TOP TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2020 (DAN’S LIST)

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

What is there to say about 2020, really, that has not already been said elsewhere? It was a shitshow of historical magnitudes, and it seems apropos to leave it at that. After all, it seems safe to assume that anyone reading this article does not care to hear any elegiac pontification–unless, of course, it is about film. It was a weird year in a myriad of ways, both big and small, least of which is the way most of us consumed our entertainment. Prior to 2020, the only conceivable reasons this writer could imagine not going to a movie theater for upward of six months would be (A) Apocalypse or (B) Death…and that is about it. It has been a very strange (and in some ways, likely permanent) paradigm shift.

Overall, this was probably our least fruitful year of writing, ever. On the other hand, it also produced arguably some of our best work. While cinema went virtual, there were more opportunities to attend film festivals (always a blast, frankly, in any format) and with extra free time, this writer saw more films than ever before in a calendar year (over 300, to be approximate, many of which were 2020 releases). It feels trivial to spend too much time gushing (or conversely, lamenting) the state of cinema with so many other things going on in the world. This is to date the latest (by far) this annual list has been published, but as they say, the show must go on!

It was a good year for film, if not a great one. With so many things being pushed back or released at home, it was a largely unique way to experience many of the films both on and off this list. As with every year, this is a personal list, and is not meant to be indicative of the Best or Most Important films of the year. Similarly, there are always notable films (Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Minari) that are not yet in wide circulation. We here at The Porkchop Express wish you and your loved ones a happy, and most importantly, safe new year.

And now, without further ado, the top ten films of 2020.

Bill and Ted Face The Music

This decades-in-the-making trilogy capper featuring the return of the inimitable Wyld Stallyns (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, making a delightful return) somehow managed not only to shrug off the massive expectations of a long-awaited legacy sequel, but crafted an immensely satisfying conclusion that both paid tribute to what came before and blazed a path that felt new. Nearly 30 years after they failed to write the song that would unite the world, Bill and Ted are middle-aged parents, falling ever further into obscurity. When a visitor from the future explains that their failure to write the song now threatens the existence of all space and time, the boys (and their daughters, Billie and Thea!) go on one last madcap adventure through history and cosmos in order to save reality. What follows is both hilarious and heartfelt, imbued with the sense of kindness and optimism that these films have always excelled in. The fact that a film as wonderful as this not only exists, but is such a triumph would have been an unlikely miracle in any year. In this particular one, it was a reminder that great art can always act as a lifeline.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Da 5 Bloods

This sprawling tale about four Black Vietnam vets returning to the country in search of the remains of their fallen leader, as well as a buried treasure they left behind, is a mish-mash of many things; sprinkle a dash of Apocalypse Now (1979) with a pinch of The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and filter it through Lee’s singular voice, and the result is a rollicking adventure that feels timeless in many ways, yet utterly of this moment. It is a complex, and at times messy film; Lee and co-writer Kevin Wilmott stuff Bloods with so many ideas that the result is its reach exceeding its grasp at times. Yet, it remains thrilling, and deeply affecting thanks to a quartet of great performances (and a powerful supporting turn from the late, great Chadwick Boseman). None more so, however, than Delroy Lindo who turns in what is arguably the performance of 2020. Spike remains one of the most exciting and indelible voices in American cinema and while Bloods may not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his finest work, it is the kind of big swing that only he could make, and when it lands, brother, there is nothing like it.

(Available to stream on Netflix)

Driveways

On paper, not much happens in this gentle, understated drama. At every turn, director Andrew Ahn eschews big moments in favor of something that feels a lot more like real life. When her estranged sister dies, Kathy (Hong Chau) and her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) return to a small town in New York to clean out the house and ready it for sale. While his mother grapples with the house, Cody strikes up a friendship with Del (Brian Dennehy) the Korean War veteran next-door-neighbor. It is the stuff of hundreds of indie films, but a smart script (by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen) easily avoids the obvious and familiar, crafting an intimate story that is as subtle as it is memorable. In one of his final screen roles, the late Brian Dennehy gets a truly memorable part to be remembered by and cements his status as one of our great character actors. In a film all about the significance of the little things, there is no moment more striking than the final scene, a simple conversation during which Del and Cody say goodbye. It is as poignant as anything you will see this year.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

First Cow

Admittedly, this period film about two frontiersmen in the 1820s stealing milk from a rich man’s cow was not a film this writer expected to enjoy very much, let alone enough to place it on a year end list. Yet, Kelly Reichardt’s film (adapted from the novel The Half Life) defies its potentially stuffy log line; it is languidly paced, but rich in humor, and avoids many of the potentially self-serious pitfalls of a traditional period piece. Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) are both wanderers; after a tenuous first meeting on the road, the two outcasts settle into a rhythm of quiet understanding and companionship. It is only after the arrival of the eponymous cow that the film reveals itself as the most gentle heist film you have ever seen. It is an unexpected but charming turn and the result is a film that is equal parts an insight into friendship as it is America itself.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Gretel and Hansel

They say the third time’s the charm; in Oz Perkins’ case, that could not be more true. The writer-directors previous works (I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House [2016] and The Blackcoat’s Daughter [2015]) were not devoid of pleasure (nor admirable craft) but never quite fully came together. With this modern revision on a well-trod fairy tale, Perkins seems to have found the perfect marriage of material and tendency. It has become a punchline to go the “dark and gritty reboot” route, but in this case, it is less a stretch of imagination than a return to its, well, grimm…origins. The combination of A24 psychological horror and Jodorowsky abstraction turns out to be quite a potent mix, as the film achieves a deeply unsettling atmosphere that rarely lets up. It is a genuinely creepy, moody work, which is to say nothing of how beautiful it is (and boy, it is gorgeous). Horror hounds may have missed it due to a quiet January release, but it is the kind of art house gem that will relish rediscovery for those who do not mind stepping off the beaten path.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

