With the COVID-19 pandemic causing disruptions to every aspect of American life, it makes sense that typical patterns associated with movie awards, year-end lists, etc., would be altered. The Academy Awards, arguably the most prestigious honor in American film, has pushed its ceremony honoring 2020’s best to April 25. It has also extended its award eligibility period to Feb. 28, meaning movies represented at this year’s celebration may include pictures that didn’t reach American viewers until well into 2021.
In the interest of compiling the best possible list, I too, decided to wait, cramming in as many pictures as possible before settling on my top 10 of 2020. But, one can’t procrastinate forever. Two weeks into the new year, I believe I have a list of great films that every movie lover should seek out. As is appropriate for a year that saw more high-profile pictures go direct to streaming than ever, many of my favorites are available with nothing more than a subscription to a streaming platform. Read on for my estimation of the best films to hit screens – big and small – during 2020.
10. “7500”: When originally reviewing “7500” in June, I noted that it may actually play better in one’s home, and I stick by that assessment. Centered on the terrorist hijacking of an international flight, writer-director Patrick Vollrath creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that actually seems amplified when watching in a small space. Protagonist Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of two commercial pilots charged with protecting his plane, his crew and his passengers after the terrorists take control. The movie starts slowly but builds in intensity as Ellis makes one harrowing decision after another with the hijackers becoming increasingly desperate and violent. “7500” is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, and Gordon-Levitt is outstanding in every scene. Available on Amazon Prime Video.
9. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: Losing Chadwick Boseman to cancer at age 43 seemed too cruel, even during a year that brought endless misery and loss. To watch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Boseman’s last screen appearance – is to revisit that cruelty. We are reminded what a remarkable talent he was because Boseman drives the film from start to finish, and he does so with the chops of a master. If Boseman wins a posthumous Academy Award for his performance (and he should at least receive a nomination), some will believe it is out of sympathy. That thought should be dispelled now, as it diminishes his incredible work. In “Ma Rainey,” based on the like-titled August Wilson play, Boseman plays Levee Green, a trumpet player in a music world where black artists are mercilessly abused. Although capable of writing and playing with the best, Levee is relegated to backing Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a black diva who has achieved enough fame and success to hold sway over white record producers. During the course of the film, viewers receive a glimpse into the lives and histories of Levee, Rainey and a handful of other characters while also receiving a treatise on the brutally unfair culture black musicians faced in the 1920s. At times the George C. Wolfe-directed movie reads like the play that inspired it, but mostly it is sublime. Available on Netflix.
8. “Rebuilding Paradise”: Director Ron Howard’s documentary film about the most-deadly wildfire in California history has a special place in my heart because I live less than 30 miles from the city of Paradise, which was irreparably scarred when the fire roared through on Nov. 8, 2018. For residents of Butte County, where Paradise is located, the apocalyptic feeling that has become normalized by the pandemic, arrived several years early. In the days following the fire, local skies were filled with so much smoke and ash that going outside, sans mask, was ill-advised, and there is lingering pain knowing that 85 locals perished in the blaze. But where there is tragedy, hope often follows. Howard’s movie does a great job capturing the horror of the blaze, but it does equal work showing the resilience of community members. The movie is presented cinema verité style, and it is a gem for anyone interested in the power of natural disasters and the recovery process that follows. Available to rent or purchase on most streaming platforms.
7. “News of the World”: Tom Hanks starred in two noteworthy features in 2020 (“Greyhound” was released on Apple TV+ in July), but “News of the World” is the best of the pair. In “News,” co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass, Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran who ekes out a living travelling from town to town and reading newspaper stories to eager, paying audiences. His simple life is disrupted when he comes across a young girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised by Indians after they slaughtered her family. When it becomes clear that he is the only hope of the girl returning to her kin, the two set off on a dangerous journey across the Western frontier. “News” is beautifully filmed and acted, and it serves as a nice tribute to great Westerns of the past as well as being a fine film on its own. Available in select theaters.
