrounding the discourse is that the main character spends a majority of the movie outside of his own body. I feel like the purpose of this aspect flew over the heads of the audience. Towards the end of the 2nd Act, Joe Gardner (as a cat) tells 22 (who is embodying Joe) to “stop experiencing life through my body, my eyes” which interpreted as society appropriating black culture, latching onto POC culture rather than living their own lives. I could be very wrong, but that is simply how I understood that scene. It makes sense within the broader context of the movie leading up to that point.

Oh, and Pete Docter is PIXARs guy, so Disney don’t you dare scoop him up for a shitty live action remake of Sleepy Beauty or some shit like that 🥴🥴🥴🥴

Also the Knicks just can’t catch a break 😭😭😭

7. Another Round

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

A movie in which we witness Mads Mikkelsen dive deeper and deeper into the depths of severe alcoholism with his homies. The basic premise is as follows: four teachers test a theory that man is born with half a per mille too little and thus suffer the various pleasures and consequences of being constantly drunk and the challenges it brings to their lives.

Director Thomas Vinterberg’s honest portrayal of alcoholism is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve only witnessed alcoholism from afar, so I can spoke only those views. Another Round depicts both the pleasures of alcohol while showcasing the dire consequences it can have on one's personal life (marriage) and work. The movie puts you through the ringer. Joy, happiness, excitement, that’s all there. However, dred, sorrow and depression follow in it’s footsteps. These four teachers journey through their increasing level of intoxication and experience the various downsides of how it can affect their livelihood. Alcoholism isn’t something Another Round messes with, it shows both the shear happiness and slumbering sorrows that can come with it and subverts your expectations with its focus on brotherhood, friendship and ultimately grief from all parties as the story goes on. It’s not a movie to be taken lightly, the themes, focuses and plots that occur throughout the movie are ones to be taken seriously.

In a year full of death, trauma, sadness and so on, the ending leaves an optimistic viewpoint on life. Movies in 2020 seemed almost bleak, where the protagonists are left without the answers they were seeking. At the end of the line, there is no hope, no 2nd chances, just a dead end. However, right as Another Round begins to pull fully on the heart strings of the viewer, a few texts messages and a celebration creates this feel of optimism. Where Mads and his lads are left with their bad decisions, a glimmer of hope comes around. After receiving a text from his (presumed) ex wife about wanting to try again, a light shimmers in Mads eyes. The final 5 minutes we see a man let loose, one who lets go of all his baggage and trauma, and has a moment of pure joy to himself. He dances in the streets, cartwheels around the ledge to a bay, and finally seems to be enjoying himself without the fear of repercussions.

6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

A non compatible relationship where the parents are bat shit crazy, a gaslighting boyfriend taking his girlfriend to an uncomfortable place where things can only get worse and worse? And I thought Midsommar came out last year!

I have a very difficult relationship with Kaufman. Very rarely do writers make good directors (i.e. Aaron Sorkin), and I was not a fan of Synecdoche, New York. However, what Kaufman possesses is something that will always spark my interest: a depressed white man making movies.

Long, existential conversations about the philosophical ways of life sounds a lot like the typical cis male script from a UNCSA student. However, Kaufman pulls me in via the tension and polish of his script that left me wanting to know what happens next, why the relationship ends and how two people just are not compatible at anyway in life. The two leads, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemmons, hold continuous conversation after conversation, but there is no connection between the two of them. They struggle to agree on views of life and family, how relationships works and so on. They aren’t made out to be a good couple, but a trait of toxic living between each other. Just two people who happen to have come across one another.

Life goes by and by, and we as humans have barely any time to reflect on the events of living. The main character of the movie is neither Buckley or Plemmons, but the janitor at the school. As he slowly cleans the school, washes the floors and watched a Robert Zemeckis movie, he ponders his entire life, his existence and how he has gotten to that point in his life. Buckley’s character is a hypothetical girl in his life that he wanted. But I think as his memory slowly begins to recollect his life, he soon realizes that the girl of his dreams isn’t someone like Buckley. The janitor views himself as an incompatible male, a person who will die alone. His overzealous characterization if his parents are a front as to why he had no one in his life. Everything Buckley’s character did in her life, was actually Plemmons. The movie values repeat viewings, a deep critical thought of what it means to live, and to be alive.

