Since the craziest year in recent memory is slowly winding down, it’s time for people to share their best of the year. As someone who has seen upwards of 300 movies this year despite the pandemic, I feel like I’ve seen enough movies that I can confidently put together my own definitive Top 10 for 2020.
Just as a bit of house cleaning, I’ve been writing these lists for close to 20 years. Due to my proclivity for liking or loving documentaries, I generally will put docs in its own category below, although I did include a few pseudo-docs within the main list for reference. Also, I base my list only upon movies that have had some sort of release in a given year, so every once in a while, a movie that might be up for foreign language Oscars in one year might get a U.S. release the following year. Hopefully, that will explain one of the entries.
10. One Night In Miami (Amazon Prime Video)
Regina King’s narrative feature directorial debut, based on Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his own play of the same name, features a quartet of fantastic actors, playing boxing legend Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr), activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adair) and football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The four friends meet up on a fateful (but fictionalized) night in late February 1964 to discuss their respective career paths and philosophies, and their place as black icons in a mainly white world. King has made a movie that lives upon the power of its words due to the fantastic performances but also due to an amazing crafts team, including Cinematographer Tami Reaker (The Old Guard), who we’ll have an interview with soon.
Craft(s) to Watch: Cinematography, Production Design, Costumes, Score
9. Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)
Netflix released a lot of great films this year, but none that had a bigger impact than the new drama from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) and screenwriter Kata Wéber that followed the deterioration of a marriage between a couple (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf) that loses their baby in childbirth. With fantastic performances from that duo and the legendary Ellen Burstyn, this is likely to get more attention for its script and acting than any below the line crafts, but it’s still a quality film that shows Munruczó and Wéber effortlessly transitioning to make his first English-language film.
Craft(s) to Watch: Cinematography, Score
8. Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime Video)
Darius Marder’s drama following Ruben, a rock drummer going deaf, beautifully played by Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), was so good that even being released a year after its Toronto International Film Festival debut didn’t dissuade it from finding quite an audience. Besides also having great supporting performances by Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci, everything about the movie was enhanced by the amazing sound work by Supervising Sound Editor and Composer Nicholas Becker who puts the viewer into Ruben’s head as his hearing loss gets worse.
Craft(s) to Watch: Sound
7. Mulan (Disney+)
New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (Whale Rider) proved she could handle the world of big budget studio movies when put at the helm of the live action adaptation of Disney’s 1998 animated classic. With Yifei Lu in the lead, surrounded by legendary Chinese actors like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, the ancient story was translated into a heroic historical epic that maintained the humor of the original even as it ditched the Disney songs and focused more on the action and emotions. It’s a fantastic film that I hope Disney will get behind for awards even if it didn’t bother giving it a proper theatrical release in North America.
Craft(s) to Watch: Visual FX, Costumes, Production Design, Cinematography
6a. Hamilton (Disney+)
I really enjoyed this documentation of the hit Broadway musical, capturing the original cast of the Tony-winning show, including Lin Manuel Miranda, although it falls into this weird chasm between being a documentary and just being a filmed stage musical. As much as I loved this, having only seen the show long after the original cast left, I’m hesitant at recommending it for crafts since it’s likely to have received acclaim for the original stage production. Other than the way it was filmed and edited, I’m not sure it could be seen as a new movie persé.
6. Synchronic (Well GO USA)
I highly doubt that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s time-jumping crime-thriller starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan will be in any sort of awards race (except possibly genre awards), it was one of the year’s best genre films. It follows two parademics who discover that a designer drug called Synchronic is killing people in unfathomable ways. Doing some experiments, they learn that the drug involves time travel, and Mackie’s character begins experimenting with the stakes raised when Dornan’s teen daughter takes the drug and vanishes. As with Benson and Moorehead’s previous movies, it’s a twisty thriller that has the benefits of better production values than their indie films as well as an amazing cast with Mackie giving a stellar performance.
5. Nomadland (Searchlight Studios)
Filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s follow-up to her spectacular festival hit The Rider stars the always-great two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand in a role that might win her a third Oscar. Loosely based on Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland, stars McDormand as Fern, a woman who lost her home after a factory shutdown that essentially destroyed her village, and is now living in her van and travelling from one place to another finding seasonal jobs. Along the way, she meets other similar nomads, and Zhao’s film beautifully captures the spirit of that community with a gorgeously-shot film that captures the country in a truly unique way. Zhao also shows her mastery of working with non-actors with only McDormand and actor David Strathairn acting opposite real-life nomads.