6. “Hamilton”: Some may argue that Disney+’s filmed version of the “Hamilton” musical doesn’t count as a feature film release. I respectfully disagree. Although assembled with footage from several live performances, it meets the definition of a movie, and — with most American theaters closed – it’s about as close as we can get to a real Broadway experience. More importantly, “Hamilton” is an incredible piece of art centered on key events in U.S. history. If you aren’t already sold, consider the cast. Creator Lin Manuel-Miranda is joined by Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo and a host of other top-flight talents. The music is great, the script is clever, and the filmed presentation gives you the best seat in the house. Available on Disney+.
5. “The Personal History of David Copperfield”: Director Armando Ianucci’s film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” novel is a treat. The film, like the book, centers on the trials and tribulations of a young man whose relatively happy childhood is disrupted by a vindictive stepfather. That is not, however, the end of David’s (Dev Patel) journey. The young man experiences triumphs, failures and everything between, and Ianucci’s presentation is captivating. Patel’s fantastic title performance is strengthened by a supporting cast that includes Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi and Daisy May Cooper. Available to rent or purchase on most streaming platforms.
4. “Soul”: Pixar has pushed the limits of animation since it arrived, and “Soul” delivers another landmark moment. That’s because it is the first Pixar effort that – arguably – plays best to adults. The focus is on a jazz musician (voiced by Jamie Fox) who is forced to confront the deepest questions of human existence, including the meaning of life, death and individual purpose. The PG-rated animated film is, like all Pixar efforts, gorgeously rendered, and while there is nothing offensive or troubling for youngsters, the thematic elements are so deep that it’s hard to imagine anyone under 10 leaving with a full appreciation of the content. Yet audience members of any age will find a great deal to dissect and enjoy. In my estimation, this movie has already earned a place among the best animated pictures of all time. Available on Disney+.
3. “The Prom”: Unlike “Hamilton,” which is a filmed version of a musical theater production, “The Prom” is a complete adaptation of its namesake Broadway show. That means, the stage was replaced by sets, and the choreography was designed directly for the screen. Producer/director Ryan Murphy knows about screen musicals, thanks to the success of his hit TV series “Glee,” and he puts everything he learned with that show on display. “The Prom” focuses on Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), an Indiana high schooler who accidentally creates a media circus by planning to take her girlfriend to prom. When a host of struggling Broadway stars – led by one-time-great Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) learn of Emma’s plight, they decide to come to the rescue, but not everyone in Indiana wants hotshots from Broadway calling the shots. The film is fun, meaningful and loaded with wonderful music by Matthew Sklar and David Klotz. James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key and Kerry Washington also star. Available on Netflix.
2. “Mank”: It’s cliché for a film critic to list a movie about movies on his year-end list, but I’ll take the abuse as long as it means I can have “Mank” in my life. The picture – directed by David Fincher – is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s struggle to write “Citizen Kane,” and it is as lush and detailed as all Fincher films. Mankiewicz’s is perfectly portrayed by Gary Oldman, and we also get an Oscar-caliber performance by Amanda Seyfried, as Marion Davies. The latter appears because Davies was the longtime mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and anyone familiar with “Kane” knows the movie is a thinly veiled critique of Hearst and other moguls from his era. “Mank” meditates on the publisher’s influence, the tenacity of “Kane” director Orson Wells (Tom Burke) and the flaws – and brilliance – of Mankiewicz. It is a wonderful companion piece to “Citizen Kane,” but it stands on its own as long as one has an elementary understanding of the history of the earlier picture. Available on Netflix.
1. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”: Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s dramatization of events leading up to and following the violence-marred anti-war protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention is an achievement. The 130-minute movie primarily dissects the court case of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale, all of whom were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot. The cast is a powerhouse, with Sacha Baron Cohen playing Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Hayden, Mark Rylance as attorney William Kunstler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an assistant prosecutor, Frank Langella as judge Julius Hoffman and Michael Keaton as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The movie is insightful, moving, beautifully produced and as timely as they come. Available on Netflix.
THE NEXT 10
These movies didn’t make my top 10 cut, but they are outstanding nonetheless.
11. “The Midnight Sky” (Netflix)
12. “Rebecca” (Netflix)
13. “Onward” (Disney+)
14. “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix)
15. “Death to 2020” (Netflix)
16. “King of Staten Island” (HBO Max/buy)
17. “Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix)
18. “The Banker” (Apple TV+)
19. “Love and Monters” (rent/buy)
20. “Mulan” (Disney+)