5. 8:46

Performed by Dave Chappelle

It was the very beginning of June. I was suppose to be in LA for my internship. Due to COVID, they canceled the in person aspect of the internship and had us do it remotely. Without being paid. In order to generate some positive cash flow, I went back to being a line cook at a Country Club in Charlotte, NC. It was day 2 of the riots and protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Around 7 pm, I stepped out from the kitchen and went outside. From where I was standing, you could see the skyline of Uptown Charlotte. In my mind, images of protestors clashing with police, tear gas being deployed, civil unrest everywhere. I then glanced down from the skyline to what was occuring right in front of my eyes: over privileged, trust find white people enjoying overpriced food, blissfully unaware (or willfully ignorant) about the historical events unfolding just a few miles north of them.

I was angry, frustrated and appalled. While I made the food these people ate, brave citizens of the United States took to the streets during a global pandemic to demand racial change. A harsh reality that I was living in, and partaking in, did not sit right with them. I did all I could to help change, but my frustrations still remained. How could a chunk of the population just not care about what was happening out there? As they sat in comfy chairs, eating $50 steaks and drinking $20 cocktails, people were out advocating for real change.

Dave Chappelle is also angry. Dave isn’t here to make you laugh this time. He’s not trying to take your mind off of shit, or provide some distracting entertainment. Dave held back the tears with the occasional pussy joke, or jabs at Laura Ingraham and Candace Owens. I don’t know what else I can add that hasn’t already been said by Dave. His frustrations are adamant that the system is forever broken, that the system of police and the military is set up for those to take out the terrorists, the bad guys. Being black in America means that those who are terrorists or the bad guys are the boys in blue, those who impose a threat on your everyday life. As a white man, I do not need to have fear walking down a street at night, I do not need to fear for my well being when a police officer pulls me over.

It’s powerful, and the kind of visceral reaction that we all needed during weeks of civil unrest, yet you don’t hear quite with this kind of anger and anguish in the media.

It’s the sort of thing that hopefully will help bring a little catharsis and some jokes as well — “Fuck everyone in Staten Island, except for the Wu Tang Clan” — but is cutting in its criticism and realness.

There are three quotes that stand out the most to me:

We didn’t choose Floyd as our hero, you chose him. We’re not desperate for heroes in this (black) community. Any n*gga that survives this goddamned nightmare is my hero.

He called for his mother. He called for his dead mother!

Every institution we trust lies to us.

I hope Dave is doing well.

4. Minari

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

A story about the portrayal of assimilation into a culture that feels so foreign to you. A heart wrenching tale of a Southern Korean family being indoctrinated into the invasive species of the Arkansas ecosystem.

Beautiful and quit utterly human in it’s storytelling. The complexity of the family dealing with Southern American is a culture shock. The aspect of faith and family, mixed in with head butting culture is gripping, and at times, compellingly depressing. For a country built by immigrants, it’s astonishing to see people still be shocked that there be different cultures with differing views on spirituality, being a blue collared worker and witnessing the intimacy of family.

The score and cinematography both are able to capture this dream like state of euphoria, a sense of wonder and hope as the family navigates life in an unknown land. Minari is much more than a Korean movie. To put it bluntly, Minari is the *most* American movie released in 2020. The story of an immigrant family moving to rural Arkansas in search of the American Dream? Can’t get much more American than that.

The way Lee Isaac Chung frames the family as intimate, yet showcasing the alienation of them by the townsfolk, to the dynamics of the grandson and grandma. Masterfully directed. The camera acts as a wandering stranger, observing the family as they mistake Mountain Dew as “special river water from the mountains”. We are as much observers as the citizens of this town are.

