2020’s best films swung for the fences (and no one noticed)
This is not even in the top 10,000 biggest problems anyone had during this eldritch horror of a year, but one thing that stuck out was how different it feels to watch a new movie for the first time at home versus in a theater. The emotional and intellectual reaction I had to, say, Wonder Woman 1984, was markedly different than the one I had to Birds of Prey a few weeks before the world fell apart. Maybe these two kaleidoscopic DC superhero entries were worlds apart in quality, or maybe, just maybe, experiencing them both in diametrically opposed contexts impacted my response to Kristen Wiig becoming a literal cat lady. I guess we’ll never know.
2020 took so many things from us of life and death importance that it feels silly, dirty even, to complain about not being able to see Soul or The Trial of the Chicago 7 the way they were meant to be seen. And while I love to rewatch movies at home—I turned on You’ve Got Mail no fewer than six times during pandemic—I realized this year that I will crawl through broken glass to see something in a crowded auditorium if the alternative is to watch it on a Roku. The straight-to-streaming model might be the future, but it’s, to quote Whiplash, not my tempo.
Perhaps this is why my favorite films in 2020 were, for the most part, once that would not have had much of a theatrical release anyway in a “normal” year. Flicks that were mastered for IMAX exhibition are not done justice by a spinning red circle buffering into oblivion. We can only hope the most high-profile movies that skipped a theatrical release this year were studios cutting off their dead weight and dooming them to failure, giving us a reason to look forward to the blue-chip tentpoles that were delayed to 2021 and beyond.
That said, this was, improbably, a really solid year for movies! I’m not the ranking type, but I unapologetically loved a lot of movies in 2020. That’s not even including all the upcoming Oscar fare that are technically being released in 2021, since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science pushed their eligibility window into the end of February.
Inshallah, things are about to get a lot better. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen any of the following movies, they will at least make you feel something that isn’t the bone-deep sense of numbness some of us might be carrying into 2021.
The Boys in the Band
Joe Mantello’s star-studded adaptation of Mart Crowley’s seminal 1970 play of the same name wisely does not deviate all that much from the source material. The pitch-perfect casting and production design perfectly complement the words on the page, creating a simmering slow burn that lures you in with playful charm before ratcheting up the tension and turning every flippant remark into a stray bullet. The result is something equally funny and viscerally upsetting, and much like Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” made me miss overstaying my welcome at a party.
Da 5 Bloods
One can argue if Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is the best movie of 2020, but it is undeniable that it is the most movie. Coming in at over two and a half hours, this phantasmagoric examination of over five decades of the war for America’s soul, depicted on the literal battlefields of Vietnam and in the emotional bonds forged between its titular characters, shifts tones and perspectives with a level of confidence only a provocateur as accomplished as Lee could maintain. Not all of it works, admittedly—how could it? But that’s almost beside the point. What was the Vietnam War, from the perspective of the American troops who fought it, if not a disjointed mess that can never be fully rationalized?
Unceremoniously dumped onto Amazon Prime last Fall, Julie Taymor’s biopic of feminist stalwart Gloria Steinem is wild by nearly any standard, but in the context of Taymor’s oeuvre, it is downright restrained. The central framing device, allowing different actresses to portray Steinem at different points in her life, is shockingly effective. The Gloria Steinem that Alicia Vikander plays is a strikingly different performance than the one given by Julianne Moore later in the film, yet they feel like they’re in contrast rather than in conflict. Taymor, most famous for The Lion King on Broadway and mushroom trip fantasias like Across the Universe, is still being stylistically indulgent here, don’t get me wrong, but we have desperately needed a certain amount of whimsy in the biopic genre lately, and boy howdy does The Glorias deliver.
The Kid Detective
About a decade ago, the sketch comedy team Derrick made Mystery Team, a delightfully absurd high-concept comedy about precocious Hardy Boy types becoming emotionally stunted adults and diving headfirst into the shallow end of a real crime. Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective picks up that ball and runs with it, taking the real-life implications of Encyclopedia Brown growing up to its darkest, yet most inevitable extreme. While the result is eye-wateringly funny, Adam Brody’s turn as a soft-boiled private eye is played with a vulnerable intensity reminiscent of Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, allowing the film to get away with things most actors could not pull off. The Kid Detective walks such a tightrope that it feels like it could fall apart at any moment, yet it continually doubles down on its riskiest narrative and thematic bets, somehow never missing. A genuine marvel.
