It’s been a strange year. The bad news: so many films that were meant to be seen in theaters were financially hurt by the pandemic. The good news: more content was available via streaming than ever before.
Here’s all you need to know:
The ten best
10. Miss Juneteenth – Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) reminds you of the star high school quarterback destined for greatness elsewhere, but never quite got there. The former beauty queen still lives in the same Texas town, struggling to provide a life for her and her daughter. She’s smart, feisty, and men still want to be with her. But her focus is on her daughter winning the same pageant she won so long ago. However, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) has dreams of her own. Miss Juneteenth deals with race and motherhood elegantly.
9. Mank – David Fincher’s passion project is a love letter to a long-forgotten time in Hollywood. Based on a script written by his Fincher’s father, Mank tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who along with Orson Welles is credited with writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz and Welles shared an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. But the movie suggests that Mankiewicz did most, if not all the work. The attention to detail is astounding in a film that’s both beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to.
8. Disclosure – Hollywood has done a lousy job with minorities in general. So, it’s not shocking that many transgender depictions have been inaccurate at best, and horrifyingly hurtful at worst. This documentary about the portrayal of trans people in film and television explains how damaging these misconceptions can be. And while accurate representation in the fictional world has improved, there’s still way too much intolerance and violence towards transgenders in the real world. Disclosure is powerful and inspiring.
7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always – It’s rare when a piece of fiction feels like a documentary. That’s a credit to actress Sidney Flanigan and director Eliza Hittman. This story about teenagers leaving rural Pennsylvania for New York City so that one can get an abortion is about as real as it gets. Nothing comes easy for the hardscrabble cousins. They don’t have a lot of resources or support. So, the cousins depend upon each other to navigate the big city and healthcare issues. The obstacles put in front of them are maddening and unfair. That’s what it’s often like in a woman’s world.
6. Tigertail – When we ask our parents to tell us the story of how they met, there are often two versions. The first is sanitized, palatable. It’s easy to understand and is very black and white. The second is usually messier with shades of gray. Tigertail tells the latter version, a tale of the sacrifice a Taiwanese man makes to get to America. This immigrant story unfolds in two timelines: Pin-Jui as a young man (Hong-Chi Lee) before he comes to the USA, and Pin-Jui as a divorced older man (Tzi Ma) with grown children in New York City. Time and sacrifice can take a toll.
5. The Occupant – Slow-boil thrillers can be tricky. You don’t want to move the plot along too slowly or else you’ll lose the audience. But you also don’t want to compromise the effect of paced storytelling. The Occupant keeps you on edge by doing it right. You kind of know where the plot is going, but the ending is so diabolical that it’ll make you wince. Javier (Javier Gutierrez) is a former successful businessman who loses his beloved apartment. The lengths he goes to reclaim his home are extreme.
4. Da 5 Bloods – There aren’t many movies about the black soldier experience in the Vietnam War. It’s been widely overlooked. Filmmaker Spike Lee shines a light on what war does to people, from an African American perspective. The story is a reunion of veterans returning to Vietnam in search of the body of a fallen comrade, as well as hidden gold. Da 5 Bloods contains plenty of references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well as Apocalypse Now. Come for the treasure hunt. Stay for Delroy Lindo’s powerhouse performance.
3. All the Bright Places – This Netflix adaptation of the young adult novel isn’t a typical weepy drama. It takes teenage mental health seriously. Elle Fanning (Violet) and Justice Smith (Finch) are struggling. High school is hard enough. Now image dealing with the death of a sibling or a severe bipolar disorder during those years. These small-town Indiana classmates find comfort in each other’s company. Fanning and Smith portray a believable couple. The energy of teenage passion can quickly go from sadness to anger to sheer joy. You feel for them and root for them.
2. The Trial of the Chicago 7 – There’s never been a better writer of legal dramas than Aaron Sorkin. He’s proven that with A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and now The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is also directed by Sorkin. The story is an interpretation of an actual trial that occurred following Vietnam War protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sorkin stays on-brand with his trademark razor-sharp ping-pong dialogue. The movie also has plenty of humor and heart, highlighted by Sasha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman.
