In a time of challenges and hardship, these movies gave us insight, inspiration, and escapism in 2020.
Like most industries around the world, the movies industry got hit badly because of COVID-19. Thousands of theaters around the world closed and countless big-budget movies were delayed into 2021 and beyond. The dearth of big-budget releases and the lack of open cinemas made it feel like there were no new movies that came out this year. It was not all bad though as there have been great movies released in 2020. These movies come from different genres and tackle different subject matters, but they were all able to give us the escapism, entertainment, and insight we needed this year.
If 2020 taught an important lesson, it was that the government’s actions can greatly affect our daily lives. In Boys State, we see a representative government be built by thousands of American teenage boys. This documentary centers on the Boys State summer camp held in Texas where thousands of teenage boys spend the summer in the Texas State Capital learning about the government as well as running for political office themselves. Even if you are not well-versed in American politics, this documentary is a fascinating look into the minds and motivations of politically-interested teenagers. You get to see a diverse group of people from different ideologies interact with one another which makes for some interesting encounters. Boys State might make you hopeful for the future or unsettle you with how some of the teenagers see elections and democracy. Either way, Boys State is one of the best and most compelling documentaries of the year.
Within the past five years, A24 has built itself as one of the premier movie distribution companies for prestige cinema. From Moonlight to Lady Bird, A24 is no stranger to releasing movies that attract critical attention, and First Cow is no exception. Set during the early days of America, the
movie follows Cookie (John Magano), a cook who travels to the Oregon Territory with a group of fur trappers. There, he meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant with an entrepreneurial spirit. Together, the two collaborate on a successful food business with the help of one of the
only milking cows in the area. In a sense, First Cow is an appropriate film for 2020 since the two main characters became successful with a food business, and people turned to cooking and starting their own food businesses this year during the pandemic. Director Kelly Reichardt delivers a minimalist masterpiece with a tight story and strong performances. The movie’s 4:3 aspect ratio also gives the film a unique look. This is not the story of early America, but one of a growing bond between two unlikely people. First Cow is a quietly beautiful film and makes for a great viewing experience in the very hectic year that was 2020.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Some movies achieve greatness with the strength of their technical achievements. Others do by the strength of their phenomenal performances. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the performances not only speak for themselves, but they will leave you speechless as well. Set in a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the film sees talented and brash blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) record some of her songs with her band. However, tensions rise when Ma Rainey clashes with her ambitious horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and the white management. Viola Davis
absolutely commands the screen with her powerful performance as Ma Rainey and proves that she is one of her generation’s best actors. Chadwick Boseman also delivers his career-best in a swan song of a performance for his sadly shortened career. He plays his character with an electrifying and driven confidence that makes him too hard to forget. The movie is based on the play by August Wilson, and the jump from stage to screen worked well with excellent set design and era accurate costumes. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a well-made film that will leave you in awe of the one-two punch performances of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, director and screenwriter Eliza Hittman takes the viewer on an intimate and sometimes gut-wrenching journey of a teenage girl making a big decision. The movie follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old living in rural Pennsylvania. She learns
that she is pregnant and decides to get an abortion. Along with her cousin Skyler, the two travel to New York City to get an abortion for the unplanned pregnancy. The movie’s focus is on the emotional aspect of things. Autumn and the emotional journey she goes through to get what she needs is the emotional core of the film. Autumn’s journey is portrayed as a gloomy, overbearing, and often isolating experience that isn’t an easy decision. The film does not shy away from the realities of abortions in America. In Pennsylvania, she is exposed to conservative doctors who misguide her and dissuade her from ending the pregnancy. In New York City, she is harassed
outside the women’s clinic by anti-choice protesters. She has to deal with outside factors as well as her own inner turmoil. Autumn feels so vulnerable because Sidney Flanigan delivers one of the best performances of the year. She fits the role like a glove, and her performance hopefully sheds a light on the feelings that young women who do this go through.
Some people may think that rom coms are not exactly the place to find critically-acclaimed cinema, but those people have not watched Palm Springs, the year’s best rom-com and one of the best movies of the year. The film follows Nyles (Andy Samberg), a carefree man attending a wedding in Palm Springs. At the wedding, he meets the maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), and the two hit it on. Their chance encounter leads to some unintended consequence, and they soon find themselves stuck together in the same place and time. Both Nyles and Sarah are not one-note characters, but multi-dimensional people with their own dreams and motivations.
Samberg and Milioti have great chemistry with each other. They both carry the film with their nuanced portrayals of their characters. Nyles is nihilistic and struggles to find a purpose in his life. Sarah is the black sheep of the family and is looking to redeem herself from her actions. The movie can be extremely funny but knows how to dial it down for the more emotional,
impactful, and poignant moments. The mix of comedy, romance, and fantasy really works well for the film. Palm Springs is not a mindless comedy, but a movie that can both tickle the funny bone and meaningfully tackle the idea of what a long-term relationship should be.
THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION
2020 saw the debut of new talented directors and actors in movies. The Forty-Year-Old Version made waves as one of those must-see debuts. Radha Blank is a tour de force in her feature film debut, one she directed, wrote, starred in, and produced. The movie follows Radha, a struggling playwright living in New York City. Wanting to reinvent herself, Radha decides to become a rapper under the stage name RadhaMUSPrime and finds that she actually is talented in rapping. She then straddles the worlds of hip-hop and theater as she tries to find her voice and what she genuinely wants. Radha uses her life as an inspiration to give a performance that is mesmerizing and emotional all in one. She can be tough and confident but also world-weary and jaded. She has a magnetic presence on screen. The film also shines with how the movie explores Radha’s character arch. Her story is fleshed out, so the audience gets to see all the sides of Radha. Aside from this, the movie provides some funny and timely commentary on race
and gender in the contemporary world and how it is perceived with a modern lens. The Forty-Year-Old Version is a successful debut for Radha Blank convincingly portrays artistic struggle, mainstream success, and being true to oneself.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
The Invisible Man was an early favorite during its initial release in February. As the year comes to a close, the movie stands tall as the best horror movie of the year and one of the best movies of the year. The movie follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), an architect who escapes her
abusive boyfriend, Adrian. A few weeks later, Cecilia is informed that Adrian ended his life, but soon, strange things start occurring around her, which makes her think that Adrian may not be gone after all. The film’s greatest strength lies in the powerhouse performance of Elisabeth Moss. She is firing on all cylinders in this movie as she genuinely looks like she is
being tormented. The movie is also a commentary on abusive relationships, how that kind of relationship haunts you even when it is over, and who people are supposed to believe when accusations of abuse are said. The film uses the fear of the unknown to its advantage by making every scene feel like something might happen which leaves the viewer on edge. The Invisible Man is a crisp and chilling movie that effectively uses the fear of the unknown to deliver and tense filled ride.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
The events of The Trial Of The Chicago 7 take place between 1968-1969. However, the subject matter of the movie is apt for today’s political climate. The movie revolves around the Chicago 7 as they are put on trial based on charges against them by the US government relating to the protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The cast all around gives a solid performance, but special mention has to go to Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie co-leader Abbie Hoffman for his free-spirited performance and Mark Rylance as the hard-charging lawyer of the Chicago 7, William Kunstler. The real star of the movie, however, is Aaron Sorkin’s superb, but not the most historically accurate, script. It manages to capture the mood of the time and infuse each courtroom scene with so much tension and action. Even the scenes held outside the courtroom are engaging with scenes set during the convention and an interrogation scene near the end being standouts. The movie can get you mad, aggravated, and emotional
with what goes on during the trial. For something that happened more than 50 years ago, the movie truly feels like it can happen today. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 delivers a strong message of when outspoken people encounter a hostile government in a justice system that is not exactly fair for everyone.
WELCOME TO CHECHNYA
Movies can be an avenue for us to escape from reality. For two or so hours, we get transported to a different world or time and live the life of someone else. Yet movies should also open us to harsh but true realities of the world. Welcome To Chechnya is a chilling documentary that shows the abhorrent but true treatment of the LGBT community in Chechnya, Russia. The documentary centers on a group of LGBT activists in Russia as they hide and help LGBT Russians in Chechnya from imprisonment, torture, and execution. The film gives the viewer a firsthand account of LGBT Russians living in hiding as they fear for their lives and look to escape to another country. It is a riveting and unforgettable documentary as it mixes advocacy, investigative reporting, and suspense. There is no happy ending for this movie as the persecutions are still happening to this day, but there is hope in the form of activists and members of the LGBT community who help one another and speak out against the crimes. Welcome To Chechnya is a hard documentary to watch, but one that will open your eyes to the
situation and leave a lasting impact on you.
This year may not be remembered as a banner year for animated movies. That is a shame since this year saw the release of one of the best animated movies in recent years, WolfWalkers. The movie follows a hunter and his young apprentice daughter, Robyn, as they set-up a new life in Ireland to hunt down the last wolf pack near the settlement. Everything changes, however, when Robyn befriends a little girl from a mysterious tribe that can transform into wolves by night. The movie is absolutely gorgeous with breathtaking and colorful animation. The art style is like a children’s sketchbook come to life. The film is a feast for the eyes and great to look at both in stills and in motion. This all helps to enhance the movie’s storytelling that will keep you hooked from start to finish. The film also manages to infuse the story with mature ideas like Irish folklore, the destructive nature of colonialism, religion, and environmentalism. It’s
eye-catching how far the movie goes to paint the main villain as a man of deep faith and trust in God. It makes you wonder what actually motivates the villain to do what he did. This is Cartoon Saloon’s best movie to date, and that is saying a lot since their past films have been great as well. (Soul is probably the only other animated movie released in 2020 that could rival WolfWalkers in terms of animated excellence. It is Pixar’s best movie in years and proves once again that the animation studio knows how to ask complex questions in an accessible form.)
Bad Education – A strong ensemble cast led by an excellent Hugh Jackman; this movie is an entertaining depiction of the biggest embezzlement scam in American public school system history.
Beanpole – This Russian movie tells a compelling story of two young women trying to find meaning in their lives in post WW 2 Leningrad
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. While the movie’s satire is as great as always, the real star of the movie is the breakout performance from Maria Sagdiyev as Borat’s daughter, Tutar.
Dick Johnson is Dead – A heart-warming documentary on family and what it means to die.
Disclosure – In a year that saw Netflix release excellent documentaries like Athlete A and Crimp Camp, Disclosure stands out with its riveting examination of transgender people portrayed in the media.
Freaky – A body swap horror movie that manages to deliver both on the scares and the laughs
On the Rocks – The reunion of Bill Murray and director Sofia Coppola is made better by the addition of Rashida Jones and makes for a fun father-daughter adventure in New York City.
Possessor: Uncut – A brain trip of a horror movie that holds nothing back with its visceral action and thought-provoking themes.
Tenet – Despite a sometimes hard to follow story, Christopher Nolan’s take on a spy movie has some of the most creative and exhilarating actions scenes of the year.