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The Best Movies of 2020

December 31, 2020

By John Corrado

How do you even begin to summarize 2020, a year that is ending today but probably won’t be fondly remembered by pretty much anyone? It was, as we all know, a year that began with news of a novel Coronavirus emerging in Wuhan, China, which would quickly spread around the world to become a deadly global pandemic. By March, the illness known as COVID-19 became a disruptive force in all of our lives, when entire cities were locked down across North America in an unprecedented move to stop the spread of the virus.

What followed was a year defined by quarantines, social distancing, wearing masks, and virtual Zoom meetings, altering the ways we interact with the world, probably forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire social order has been upended by 2020, and the repercussions of this on the economy and how people go about their daily lives will be felt for years to come. This was, in short, one of the most consequential years in modern human history.

What does this have to do with a list of the top ten movies? Well, everything. Because COVID-19 has decimated the theatrical market, with theatres being closed and studios scrambling to either delay their films or release them digitally instead. The longstanding theatrical window of roughly three months has been smashed open, and the very future of film distribution has been irrevocably changed, with it now including big movies being released day-and-date on streaming services and in selected theatres.

I know we talk about the “death of movies” practically every year, but this time it felt different and more real. For instance, I only saw one of the films on my top ten list in a theatre. The rest, like the majority of films that we all watched this year, were seen at home either through online screeners, digital rentals, streaming services, or virtual film festivals. Some of these films won’t even be released in Canada until into the new year, but I’m still counting them as 2020 films due to their awards eligibility.

It was a strange year, both for movies and life in general, but there are some truly great films on this list that would have stood out no matter what. As always, this is simply my personal ranking of the films that made an impact or stuck with me over the past year. I am also only including narrative films on this list, and my list of the best documentaries will be coming in the next little bit. Now let the big countdown commence. Here are my picks for the best movies of 2020!

#10: Mank

David Fincher’s black and white, Old Hollywood opus Mank focuses on alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he writes the script for Citizen Kane. With a screenplay that was written by his late father, Fincher’s film crucially explores how Mankiewicz’s friendship turned rivalry with news mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) informed the story. While Mank is a film that seems inaccessible to all but the most devoted cinephiles and movie buffs, it’s an absorbing, beautifully shot drama that boasts an excellent performance by Oldman, and a magnificent turn by Amanda Seyfried as silver screen star Marion Davies. Neither a conventional biopic, nor a movie about the actual production of Citizen Kane, Mank is instead something singular. It’s a companion piece of sorts to Citizen Kane, that holds a mirror up to the Orson Welles classic.

Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.

#9: Promising Young Woman

Director Emerald Fennell’s ultra-stylish feature debut stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, the titular “promising young woman” who dropped out of med school following a traumatic incident. She has now dedicated herself to getting revenge on the sort of creepy dudes who pass themselves off as nice guys to justify taking advantage of women, which makes up the story of Promising Young Woman.

Mulligan is brilliant in the role, delivering a performance that feels like a career reinvention. Behind the camera, Fennell displays a command of her craft, with the film elevated by vibrant cinematography and some incredible needle drops on the soundtrack. It will make you deeply uncomfortable and then very angry, but that’s the whole point. This is a blistering film, building towards a positively stunning final sequence that ranks as one of the best endings of any film this year.

Promising Young Woman will be released across Canada in early 2021.

#8: The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow has made a name for himself directing these sort of loose and shaggy character-driven comedies with heart, and The King of Staten Island is his best since the equally tragicomic Funny People. This film serves as a showcase for Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, who plays a loose version of himself and also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on his own experience of losing his firefighter father at a young age. Davidson draws both laughs and pathos out of the tensions that arise when his character’s widowed mother (Marisa Tomei) brings home a new boyfriend (Bill Burr).

Davidson shows new dimensions in the leading role, and the aces ensemble cast also includes a poignant turn by Steve Buscemi in one of the most memorable supporting performances of the year. Yes, this is a comedy, but it’s the sort that opens with the main character making a half-hearted suicide attempt, and ends with a powerfully cathartic moment set to Kid Cudi. In other words, The King of Staten Island is exactly my kind of movie, offering just the right mix of funny and sad. It’s quite simply one of the films that I enjoyed the most in 2020, which is a big reason why it landed on this list.

The King of Staten Island is now available to watch digitally and on Blu-ray.

#7: The Father

Adapting his own stage play for the screen, Florian Zeller’s The Father is probably the closest that a film has ever come to capturing the feeling of what it must be like to live with dementia. Through ingenious production design and editing choices, as well as a heartbreaking central performance by Anthony Hopkins as an elderly man refusing to leave his London flat, the film powerfully takes us inside his mind to show his confusion and increasingly shaky grasp on what is real. It’s a devastating experience, built around one of the best performances that Hopkins has ever given. This is also the only one of these ten movies that I actually got to see in a theatre, thanks to a special, socially distanced press screening that Elevation Pictures organized during TIFF, so I’m thankful for that as well.

The Father will be released in Canada in early 2021.