1. Bad Education – Sometimes good people do bad things. Because of that, they never see themselves as villains. Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) know they are committing a crime, yet there’s never any sense of guilt. Embezzling millions of dollars almost seems like jaywalking to them. The only time they feel remorse, like many thieves, is when they’re caught. Based on the real-life scandal in Long Island, New York, Bad Education weaves a fascinating tale of charismatic criminals. It works splendidly because of the performances, particularly Jackman.
Just missed the top 10
Best Actor: Hugh Jackman, Bad Education
Due to the Academy Award’s rigid standards, Jackman isn’t eligible for an Oscar (rules stipulate that a movie must have a theatrical release before streaming). Too bad. Jackman probably would’ve been a shoo-in nominee.
Best Actress: Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth
In the history of the Oscars, there’s only been one African-American Best Actress (Hall Berry in Monster’s Ball in 2001). Wouldn’t it be something for Beharie to win?
Best Supporting Actor: Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
This may be cheating because Lindo probably will be nominated for Best Actor. But Da Five Bloods has an ensemble cast. Lindo dominates as a Make America Great Again hat-wearing Vietnam veteran.
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Do you know how hard it is to upstage Sacha Baron Cohen? The performance that got everyone talking was not Cohen’s, but his younger co-star who plays his daughter. Bakalova is fearless.
Best Child Actor/Actress: Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes
Hard to believe Brown is only 16. She has skills of someone considerably older. Brown, best-known as Eleven in Stranger Things, makes acting look easy in this Sherlock Holmes spin-off.
Best Director: David Fincher, Mank
Fincher arguably made the best movie of the 2000s (Zodiac) and the best movie of the 2010s (The Social Network). Mank isn’t at that level, but the craftmanship is undeniable.
Best, worst, and WTF moments
- “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago.” – Tenet
- “I thought I saw Amy Adams at Trader Joe’s. But it was just Isla Fisher.” – Straight Up
- “Why is it that when Houseman edits everyone ends up speaking like a constipated Oxford don?” – Mank
- “I’m talking to Puerto Rican Harry Potter right here.” – Vampires vs. the Bronx
- “That’s the girl that broke into your house? Reparations have begun.” – Bull
Best action flick: Extraction
Extraction is simple. Soldier of fortune Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is hired to rescue a kidnapped son. The execution of this movie by stuntman-turned-director Sam Hargrave is outstanding. There’s an awesome 12-minute, seemingly one-shot sequence.
Best romantic comedy: Straight Up
Most rom-coms are disposable, unoriginal dreck. This is funny with characters worth caring about. Straight Up is written, produced, and directed by James Sweeney, who also stars as Todd, a gay man with intimacy issues. He develops a strong connection to Rory (Katie Findlay), who has her own problems.
Best Christmas movie: Happiest Season
It feels like there hasn’t been a good Christmas movie in over a decade. Here’s one that is LGBTQ friendly with a terrific supporting cast (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Dan Levy) that hits all the right notes.
Most depressing: Sorry We Missed You
During the early days of the lockdown, we all started shopping more online. But do you ever stop to think about the people who deliver your packages? What their lives are like? The gig economy is powered by ordinary people often doing low-paying jobs.
Scariest: The Dark and the Wicked
The sense of despair and impending doom can be enough for an effective horror movie. When a family returns to a rural Texas farm to say a final goodbye to their dying father, they encounter pure evil. The final scenes are extremely upsetting.
Most WTF: Color Out of Space
Batshit crazy Nicolas Cage in a sci-fi horror flick is as nutty as it sounds. Cage brings his over-the-top style to an already weird plot. He’s a farmer, growing tomatoes and raising alpacas (seriously). Things start to go haywire when a meteorite crashes in his yard. And Cage’s descent into madness begins.
Worst movie: Coffee & Kareem
This buddy comedy pairs white incompetent police officer James Coffee (Ed Helms) with foul-mouthed black 12-year-old Kareem. The kid hates the cop because Coffee is dating his mother. So, what happens? Kareem tries to hire someone to scare Coffee away. That plan backfires when Kareem witnesses a murder. Unfunny and offensive.