Craft(s) to Watch: Original Score, Cinematography, Editing
4. News of the World (Universal Pictures)
Filmmaker Paul Greengrass and actor Tom Hanks reunited for a Western as their follow-up to 2013’s Captain Phillips, a fantastic journey across post-Civil War America as Hanks’ Captain Kid finds a young girl in the wild (Helena Zengel) and makes an oath to bring her to her estranged aunt and uncle. A beautifully shot and edited film that takes its cues from classic Westerns but with the benefits of modern filmmaking techniques and an absolutely gorgeous score by James Newton Howard.
Craft(s) to Watch: Original Score, Editing, Production Design, Cinematography
3. Minari (A24)
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama stars Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead as a Korean immigrant father who brings his family of four to live in a house on wheels in a remote area of Arkansas to develop a farm, soon joined by his mother-in-law (Yuh-jung Youn). Things don’t exactly go well, but Chung finds a way to mix humor and drama in a way that packs quite a powerful emotional wallop. It shows once again how a filmmaker tackling deeply personal experiences and memories – a bit like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma – can deliver an unforgettable film that can connect with moviegoers of all ages and races.
Craft(s) to Watch: Cinematography, Score
2. Corpus Christi
While some might say, “This movie was an Oscar nominee for 2019, so why is it on a 2020 list?” Fact is that this Polish Oscar nominee wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2020, and I certainly didn’t see it until well after my 2020 list was completed, though it remains one of the top movies I saw this year. Jan Komasa’s terrific drama stars Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, a troubled young man who ages out of his juvenile delinquent center, but not before taking a priest’s collar. When he stops by a small, remote village, he’s mistaken for the replacement for the town’s dementia-suffering priest, but he soon learns the townspeople are still shaken by a horrible tragedy that killed six teenagers. Their parents still hold ill will to the widow of the drunken man who crashed into their van, himself dying, and Daniel needs to find faith in himself to help this village that has suffered so much. Komasa pulls out a powerful drama with his crew that’s able to capture every emotion on screen, including Bielenia’s amazing performance.
1a. Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV+)
The one doc I wanted to include in this list as opposed to my doc list below is this documentary made by Spike Jonez, a long-time Beastie Boys collaborator, that documents their touring multimedia show in which they talk about the band’s long history and their late bandmate Adam Yauch. Like Hamilton, this could be seen as much of a filmed performance as a documentary, but it still is the perfect movie both for fans of the Beasties and those who only know them from a couple of tunes.
1. Promising Young Woman (Focus Features)
Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is a thriller as good as some of the greats from the ‘80s/90s like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct with Carey Mulligan vying for her second Oscar nomination playing Cassie, a woman who gets her kicks pretending to be drunk and allowing herself to be picked up by guys in order to humiliate them… or worse. When she meets a nice guy named Ryan (Bo Burnham) and they start dating, things seem to be going well until he triggers something that sends Cassie on a revenge spree for something that happened in their past. What Fennell has done with this movie from her screenplay to the way everything plays out, the amazing work of her team from the cinematography to the editing and even the choice of songs to accompany Anthony Willis’ fantastic score, it all adds to the tone and mood of the film. Easily one of the most powerful and timely thrillers I’ve seen in decades, Fennell is well on her way to greatness, of that I’m sure. No one who watches this film will not be affected by it in some way.
Craft(s) to Watch: Score, Editing, Cinematography, Production Design
Honorable Mentions: Herself (Amazon), Jungleland (IFC Films), Palm Springs (NEON/Hulu), Small Axe Anthology (Amazon), Soul (Disney+/Pixar)
ED’s Top 12 Docs:
- Beastie Boys Story
- Mr. Soul!
- Dear Santa
- You Don’t Nomi
- The Way I See It / John Lewis: Good Trouble
- Totally Under Control
- The Dissident
- Class Action Park
- The Go-Gos
- Slay the Dragon
Honorable Mentions: Robin’s Wish, 76 Days, Rebuilding Paradise
That’s it for 2020. Look forward to sharing a lot more about the best film and television crafts in 2021 and hopefully, for many years to come.