What will grow when we listen to the instincts of others — like following them to find where the water will flow, or planting minari where it will thrive, soon becoming its own lavish garden. our own instincts will only lead us so far. but something richer is born when more hands are nurturing the soil, all sharing a slice of the dream

3. Euphoria: Trouble Don’t Last Always

Directed by Same Levinson

Can a one hour special single handedly reversed the effects of my antidepressants? The answer is yes!

When Euphoria first made its way to TV screens during the summer of 2019, it became an instant cult hit amongst the teens and early 20 year olds, like myself. The stylistic, hyperkinetic approach to storytelling latched onto it’s viewers, making a pulse pounding of a time.

However, what we got with this part 1 special, was something else entirely. Gone are the rapid camera movements, excessive sex and nudity, the drugs and so on. The aesthetic of the first season is instead replaced with 55 minutes of free therapy. Creator/Writer/Director Sam Levinson ventures us into a slowed down world as Rue begins an existential crisis about her life, love and relationship with her best friend, Jules.

The best character work on the show has always nestled in the relationship between Rue and Jules. Is it love or lust? Either way, the two understand each other. Their intense teen romance sometimes teeters into codependency, especially since Rue hangs her sobriety on Jules. Season one ends with Rue relapsing after Jules hops on a train out of town. Trouble Don’t Always Last takes place shortly after that relapse, with Rue meeting up with her sponsor Ali at a diner after a meeting. She attempts to convince him she’s sober, but he quickly figures out otherwise. And then it’s just Rue and Ali, eating pancakes and talking about life, about the all-encompassing experience of addiction, about grief and mental health and all the fucked-up parts of living in the world.

The fantasy sequence at the top of the episode plays on conventional expectations of a “Christmas special,” but even Euphoria’s marketing campaign has emphasized that this was never going to be your typical gushy holiday special. Even in the imagined world, Rue ends up using. Then we’re dropped into the diner, into reality, into a story more real and complicated than a holiday fairytale. Jules is gone. Rue is high. There’s just her and Ali and their stories.

There’s so little blocking, so little flourish. The success of the episode really does hinge on a smart and engaging script and on Domingo and Zendaya bringing it to life with as much fervor as the flashier episodes of Euphoria evoke. Euphoria still finds ways to be an immersive and artful feat of visual storytelling even in a stripped-down package. It still very much feels like an episode of the show, even as it invents its own rules.

The only true flaw of this is that it ended.

2. Mank

Directed by David Fincher

6 years since his last directorial feature, David Fincher returns with Mank, an autobiographical picture about one of the two writers of Citizen Kane, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, Mank is a tale about the corruption of political turmoil in the 30s, a very flawed studio system, and one man’s fight to receive a co-writing credit on arguably the greatest movie of all time.

The most intriguing aspect about Fincher’s latest is the thin line between studio politics and the real world of politics. Fincher bridges the small gap between the politics of the moguls that created the movie business. Like Kane itself, Mank jumps around in time and space, from the Vacaville bungalow where Mank, out of favor with the studios, pounded out the “Kane” script with the help of hard-working assistant Mrs. Alexander, back to the 1930s, when he ruled a roost of legendary Paramount writers and rubbed elbows with the likes of super-producer Irving Thalberg and actress Marion Davies, mistress of the wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate Hearst.

Upton Sinclair, Democratic governor candidate in California (played by THE Bill Nye the Science Guy), is only ever seen at a distance in the movie, but he becomes a key figure in the story. Sinclair runs on a Socialist platform on the Democratic ticket, becomes vexing to the likes of Hearst, Thalberg, and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer. The lengths that these men will go to to bring down Sinclair — using the myth-making magic of Hollywood, no less — rattles Mank from being an arch observer to becoming more directly engaged, only to discover that any devastating truths he can hurl at these powerful men will be met with equally devastating ones being thrown back at him.

