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And the best movies of 2020 are …

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+)

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‘7500’ is a thriller that feels perfect at home

AT A GLANCE

7500

Directed by: Patrick Vollrath

Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Carlo Kitzlinger, Aylin Tezel

Rated: R

Available on: Amazon Prime Video beginning June 18

Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4

Photo Courtesy of Amazon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the thriller “7500,” available June 18 on Amazon Prime Video.

By Forrest Hartman

German writer-director Patrick Vollrath has created one of the most claustrophobic, intense, well-acted movies of 2020, and these qualities are advantageous in a streaming media environment. Since the Covid-19 pandemic has largely put big-screen features on hold, we’ve had time to reflect on the difference between watching at home versus in a theater. The shared big-screen experience has joys that will never be recreated in one’s family room, but there are certain pictures that actually play better at home. I believe “7500” is one of them. 

The terrorist thriller is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, included with the popular Amazon Prime delivery service, and the reason it feels so good in a home setting is that Vollrath and co-writer Senad Halibasic have gone out of the way to make it the antithesis of blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Much of the appeal in the latter movies is spectacle. The scope of those pictures is massive, as they transport viewers to different worlds, balancing dialog and exposition against action sequences that are literally packed with mind-blowing special effects. “7500” is smaller in every way, and that’s a good thing. 

The movie starts at a leisurely pace, with Vollrath introducing us to our protagonist, Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of two commercial pilots in charge of a flight from Berlin to Paris. Viewers enter the cockpit, where Tobias gets to know the flight’s captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), and works through routine pre-flight tasks. There’s not much space in the plane, and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler keeps the framing simple. This works well in a home viewing environment. If you watch with the lights dim, you might even feel as though you are sitting beside Tobias and Michael, helping them prepare for the trip. Unlike the spectacle that makes “Avengers” films special, “7500” is intimate, and intimacy works in our houses.  

Vollrath does some of his finest character development before the plane leaves the ground. Before takeoff, we know that Tobias is in a serious relationship with one of the flight attendants. They aren’t married, but they live together and have a child. They also strive to keep their professional and private lives separate. Michael is established as a serious-but-amiable captain, and we learn that – despite Tobias’ youth – he has been flying for a decade. Each of these seemingly mundane details matters, and Vollrath refuses to rush through them with shortcuts. That patience pays dividends later. 

Although “7500” begins at a trot, it hits full gallop about 20 minutes in, when one of several terrorists forces his way into the cockpit. This starts a chain of events leading Tobias to a series of near-impossible choices, all elevating the tension for the remainder of the picture’s 90 minutes. Throughout, Vollrath and Thaler remain focused on Tobias because this is his story. 

Gordon-Levitt is a talent, who has turned in impressive work in projects ranging from the Christopher Nolan thriller “Inception” to the cancer drama “50/50.” Here, he is typically self-assured. Tobias is mild-mannered and kind, but also smart and disciplined. He doesn’t always make the right choices, and it’s enjoyable for viewers to imagine what they would do in his place. But … what is the right choice in an impossible situation? The movie is intriguing because it shows a good man doing his best to find hope in a terrible place. Saying that Gordon-Levitt’s performance is among the best of the year so far, is minimizing his efforts since the cinematic year is so off-kilter. But this is great work.  The supporting cast is also solid, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s film, as every twist centers on Tobias’ decisions.  

Vollrath makes the most of the confined setting … something that could hurt a weaker filmmaker. In some respects, “7500” must have been easy to produce. A single location, small cast and minimal set dressing all speed the shooting process, but these things come with restraints. When all the action is set in an airplane cockpit, there are no astonishing backdrops or special effects to use as a crutch. The weight of the storytelling is relegated to the script and its handful of actors … each forced to make up for the fact that the scenery is unchanged for 90 minutes. Again, this plays into the strengths of at-home viewing. 

As long as one watches distraction-free, it is easy to get sucked into Tobias’ world. It is easy to feel his pain, his anguish, and his uncertainty. And “feeling” is what great directors make us do.          

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