Worst movie with the best cast: The Last Thing He Wanted
Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Willem Dafoe have combined for three Oscars and nine Academy Award nominations. Even a star-studded lineup couldn’t save this incomprehensible clunker of a political thriller. The Last Thing He Wanted has a 5% critic score and 13% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Most entertaining documentary: Class Action Park
America’s most dangerous amusement park was a pop culture sensation in the 1980s and 1990s. The rides were so unsafe and unregulated that you might find it hard to believe. Action Park’s lack of rules only heightened its popularity among adventurous teenagers in the New York and New Jersey area. Even now, there remains a certain nostalgia, even though people died there.
Most boring movie: The Assistant
See Jane (Julia Garner) sit at her desk, answer the phone, write emails, clean the office! Admittedly, the HR scene is compelling. But this film will put you to sleep.
Movie you SHOULD watch during quarantine: American Utopia
American Utopia reminds you how music can make you feel good about the world. It’s a filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway theatrical concert directed by Spike Lee. This celebration of music, movement, and life will improve anyone’s mood.
Movie you SHOULD NOT watch during quarantine: Vivarium
Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are stuck at home and can’t visit family or friends. Tom develops weird habits and is getting on Gemma’s nerves. Sound familiar? The tagline for Vivarium: “You’re home. Forever.” In the best of times, this would be a depressing watch. But in 2020? Hard pass.
Best car chase: Tenet
Tenet will forever be known as the film most affected by the pandemic. Christopher Nolan’s latest is meant to be watched on the big screen. It’s a visual masterpiece highlighted by this jaw-dropping car chase in reverse. What makes it even more impressive is the apparent lack of CGI.
Best plot twist: His House
A fresh take on the increasingly crowded horror genre. The plot twist in this tale of South Sudanese refugees moving into a haunted apartment is stunning. Not going to ruin it for you. But it’s a reminder of what desperate people are capable of.
Best cameo: James Blunt in Greed
James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” is a cheeseball song that even Blunt admits is “annoying.” Blunt makes fun of himself by appearing in Steve Coogan’s satire about wealth and the fashion industry.
Lovely bit of diagetics in Greed (2019) courtesy of the master of self-deprecation, James Blunt pic.twitter.com/sjZVhUVtEL
— Alex Selby-Boothroyd (@AlexSelbyB) August 22, 2020
Best performance in a bad film: Lauren Lapkus in The Wrong Missy
The sole saving grace of this train wreck is Lapkus. From her first scene, Lapkus exudes uncommon energy that drags this movie to the finish line. She carries most of the weight because her co-star David Spade spends most of his time seemingly comatose.
Worst performance in a bad film: Kelsey Grammer in Money Plane
While there’s plenty of bad acting in Money Plane, we hold Grammar to a higher standard. He’s won Emmys. Instead, we hear Dr. Frasier Crane sound even more cartoonish than Sideshow Bob. Hope that paycheck was worth it.
Worst use of CGI: Greyhound
A World War II drama that looks like Tom Hanks is stuck in a video game. Director Aaron Schneider bragged about how the movie was made without water. It was filmed on a soundstage with a green screen. Terrible idea, because nothing feels authentic.
Best scene: The singing of “Silly Games” in Lovers Rock
The sheer joy of people dancing to the 1979 hit song “Silly Games” at a London house party is spellbinding. Everyone is singing at the top of their lungs. A magical moment from director Steve McQueen.
Most WTF scene: Mrs. Danvers’ suicide in Rebecca
Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) jumps off a cliff. But before she leaps to her death, she tells Mrs. de Winter: “You’ll never know happiness.” Mrs. de Winter responds by saying: “Yes I will.” What? This makes no sense.
Most terrifying movie prop: The iron coffin in The Old Guard.
It will give you nightmares.
Most memorable quote: Laverne Cox in Disclosure.
“I wonder if people who watch and love these shows. I wonder if they will reach out to trans people in need and work to defeat policies that scapegoat us, policies that discriminate against us, policies that dehumanize us. Because until that happens, all that energy from the silver screen won’t be enough to better the lives of trans people off the screen.”