With such fascinating players, and such a juicy intersection of studio politics and politics-politics, why does Mank, when all is said and done, somehow feel so inert? Or is it because the movie presents the writing of Kane less as a creative endeavor and more as an elaborate vendetta? To the movie’s credit, writing is an inherently un-cinematic activity, and Mank wisely avoids the usual clichés in this department. Jack Fincher manages to create wonderful moments of dialogue between Mank and Davies, or Mank and Hearst, that never include lines that would later wind up coming out of Charles Foster Kane’s mouth. Mank reaches understanding and even empathy with his subjects without merely quoting them.

A true provocative examination of the nexus between entertainment and media and politics — it’s all apart of what’s kept the legend of Citizen Kane alive for decades, and it’s enough to make Mank necessary.

1. Promising Young Woman

Directed by Emerald Fennell

A week before Thanksgiving 2019, I was able to obtain tickets to an advance screening of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. The screening was sold out, elbow to elbow with everyone. Looking back, it’s crazy to think that’s what life was like before COVID. The visceral reactions from the attendees, the energy everyone brought to that wonderful whodunit was an experience that was second-to-none. But once the pandemic hit, I had no idea WHEN I was going to experience a movie that at least made me feel those thrills again. Just 2 days ago on Christmas, I watched Wonder Woman 1984, and rather than a thrilling experience, I wanted my memory wiped clean. With the year ending, I thought I wouldn’t be able to have an experience like Knives Out gave me.

Enter Promising Young Woman. Ever since the beginnings of the #MeToo movement a few years ago, filmmakers have tried to capture the anxiety, despair, and after effects of allegations that are not properly explored. The complexities of the impact on the victims. So many attempts focus on why men get away with it, as opposed to the effects of the victims, and those close to the victim. When justice isn’t met for a loved one, how do we respond? Just sit idly and tell them the system is rigged against them? Block their rapists on social media? Change area codes? Emerald Fennell’s electrifying Promising Young Woman incompasses the raw, and untamed nature of a woman on the trail of revenge against those who assaulted her best friend, and stood by and watched.

The exhilarating aspect of Promising Young Woman is how it plays on your expectations. In real life, we rarely see the victims receive their due justice. Take the Brock Turner case: a rapist caught in the act was sentenced to 6 months in prison, then had it reduced to only 3 months because the judged didn’t wanna diminish the life of this man. Promising Young Woman is an incredibly relevant and urgent tale that is elevated by a unique narrative flair. Mulligan shines, and Emerald Fennell steals the show with her brilliant direction and a twisted screenplay with a revolutionary final act that will shock you to your core.

It’s an absolute miracle when movies like Promising Young Woman come along. Movies that are this confident, this focused, this capable of balancing narrative and stylistic originality are such rarities, but Emerald Fennell knows exactly what she’s doing. Manages to be both incredibly funny and emotionally eviscerating without suffering from tonal whiplash, and Carey Mulligan deserves an Academy Award more than any other performance to come out of 2020.

A truly fantastic movie that toes that line of being called a masterpiece. An absolutely fantastic piece of art that leaves you feeling uneasy. A storyline that fascinates you, shocks you, twists you, and stays with you forever. The last few minutes might confuse you or even create some kind of disappointment but it makes you question the truth… and then it hits you. For me, the ending left me just awe-struck; easily one of the best finales of the year. Are we to believe Cassie’s attackers will get their proper punishments? Are we to trust the system that failed her and her friend? After all, once the credits rolled, Cassie is still a victim, with no way of knowing if her failsafe plan will work. And that is why Promising Young Woman is my movie of the year.

Bury me with this photo

Honorable Mention: Palm Springs, The Last Dance, Beastie Boys Story, Possessor, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Dick Johnson is Dead, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Borat Subsequent Movie Film

Best TV I watched this year: Succession S1–2, Better Call Saul S1–5, Big Little Lies S1–2, Barry S1–2

Movie(s) I didn’t see but might’ve made the list: First Cow, Nomadland, Mangrove, Small Ax series, Happiest Season, Time

Striving to be great

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