This has been a bizarre year on a number of fronts in the world of movies, from the explosion of streaming services to the implosion of theaters. It’s all a result of the coronavirus, of course, and while there’s some debate as to whether or not the virus caused this change or merely sped up an inevitable entertainment evolution, the fact of the matter, virus, is that you’ve changed things. Forever.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the stubborn insistence by studios on releasing gobs and gobs of awards-caliber films at the end of the year: Despite the fact that the Oscars have extended the eligibility period to February and despite the fact that there’s no more requirement of a qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles, for some reason we’re stillgetting a year-end crush with limited availability for certain pictures.
And I’ve had it! None of those titles will be eligible on my year-end list. Sorry Nomadland. Sorry Minari. You come out in February. You are 2021 movies. I’ll try to remember you next year. No promises.
Because of the weirdness of the year, I’ve wrestled with whether or not I should include TV shows. I mean, if the Los Angeles Film Critics Association can pick Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology—which is a series of productions, not one production, and thus more like a TV show like “Black Mirror” than a “film”—as “best film of the year,” then why not? But I’m a stickler for that sort of thing so I shall instead just highlight my three favorite shows of the year here: Devs, on Hulu, which is the sort of stylish middlebrow production I cannot get enough of and likely would’ve topped my ten, were it to appear on the list below; Mythic Quest, on AppleTV+, which is the funniest goddamn show I’ve watched in some time and the only one to pull off a Very Special Covid Episode; and the second season of The Mandalorian, if only for how angry it made certain Last Jedi dead-enders for reminding people that Star Wars can be both good and pleasing to fans.
Honorable mentions, movie division: News of the World, which is a bit corny but perfectly so; Let Him Go, which serves as a wonderful reminder of just how good Kevin Costner is; The Rental, which is probably the scariest film I’ve seen this year; Possessor, which I wish I’d been able to see in a theater; and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which didn’t make the cut because it didn’t stick the landing (I shouldn’t have to read a Wikipedia entry about the source novel to figure out what’s going on in a movie).
A housekeeping note: in years past when putting this list together, I’d include a link to a review if I’ve written one. That’s not really possible, since most of my writing from the first half of the year got wiped out when my previous job ended in rather spectacular fashion. (Again: 2020 has been a very weird year!) But I’m grateful for The Bulwark letting me do my thing here and if you like what you’ve been reading for the last six months, please consider becoming a paying Bulwark+ member. In addition to supporting this newsletter you’ll also unlock members-only episodes of Across the Movie Aisle, another refugee from my previous gig.
And now, on to the top ten!
10. The Hunt
Most of us have probably forgotten about the controversy over The Hunt, and for good reason: it was remarkably fucking stupid and, in hindsight, pretty self-defeating for the conservatives who railed against the film’s premise without actually, you know, seeing the thing they were railing against. But it’s an aggressively nasty little piece of work, one that actually manages to subvert expectations and make the majority of critics uncomfortable. Compare it to Bacarau, a similarly unsubtle film with a similarly themed Most Dangerous Game-style premise. But Bacurau aspires to nothing more than ensuring viewers that they are more enlightened than the picture’s villains, and feels like a bit of a cop out, while The Hunt goes out of its way to alienate everyone and feels much more daring as a result.
9. The Gentlemen
I could watch a Guy Ritchie Brit-gangster flick literally every single year and never get tired of them. Funny, flashy, and with an intentionally offensive edge—the cinematic equivalent of holding a finger in front of your face while shouting “not touching you, not touching you,” Ritchie’s just waiting for you to take the bait and whine about his provocations or, even better, proclaim yourself bored by them, as if you’re just so above being offended by something so intentionally offensive—The Gentlemen scratched my Ritchie itch in a way no film since RocknRolla has.
8. On the Rocks
In some ways the polar opposite of The Gentlemen: more feminine, more introspective, less interested in pushing buttons, and more empathetic. On the Rocks was also like a letter from the recent past, a reminder of what it’s like to live in a city that hasn’t been forced to shut down in order to keep people from dying from a plague. The simple freedom of movement and the ability to congregate was as soothing as a travelogue to a distant island village.
7. Palm Springs
I hate romcoms but I kind of loved this Groundhog Day knockoff. Maybe I just like Groundhog Day, I dunno.
6. She Dies Tomorrow
She Dies Tomorrow is a movie about a disease that causes people to think—to know, to be sure—that they’re going to die in short order. It was pitched to people as a thriller or a horror movie, but it’s not that. It’s an absurdist comedy, a meditation on dealing with the realization we’re all going to die. Cheery stuff for 2020!
Every movie star should pull a Russell Crowe and play a demented 400-pound version of himself tormenting random women on the highway. Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio, his youthful face made flabby and paunchy, moving with a sort of trundling rage. Anyway, Unhinged is gloriously mean without any pretense of redeeming social value, hence its high placement on this list.
4. Da 5 Bloods
I love lots of things about this movie, from the decision to not de-age or re-cast the middle-aged actors in flashback scenes to the shifting film stocks to the changing aspect ratios. I’m not quite as enamored of Delroy Lindo’s long walk-and-talk-though-the-jungle as some others are, but if he wins an Oscar for this performance it’ll make up for the time he failed to take home gold for his Congo cameo. Finally, the world has stopped eating his sesame cake.
You should’ve gone to see it on a big-ass IMAX screen when you had the chance instead of sitting around at home avoiding a disease that no one has been proven to have caught in a movie theater. There was something magical about that opening opera house sequence, just a real movie on a real screen with a real score, all fluid motion and gripping action and a little wry humor. Best experience I had in a theater all year, albeit in a year without many great theater experiences.
One of the nice things about 2020—one of the very few nice things—is that the weird movie release schedule combined with the big studios clearing their decks to avoid taking huge losses means that smaller, stranger movies got a chance to really shine. Fatman is one such movie. The shorthand pitch is basically “Mel Gibson plays Santa Claus while Walton Goggins tries to kill him at the behest of a spoiled kid who got a lump of coal for Christmas,” and if that doesn’t intrigue you, well, you should just skip this. But if it does intrigue you, I strongly recommend giving it a watch. In part because the Nelms brothers, who wrote and directed, and Gibson play the concept so straight, that there’s a weirdly profound quality to the proceedings. It makes you wonder what Santa gets out of the whole gift-giving bargain—and what happens when he loses his ability to serve as a shaper of men.
1. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Another indie oddity given some space to breathe by the new VOD-centric landscape, The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s tonal mix and crazily intense performance by writer/director/star Jim Cummings really stood out. As I wrote in my review, it’s “both a too-dark-for-laughs comedy and a scary-but-not-quite-terrifying horror film, wrapped around a family drama and a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown” that “feels designed to alienate large chunks of its potential audience.”
I can’t think of a better way to sum up 2020, can you?