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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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Stream Dreams: Trio of solid films hit major video platforms

The Covid-19 pandemic has created the most significant disruption to the film industry that most Americans have seen. Although many theaters have been allowed to reopen (typically with limited capacity), they have done so with little blockbuster content and a public not entirely prepared to embrace a product where communal gathering is part of the experience. The situation is bad enough that Mike Sampson of Vulture wrote a veritable eulogy to movie houses in early October. Some things have changed since that article was released – constant change, after all, is the new normal – but exhibitors are still in danger.  

In the meantime, studios have tested the waters of digital distribution, pushing films once targeted for theaters directly to pay-per-view and streaming platforms. All the while, digital disruptors like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ have continued to pump out fresh content. If the trio of films that hit the latter platforms this week is an indication of what’s to come, movie houses have more reason for concern. For the price of about three movie tickets, consumers can access each of these pictures, while also gaining a month of access to all the other content these platforms have. This is an enticing prospect because each of these films could proudly play in a traditional theatrical environment.  Here’s a look at each …

Rebecca

3½ stars

Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Ben Wheatley

Available on: Netflix

It is enticing to call director Ben Wheatley’s 2020 version of “Rebecca” a remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic, but that would be overly simplistic. Like Hitchcock’s film, the new “Rebecca” is based on the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, a book that has seen several adaptations for stage and screen.  

Certainly, fans of the Hitchcock film should enjoy this 21st century take on the tale, which is as dark and intriguing today as it was in 1938. The action centers on the relationship between a young, naive woman (Lily James) who is swept off her feet by Maxim de Winter, a charismatic widower with a massive English estate called Manderley. The two impetuously marry, but life is not as the young Mrs. de Winter had dreamed.

Upon arrival at Manderley, it is immediately clear that the estate lives under a pall cast by the memory of Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter tries desperately to ingratiate herself with the house staff, especially the stiff head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Alas, her efforts mean nothing, because the ghost of Rebecca is everywhere, most importantly within the psyche of her new husband. 

Obviously, this new version of “Rebecca” was timed for a Halloween release thanks to its gothic roots, but it isn’t really a horror film. Rather, this is a tale of psychological suspense asking viewers to consider the power of memory and the human capacity for psychological manipulation. This is a neo noir that feels both modern and nostalgic. It is contemporary in the sense that James, Hammer and Thomas are very much modern movie stars, and Wheatley knows how to frame a beautiful, 21st century image. 

The scenery sparkles, and the cinematography has the luster of a Golden Age masterpiece. There are elements of the plot that feel dated, but not significantly enough to make the viewing experience unpleasant … and readers of the book will likely appreciate this film’s climax more than Hitchcock’s. This version of “Rebecca” is dynamic, beautiful and haunting, just as it should be. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

3 stars

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova

Director: Jason Woliner

Available on: Amazon Prime Video

For fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, a Borat sequel is the reward for 14 years of faith and anticipation. Was it worth the wait? Mostly. 

Cohen once again, takes on the persona of Borat Sagdiyev, a journalist from Kazakhstan, a nation bridging central Asia and Eastern Europe. Kazakhstan is a real place, and one can reasonably argue that Cohen has unfairly stigmatized the nation as racist, backward and inept. Of course, one can also argue that Cohen unfairly stigmatizes most of the targets of his razor-sharp wit. Limiting one’s critique to that narrative would, of course, miss the valuable social statements that are buried within the oft-boundary-pushing humor that Borat is built on. 

We learn at the start of “Subsequent Moviefilm” that the fallout from the first Borat movie has landed him a prison sentence marked by years of hard labor. He is released, however, when the leader of Kazakhstan offers Borat (the country’s best-known journalist) an opportunity to travel to America with a gift for Vice President Mike Pence. You see, the Kazakhs have learned that President Trump has an affinity for authoritarian leaders, and they hope to foster the same type of friendly relationship the American president has with Vladimir Putin. 

So, Borat travels to America and – through a plot device best discovered on one’s own – ends up on a road trip with his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova). On the quest to deliver the present, Borat finds himself everywhere from a Jewish synagogue to a hotel room with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The politically savvy reader is already aware of the fallout from the Giuliani sequence, and it is just as shocking as everyone has read.  

The conceit of Borat comedy, of course, is that – although there is a loose plot – most of the bits are filmed with nobody outside Cohen and his production crew in on the gag. So, the reactions one sees from non-cast are supposed to be real. That makes it shocking when Borat, say, asked to buy a cage for his daughter and the owner of a feed store happily shows his best option. Of course, nobody outside of Cohen and his coconspirators know how much of the film is set up and how much is organic … but the sequences are raw enough that viewers get the impression that a healthy portion of the onscreen antics involve unwitting dupes.  

Throughout the movie, Cohen dons a variety of disguises to keep his identity hidden, likely because the Borat character is so easily recognized after the success of the first movie. I’ve seen at least one critic note that the disguises don’t make sense within the context of the film, and that’s a fair critique. Why Borat would lose his trademark suit in favor of overalls and face prosthetics is unclear, but if the stunts are what you come for, you are rewarded. 

Cohen’s humor is dark, biting and relentless. He has a clear point of view and targets far-right conservatives with venom. Because of this, there will be plenty of people in America who find the film more offensive than funny, but those who share Cohen’s outrage with the direction the country has taken may laugh harder than they have in some time. 

On the Rocks

2½ stars

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans

Director: Sofia Coppola

Available on: Apple TV+

Writer-director Sofia Coppola isn’t for everyone. She is an obvious talent buttressed by an elegant, easygoing style that results in moments ranging from sublime to dull. Alas, it’s her tendency to linger too long on simple notions that will leave some viewers cold. 

“On the Rocks” is reminiscent of her 2003 directorial smash, “Lost in Translation.” That film told the story of an aging movie star – played by Bill Murray – facing a mid-life crisis. For, “On the Rocks,” Murray is back, but this time as a more-self-assured older man who volunteers to help his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones) through a marital crisis. 

Murray plays Felix, a charming senior who still has a way with the ladies. We learn from Laura that he wasn’t a great dad. He was a womanizer even as a family man, something he unapologetically explains as part of the male DNA. Laura, being a kind soul, has maintained a loving relationship with her father nonetheless, and she turns to him when she begins to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair. 

Murray, of course, thinks this is a foregone conclusion because Marlon is a man. This attitude stokes Laura’s concerns, but she also finds comfort in the obvious love that her father has for her. Womanizer or no, Murray does care for his daughter and demonstrates a willingness to go to great lengths to protect her.

Although Laura’s romantic crisis serves as the film’s dramatic arc, the real meat of the issue is in watching father and daughter interact. This is a film about men and women and relationships. On the one hand we have Laura and Dean, who seem like an ideal couple, apart from the nagging hints that Dean could be fooling around. On the other hand, we have Laura’s relationship with Murray, a man who hurt her throughout childhood despite the assumption he was there as her guide. That these men seem both different and alike is intentional, and viewers are meant to think about the way role models and past experience shape our world view. 

The trouble with “On the Rocks,” assuming one has a problem, is that Coppola takes so much time telling such a simplistic tale. For those who enjoy low-key, persistent examinations of the human condition, this may not be criticism at all. Indeed, Coppola gets credit for the simplicity and authenticity of her work. 

Jones and Murray are fantastic, and “On the Rocks” has plenty to unpack for those willing to make the effort. The question is whether you’ll find the carefree presentation compelling enough to expend that energy. 

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