Five years after Gone Girl, one of our finest auteurs is back to answer a question that has been burning in our heads for decades: What if there was a Mank? Sorry. That was bad. The movie, though? Really good! David Fincher takes his father’s screenplay about the life and death of Citizen Kane scribe Herman Mankiewicz and weaponizes it into a furious screed about the state of the world and the entertainment industry in 2020. Fincher has always thrived on honing material that seems either out of his wheelhouse or oppressively grim and turning it into something covertly hilarious. Mank is a two hour ordered list of grievances, cloaked in old Hollywood mythology and Depression-era politics that are barely removed from the modern era. Like so many Netflix originals, Mank came and went from the discourse in about three days, but if you are not humored and sickened by a cherubic studio contract player volunteering to forego her salary so Louis B. Mayer can stiff grips and electricians in order to buttress his decadent rot, I don’t know what to tell you.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
2020 was a solid year for horror movies, but none of them were more stomach-churning than Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which isn’t a genre piece as much as it is a sober reflection of the world we have created for young women. Unlike Unpregnant, which mines this very same territory for humor and wit, Hittman’s story of a young woman from rural Pennsylvania having to move Heaven and Earth to get an abortion in New York City, is entirely unsentimental. The way politics is covered in the United States shrouds the sheer violence of public policy in pencil-pushing banality. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a direct response to that, putting its heroine through trials and tribulations not unlike a Lord of the Rings movie, but there is no excitement in the journey or glory in the destination. There is only a young woman clawing for her autonomy and dignity, which no man should have ever been allowed to take from her.
Perhaps no movie suffered more from not being projected into a popcorn-scented auditorium this year than Palm Springs, Hulu’s summer smash about two thirty-somethings trapped in a Groundhog Day time loop at a destination wedding they are attending. In one sense, Palm Springs is a kind of movie they don’t make anymore, and in another, it’s a movie they had never made in the first place. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are just so darn charming, so good at playing messy and chaotic with poise and gravitas, without those elements coming into contradiction. They nail classic rom-com two-hander chemistry effortlessly, but very few of the mainstream romantic comedies of the last few decades dared to be this unapologetically weird. The silver lining here is that while it would have been a delight to see this with 250 or so people cackling in unison, playing off each other’s energy, is there a better encapsulation of 2020 than a movie about being stuck in a place you cannot leave where yesterday, today and tomorrow don’t mean anything?
Because I just have to project the pandemic onto every movie and TV show I watched in 2020, I must admit that a big part of why Saint Frances has stuck with me since I watched it in April is how it beautifully captures the feeling of a quarter-life crisis. Many of us, or at least I hope I’m not alone in this, have discovered they do not want the things they thought they did. At the same time, it’s not as if those desires have been replaced by anything new. The disappearance of the world we knew and the opacity of what it’s even possible to look forward to calls into question what it will mean to have an identity in the short or medium-term. We might as well just nanny a six-year-old who is simultaneously a brat yet in some ways more mature than us. See what happens. Can’t be worse than any of our other options.
Trying to set aside that this movie was written, directed, and starring a 22-year-old, it probably could not have been made by anyone with more distance from its subject matter. Shithouse, a ‘best night ever’ college comedy, captures what other movies like it with titles you can put on a marquee never try to invoke. College students are weird looking hormone monsters with adult privileges and dumb little baby brains. This isn’t a judgment or a criticism, but merely an acknowledgment of how those of us privileged enough to have this rite of passage went through life during that four-year stretch. Cooper Raiff, to his credit, is incredibly clear-eyed and self-aware about this in a way I certainly wasn’t fresh out of college, when I was still letting my protagonist syndrome color my perception of my petty dramatic outbursts. I went into Shithouse hoping I would hate it, but the movie, save for its final scene, nails its target with remarkable specificity and insight.
Rarely does a movie come along that is this “not for everyone” but “extremely for me.” James Sweeney’s feature debut would make the likes of Amy Sherman-Palladino or Aaron Sorkin go, “Woah, slow down. Christ, man.” It has a joke-per-minute ratio comparable to Airplane! and expertly picks its moments to relent only to allow actress Katie Findlay to make a meal out of the silence, in what is simply the year’s best performance outside of television (Sidenote: depending on where you fall in the “Is Twin Peaks: The Return a movie?” debate, Luca Guadagnino’s HBO series We Are Who We Are is the “thing” of the year, and its performances are in GOAT territory). I have never seen a movie capture how it feels to have a conversation with someone you adore, where every word feels like a fireworks show while everyone around you is vaguely uncomfortable about the rhythm of your connection. Full credit goes to Sweeney, who also co-stars, for fully translating the experience of being in something like romantic love, but isn’t, in a way you can’t fully understand or articulate and probably never will.