The pandemic has been a devastating health issue for more than a year. But it has also impacted the movie industry and even forced the Motion Picture Academy to push back its Oscar ceremony to April 25. The late date for the Academy Awards this Sunday prompted me to compose my own list of the best films of 2020.
Aired 4/23/21 on KPBS News
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.
2020 was most decidedly a crazy year. The pandemic impacted everyone and it also changed the way we watched films. With cinemas closed, people streamed more movies than ever at home including first run Hollywood blockbusters. Drive-ins even saw a resurgence as a safe place to watch movies.
For me, the caution I exercised to avoid getting COVID-19 made me hungry for films that were anything but cautious. So, my 10-best list mostly highlights smaller films that pushed the envelope and displayed something unexpected.
In many ways, this was a great year because smaller films could compete more equally with big Hollywood films. This was a year that I could have done a 10-best list of just documentaries or just horror.
So to start, I want to do an honorable mentions list of truly clever and inventive indie horror films starting with the Zoom inspired "Host," the Rod Serling influenced "Vast of Night," and the wicked fun of "Wolf of Snow Hollow" and "Anything for Jackson."
The documentary honorable mentions go to the inspiring "Danny Trejo: Inmate Number 1," the enlightening Bruce Lee doc "Be Water," and the just insanely absurd tale of "Red Penguins." Also noteworthy were "Crip Camp" and "David Byrne's American Utopia" directed by Spike Lee.
Foreign film highlights include "Another Round" (Denmark/Sweden), "Martin Eden" (Italy), "Night of Kings" (France/Cte d'Ivoire/Canada/Senegal), and "La Llorona" (Guatemala/France).
And a few films that didn't really push the envelope but which excelled at what they did were the lush black and white Hollywood tale of "Mank," the surprising romantic comedies "Palm Springs" and "Spontaneous," and the compelling humanity of "Minari" and "The Mauritanian."
Lastly, I just want to highlight an amazingly talented group of women filmmakers that all deserve attention and more importantly more financing to make more films. The women are Chloe Zhao for "Nomadland," Regina King for "One Night in Miami," Emerald Fennell for "Promising Young Woman" and Eliza Hittman for "Never rarely Sometimes Always."
Cinema Junkie Acting Awards
I also want to highlight some individual talent here.
Best actress was perhaps the fiercest competition in years. I was thrilled to see so many films driven by female protagonists and/or created by women writers and directors. What really thrilled me was that the women were diverse and flawed and complex. That is exciting! There were so many to choose from but these actresses just went the extra mile.
Best Actress: Viola Davis, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Runners up: Morfydd Clark in "Saint Maud," Azura Skye in "Swerve" and Haley Bennett in "Swallow"
The best actor category was not quite as exciting but for me there was only one hands down winner.
Best Actor: Delroy Lindo, "Da 5 Bloods"
Runners up: Steven Yeun in "Minari," Willem Dafoe in "Tommaso" and "Chadwick Boseman in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Top 10 films of 2020
Starting at number 10: Im always excited by new voices and "His House" marks the debut feature of Remi Weekes. He brilliantly uses African culture and folklore to give fresh flavor to a familiar haunted house formula. Plus he endows the film with an underlying social commentary.
At number nine is the first of a quartet of documentaries that just exploded expectations with creativity and energy. "Dick Johnson is Dead" is a daughters film about her father. Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson stages her fathers funeral before he dies and before he succumbs to dementia. The film is unexpectedly hilarious as well as poignant, always gracefully navigating between the two, so tears of laughter blur into tears of sadness.
A radically different documentary comes in at number eight, "Collective." Starting with a fire in a Bucharest club that leads to horrific health care scandals, this searing investigative documentary plays out like a Romanian "All the Presidents Men."
Coming in at number seven: While "Collective" serves up riveting cinematic journalism, "Time" is all about an expressionistic sense of artistry. Filmmaker Garret Bradley makes thoughtful, beautiful and provocative choices as she pleads for a more compassionate legal system. As the title implies, time is a key element and Bradley creates an ebb and flow thats exquisite.
The final documentary on my list is "The Truffle Hunters" at number six. This is a film in which simplicity and minimalism become sublime as we look at a dying breed of men and their dogs who hunt for truffles in Italy.
The next two films are both from debuting filmmakers who display intoxicating talent. At number five, Carlos Mirabella-Davis "Swallow" plays out like a Hitchcock thriller in which a woman (Haley Bennett) feels trapped in her elegant home and decides to swallow objects as her only means of controlling her life. Not a hair is out of place and the production design is rendered in terrifying perfection.
Then at number four: First time feature director Rose Glass delivers the ferociously bold and original "Saint Maud." From its opening score and fevered images, the film announces itself as an audaciously unsettling look at the dangerous intersection of madness and religion. Morfydd Clark is riveting as a young woman desperate to find purpose and meaning in her lonely life.
The most mainstream film on my list is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at number three. It won this spot almost exclusively on the jaw-dropping performance of an unrecognizable Viola Davis as the title character. Director George C. Wolfe adapts August Wilsons period play with vigor to remind us that the past is not some creaky ole thing to be viewed through sepia toned nostalgia. Wolfe makes us feel the heat and sweat of a past that informs the present.
I see my top two picks as comfort food. Theres nothing like dread to make me feel better about a scary and often infuriating real world. At number two is "Im Thinking of Ending Things," Charlie Kaufmans deliciously baffling film that refuses to explain anything. Kaufmans puzzle box requires you spend time examining it. In our culture of instant gratification it's nice to have something to savor long after its been consumed.
And my favorite film of 2020 is Brandon Cronenbergs relentless and disturbing "Possessor Uncut." It manages to be both cerebral and visceral. Cronenbergs father David once told me in an interview that hes not interested in comfortable cinema. Neither is his son, and while I sit at home trying to stay safe from a pandemic, neither am I.
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Beth Accomando Arts & Culture Reporter
I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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