I’m Your Woman

Maybe this writer is just a sucker for a good crime story (okay, there’s no maybe about it) but Julia Hart’s fourth feature, a crime drama with a uniquely feminine twist is a banger. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is a bored suburban housewife, spending her days alone and disengaged, until one day her husband returns home with a baby that he insists is now theirs. Soon after, Jean is awakened in the middle of the night by an associate of her husband who gives her a bag with $200K and tells her she and the baby will have to disappear under the protection of Cal (Arinze Kene). Thanks to a whip-smart script, the film subverts expectations and packs twists that keep things moving in surprising ways. The three leads deserve a lot of credit for injecting real emotional stakes into the (wo)man on the run plot, particularly Brosnahan, who is light years away from Midge Maisel and still compelling as hell. Its strengths are largely enough to overcome a few minor weaknesses, and a satisfying ending ensures it remains the kind of entry that would slot in comfortably alongside other 1970s crime staples.

(Available to stream on Amazon Prime)

Palm Springs

There is no way Max Barbakow (making his film debut) could have had any idea just how much his time-loop movie would resonate with the current moment. At first glance, Nyles (Andy Samberg) appears to be an extreme version of the tone-deaf man-child so often seen in comedies, showing up to a wedding in a loud Hawaiian shirt and shotgunning beers during the ceremony. The devil-may-care approach leads to him hitting on Sarah (Cristin Milioti) the surly older sister of the bride. Things take a wild turn when an impromptu desert hook-up leads to the revelation that Nyles is stuck reliving the same day over and over…and now Sarah is, too. Samberg is a reliably great performer who brings his A-game equally to the laughs as well as the more dramatic moments, but Milioti has arguably never been given this big of a stage before and she makes a meal out of every frame. Together, their chemistry is the stuff of rom-com legend, resulting in the best comedy of its kind since the original blueprint, Groundhog Day (1992). You may come for the laughs, but you will want to stay for the many surprises; not least of which is having so much fun doing the same thing over and over (and over) again. This confident, hilarious hit was exactly the bittersweet catharsis so many of us needed over a long, muted summer.

(Available to stream on Hulu)

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal is probably not the film you are expecting. The much-anticipated drama, about Ruben (Riz Ahmed) a heavy metal drummer who wakes up one day to find he is losing his hearing, is a rich and soulful character study about addiction and adaptation. It is also, hands down, the best film of the year. The film unfolds almost as if it were a collection of short stories with returning characters, as Ruben alternately struggles and eventually learns to accept his new circumstances. Writer-director Darius Marder turns a sensitive, thoughtful eye toward the Deaf community, and Ruben’s attempts to find a place in it. Often, stories about disability tend to reach for triumph, but Marder and Ahmed both strive to avoid melodrama by presenting Ruben’s journey as we often experience things in life, with fits and starts; both the moments of joy and reflection are often quiet, and hard-won. Ahmed’s performance is easily the best work of his career, but if the film belongs to him, Paul Raci and Olivia Cooke are equally devastating in supporting roles as they each play a pivotal part in Ruben’s journey. By the time the film arrives at its thoughtful final moments, this writer was reduced to a sobbing mess. There are many good films out there, but far fewer of them have staying power. Sound of Metal is one you are not likely to forget anytime soon.

(Available to stream on Amazon Prime)

The Trial of The Chicago 7

Whether you know the name Aaron Sorkin or not, it is likely you know whether you are a fan. The writer of A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network and creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom tends to inspire strong feelings. His latest directorial effort is not unlikely to sway any new converts, but for the rest of us, it is a funny, inspiring, damn good time. Based on the true story of the federal prosecution of an eclectic group of 60s protest figures from Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) to Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Trial is not so much a faithful retelling of the events exactly as they happened as it is a pastiche of those events. In other words, it is the Hollywood version, and that is hardly a bad thing in the hands of a writer as passionate as Sorkin. It is also one hell of an actor’s showcase, featuring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, John Caroll Lynch, and Michael Keaton (among others) each working in tandem to create an inspiring (and surprisingly hilarious) ensemble. It is a potent look at a flawed system and an American moment, then and now.

(Available to stream on Netflix)

The Vast of Night

Set in New Mexico in the 1950s, the film opens in media res with Everett (Jake Horowitz) a high school radio DJ helping set up audio for a basketball game before hosting his own late night show. During the course of the program, the audio is suddenly interrupted by a mysterious signal. When Everett asks his listeners on air for help identifying it, it becomes increasingly clear that there is something else out there. For anyone who has ever seen an episode of The X-Files or Close Encounters (1977) there are familiar genre trappings, but this film has confidence that is all its own and a sense of technical achievement (including a jaw-dropping long take to open the film) that combine to make the familiar feel like something brand new. First-time director Andrew Patterson works wonders with a shoestring budget, making the most of the richness of the period, but largely relying (refreshingly) on imagination. For those of us who want to believe, Vast is a lo-fi love letter to a by-gone era of science-fiction, and one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone that never was.

(Available to stream on Amazon Prime)

Before wrapping up, check out the honorable mentions: films that did not quite crack the list that nonetheless merit a look

Honorable Mentions:

The Gentleman
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Spontaneous

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