#6: Nine Days

Where do new souls go to get their personalities? This is the question that is asked in Pixar’s new film Soul, (which will be showing up later on this list), but the question also gets its own answer in Edson Oda’s powerful feature directorial debut Nine Days. This film follows a man (played beautifully by Winston Duke) who lives in a sort of in-between world, auditioning new souls for life on Earth over a nine day process. The souls who don’t make the cut will cease to exist, but not before he gives them a transcendent sendoff. Oda wrote the film following a family member’s death by suicide, and Nine Days becomes incredibly powerful in its exploration of depression and why people would choose to give up the gift of life. It’s a beautiful film, that is both enchanting and deeply moving.

Nine Days will be released in Canada in 2021.

#5: First Cow

Stolen milk from the first cow in Oregon in the 1820s provides the backbone for a fledgling “oily cake” business started by Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) in Kelly Reichardt’s frontier drama First Cow. The former is a cook travelling with a group of fur trappers, the latter is a Chinese immigrant on the run. The tender friendship that develops between these two men informs this captivating and exceptionally understated film. It’s beautifully directed by Reichardt, who proves herself once again to be a masterful observer of Americana, crafting one of her finest works in a career full of gems.

First Cow is now available to watch digitally.

#4: Minari

A Korean family in the 1980s moves to Arkansas in search of a better life in filmmaker Lee Issac Chung’s deeply personal yet universally relatable Minari. The father (Steven Yeun) has big dreams of operating a farm on the chunk of land that he has purchased, but natural circumstances get in the way, leading to increased tensions with his wife (Yeri Han). Much of this is seen through the eyes of their young son David (Alan S. Kim), and the heart of the film comes from the relationship between the boy and his grandma (Yuh-jung Youn, stealing every scene) who moves into the mobile home with them.

First off, Minari is a really touching film, filled with small moments that resonate in a big way. The performances are all wonderful, and every little detail of it feels so beautifully and lovingly observed by Chung. This is an immigrant story, yes, but it’s also a classic working class story about the American Dream and a family trying to make it on their own in the land of opportunity at the height of capitalism’s heyday during the Reagan era. It’s a poignant mix of emotion and humour that is rich with feeling.

Minari will be released in Canada in early 2021.

#3: One Night in Miami…

Regina King’s directorial debut is an exciting conversation piece that unfolds in a Florida motel room in 1964 on the night that Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Clay is celebrating his win with Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and the vital conversations that these four Black icons have about race in America resonate far beyond the film and its time period.

Based on a stage play by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the film’s adapted screenplay, One Night in Miami… is a riveting and powerfully acted film, with several moments that have stuck with me since seeing it. All four actors do excellent work here, with Ben-Adir’s incredibly nuanced and humanizing portrayal of Malcolm X ranking as one of my favourite performances of the year. Powers also co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul, making him one of the true MVPs of 2020.

One Night in Miami… will be available to stream on Amazon Prime as of January 15th.

#2: Nomadland

Fern (Frances McDormand) is a modern day nomad who drives around from state to state through the American West, doing seasonal work at Amazon in order to earn cash, and making her home wherever she parks her van. This is the basis for Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, a moving journey through post-recession America that, in its own quiet way, leaves a huge impact. McDormand is transfixing to watch in the leading role, backed up by a supporting cast that is made up largely of real life nomads. There are shades of Terrence Malick in the film’s construction and cinematography which, coupled with Zhao’s masterful and incredibly empathetic direction, result in a haunting and powerful ode to those who make their life on the open road in a country that has left so many behind.

Nomadland will be released in Canada in early 2021.

#1: Soul

It will shock pretty much no one who knows me that Soul is my number one pick for the year. I’m a huge Pixar fan and, more specifically, a big fan of director Pete Docter’s work at the studio. Docter’s previous film, Inside Out, was my favourite movie of 2015, and in many ways Soul feels like a spiritual sequel to that emotional film. Except instead of exploring our emotions, this one seeks to answer the question of where our personalities come from, and it’s another beautifully animated knockout.

The film takes its characters – middle school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who falls into a manhole and ends up on his way to the Great Beyond on the same day that he gets his big break, and 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who doesn’t want to go to Earth and would rather stay in the Great Before, where new souls learn about life – on a moving journey that upends their preconceived ideas about what it truly means to live. We, the audience, are taken on this journey as well, with the film allowing us to reflect on moments from our own lives, while offering a touching message about enjoying the little moments.

Plus, Soul is simply bursting with imagination, including some of Pixar’s most abstract visuals, making this an exciting creative achievement as well as a powerful emotional one. This was my most anticipated movie of the year going into 2020, with the film initially supposed to open in theatres in June before being pushed to November and then finally landing on Disney Plus on Christmas Day. And going out of 2020, it’s my favourite movie of the year. I also want to give a special shoutout to Pixar’s Onward, the other film that the studio released this year, which just missed landing on my top ten list.

Soul is now available to stream on Disney Plus.

Honourable Mentions (Alphabetical Order): Another Round, The Assistant, Da 5 Bloods, Falling, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Invisible Man, The Kid Detective, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, On The Rocks, Onward, Pieces of a Woman, Summer of 85, Tenet, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Wolfwalkers.

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