Sarah’s Top Ten of 2020
Obviously, 2020 was a weird year for everything, including movies. I will say, for me, it was a fantastic year for discovering movies. I went into knowing nothing about several of the movies on my list this year. That turned out to be the best way to see these films. I’m not someone who gets bent out of shape about spoilers or goes out of my way to avoid them, but I will try and preserve that experience in my descriptions of those films in this article. This was also a great year for female filmmakers and filmmakers/actors of color. I was delighted to find myself challenged by a lot of films in 2020.
A few honorable mentions: Underwater, Mangrove, Da 5 Bloods, and The Trial of the Chicago 7.
10. The Social Dilemma
Like most people during the pandemic, I have been watching a lot of shows about cults to pass the time. I came across a mental health counselor on some of these shows named Steve Hassan. Hassan escaped the Moonies cult in the ’70s and on a podcast he recommended watching The Social Dilemma to help understand the role social media plays in all our lives. I have always been very wary of social media but The Social Dilemma laid out for me the dangers of unregulated algorithms and how they make micro-impacts on our decisions. The Social Dilemma is about half documentary and half dramatization. I found the documentary half the most compelling, particularly when you hear former executives and coders from some of the biggest social media platforms admit how dangerous and damaging their won work has become. I was moved enough by the film to delete several of my social media accounts and recommend anyone check it out to learn more.
9. Sound of Metal
Like most people, I am terrified of going blind or deaf and Sound of Metal takes that fear and puts you right inside of it. Through the skillful use of sound design, the film takes you on a journey with drummer Ruben as he experiences sudden and profound hearing loss. Ruben, a former drug addict is forced to give up his heavy metal tour with is bandmate and girlfriend Lou to join a deaf group home for former addicts to learn to cope with his hearing loss. We are right there with Ruben as he learns to sign, to cope with his deafness, and find his new place in the world. Riz Ahmed gives an impressive performance as Ruben and is supported by a cast of deaf and hearing-impaired actors. Director Darius Marder’s insistence that they use real deaf actors gives the movie so much more authenticity and depth. Perhaps most notable is the casting of Paul Raci as Joe, the head of the group home. Raci is a hearing actor but grew up with deaf parents and is the beating heart of the film.
8. Black Bear
This was the first film on my list that I was glad I knew nothing about going in. It is the first film by writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine’s that I have seen and it made me eager to explore his other work. The plot of Black Bear isn’t important and I don’t know if I could even successfully describe it. But what is important is the power of the performances in the film. Sarah Gardon plays Blair and Christopher Abbott plays Gabe, and they both bring powerful, passionate, and realistic performances to screen. But the real stand-out of the film is Aubrey Plaza and Allison. Like most people, I first saw Plaza on Parks and Recreation and have been delighted to watch her grow as an actor. Plaza is bravely raw in Black Bear and gives one of my favorite performances of the year in a strange and captivating movie.
7. My Octopus Teacher
I have always been scared of the ocean. In my opinion, it is full of scary monsters. My Octopus Teacher forced me to look at the ocean from a different viewpoint. It is a complex ecosystem with many marvels and wonders to explore. Filmmaker and experienced diver Craig Foster undertook a year-long experiment of visiting a kelp field every day and eventually established a relationship with a small octopus. We see how the two learn and grow to trust each other over time. Foster brought his camera with him on his dives and captured some stunning footage. But what My Octopus Teacher did for me more than anything is make me want to connect with nature again. After months of being trapped in my apartment with my one house plant, I started going on weekly nature walks to reconnect with the environment and feel a part of the world again. Any film that can change my behavior has to be given credit. I’m still not in a big hurry to get in the ocean but I loved this film and how it made me feel about the world during a really hard year.
6. Out Stealing Horses
Over the last few years, I have been able to see more Nordic cinema and I have found that I really connect with the stories and esthetic in a lot of those films. Based on a novel of the same name Out Stealing Horses tells the story of Trond, a man in his 70’s who runs into a figure from his past that forces him to think back to a life-altering summer with his father when he was a teenager. The story is split between modern-day Trond and fifteen-year-old Trond. Stellan Skarsgård gives a subtle performance, as Trond comes to terms with how his father’s abandonment, his wife’s death, and his own role in past events have shaped him into the man he is today. The film counterbalances the cold Norwegian winter with a beautiful and deadly summer spent in the woods in the 1950s. The film explores a lot of different male relationships, friends, fathers, sons, and neighbors. I often find it challenging to understand how and why men behave the way they do with each other. Out Stealing Horses didn’t offer me any answers, but it was interesting to examine and engage with.
5. Lovers Rock
There are so many good things to say about Lover’s Rock. It covers a lot of other ground in its tight 70-minute run time. It addresses friendships, rivalries, community dynamics, rape, and attraction. To my delight, it was also a musical. There is a full-on musical number at one point as well as wonderfully choreographed scenes. Director Steve McQueen manages to capture the hyper eroticism that comes from a bunch of people dancing together in one room. I was reminded of high school dances or college parties where you could feel the palpable sexual tension in the air. I do want to call out how marvelously well the film captures the dynamics of female relationships. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) sneak out to a house party together, when Martha abandons Patty at the party for a guy, Patty storms out. This felt so true to real life. As did the unspoken rivalry between Martha and Cynthia (Ellis George). Cynthia gets herself in trouble with one of the clearly predatory men at the party simply because she is feeling jealous and angry that Martha is getting a lot of attention. That kind of pettiness is usually drowning in unrealistic dialogue and over-the-top cat-fatting, but in Lovers Rock it is portrayed through looks and realistic dialogue.
Mortal was a random selection late one night that turned out to be a delightful surprise. I went into the film knowing nothing and I recommend this technique for viewing. I was delighted to find that the film was set and shot in Norway. The stunning landscapes add to the magic of the film. The dialogue and cast are a mix of Norwegian and English language and actors. I don’t want to say much about the plot because it was such a fun discovery for me, but Mortal is a subtle and clever entrant into the superhero genre. It was a breath of fresh air compared to recent loud and overstuffed superhero films that are over-reliant on CG fights and effects.
3. David Byrne’s American Utopia
I came to David Bryne’s music in my late twenties when a boyfriend took me to see Stop Making Sense at the movie theater. I was familiar with a few of the Talking Heads’ biggest hits but the screening made me an instant fan. Then I saw a couple of numbers from Utopia on SNL but I didn’t really know what to expect when I turned on David Byrne’s American Utopia. What I got was one of the most fun and moving experiences of the movie year. The simplicity of the sets and costumes with the sophistication of the stagecraft and choreography was impressive enough. But then you layer on the fantastic music, the energy of the performers, and Bryne’s unique worldview and you get a masterpiece. I admit, I was wondering what director Spike Lee really brought to the screen until a little over halfway through the production and it became very clear why Lee was the perfect director. The film made me nostalgic for a time when we could sit in a crowded theater and feel the energy of performance create a collective euphoria, but it was still powerful enough to get me up on my feet dancing and singing along in my living room.
2. The Vast of Night
I’ve never really believed in aliens, at least not flying saucers and little green or grey men. First-time director and writer Andrew Patterson knows how to carefully craft a believable narrative about government cover-ups, previous encounters, and visitations that happen when small towns are mostly busy with a single event (like a basketball game). We see and hear all the events through the main characters, radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), and switch-board operator Fay Crocker’s (Sierra McCormick) perspective, allowing us to follow along as the close encounter unfolds. The creative camera work, compelling sound design, and spot-on production design all make The Vast of Night a movie I have returned to several times and will enjoy in the future.
This was another one of those movies that I knew nothing about going in. I’ve been recommending the same approach to everyone I recommend it to, so I will speak pretty broadly about the film here. The unique structure of the film worked really well for me, it kept me engaged and asking questions as the story went along. Similarly, the script dropped just enough hints about where the story was going that it constantly kept me on my toes. Some of my favorite performances of the year were in Antebellum. Janelle Monáe carries the firm handily, she is asked to do some demanding physicality and she carries it off marvelously. In smaller roles, Gabourey Sidibe brings a dynamic character to the screen who dominates every scene she is in. She also delivers a monologue to a man at a bar that might be one of my favorite movie moments of the year. Lastly, Jena Malone turns her performance up to an eleven and clearly had a lot of fun being over the top in the most fun way possible. Like several of the films on my list, Antebellum made me take a mental step back and assess my own privilege. I appreciate the challenge, especially when it comes attached to such an entraining movie.