best film: I’m Thinking of Ending Things from Charlie Kaufman is the best film of 2020. In an undeniably down year for cinema, it is Kaufman’s work that stands above the rest.
most underrated: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is really five separate films. Lovers Rock is the #1 ranked film from the TSPDT consensus for 2020 and that is a fine selection. However, Red, White and Blue may even be slightly stronger and somehow that entry was completely left off the list of 24 films that make up the 2020 listed on the TSPDT 21st century list. Pieces of a Woman and Antebellum are among the best ten films of 2020 and both are also left off that 2020 consensus list.
most overrated: With the stage left absent by many fiction features- documentaries actually dominate the TSPDT consensus list top ten. Four of the ten are docs. However, from what remains it does appear that Never Rarely Sometimes Always (#3 on the consensus list for 2020), Da 5 Bloods (#5) and Minari (#10) are all overrated and occupying a slot that should go to a stronger cinematic effort.
trends and notables:
- The global pandemic obviously changed and hampered 2020 as a year. The results are one of the weakest years in cinema history. The drop off from 2019 (maybe one of the strongest years in the 100+ years of the arform) is indisputable. It is not hard to play the game of “what if” either as clearly films like Dune and The French Dispatch moved from 2020 releases to 2021 releases.
- Netflix and Amazon were already on the rise and that was just accentuated in 2020. Netflix made the best film of the year for these second time in three years (Roma in 2018), two of the best three films of 2020, and three of the best seven. Amazon backed Steve McQueen (one of the single most talented auteurs to emerge in the 21st century) for a five-part film series.
- Speaking of McQueen’s work at Amazon. His career resume remains impeccable in 2020- he has started his career making the top ten in each year (2008, 2011, 2013, 2018 and now 2020). His Small Axe (though I think it is five films) is certainly part of a trend of auteurs working in the longer miniseries cinema format. Luca Guadagnino and Derek Cianfrance did the same thing with archiveable entries in 2020. Though this longer format is nothing totally new (go back to Fassbinder, Bergman, Kieslowski) this is certainly a trend in 2020.
- All of the box office champions for 2020 were films that were either 2019 holdovers or were released in January or February just before the pandemic struck (March of 2020). The resulting global box office cratered.
- Charlie Kaufman’s triumph only barely outpaces Chloé Zhao’s ambitious Nomadland. This is the third film of Chloé Zhao. Nomadland is a work that is both enhanced by 2017’s The Rider and makes The Rider a stronger film as part of a larger vision from Zhao.
gems I want to spotlight: The last name and reality-bending premise of Possessor may make you do a double take—yes—Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) is taking up the family business—mindf*ck cinema, disturbing and brainy. Certainly even without the last name it is hard not to think of Videodrome, eXistenZ (technology tied to the body)—but comparison to others including Inception (corporate espionage, memory-blending) or even De Palma’s Mission Impossible are not out of place as a comparisons either. Brandon Cronenberg’s work is darker (and eerier) than Nolan—sexualized and violent. Escape from Pretoria is a film that eluded many in 2020 and should be sought out by cinema enthusiasts. Francis Annan has created a very solid entry in the annals of the prison break subgenre. Daniel Radcliffe leads the way for the cast—but really it is here because of the strong use of the split diopter and full frame compositions.
best performance male: It is a three horse race at the top here of 2020 between John Boyega, Gary Oldman and Jesse Plemons. Oldman is outstanding as the titular Mank in Mank. It may be his best work- I would need another viewing of this film, The Darkest Hour, and Sid and Nancy to tell for sure. Oldman appears in nearly every frame and this is an immaculate character study. If this is Oldman’s shining moment, the drunk (yet genius) Quixote vomit speech may be the specific scene career summit. Boyega gives the best performance of any of the five 2020 Steve McQueen Small Axe films. He is focus of Red, White and Blue playing Leroy Logan. He is moral, intelligent (if not a little naïve) and physical. Jesse Plemons’ achievement in I’m Thinking of Ending Things may be a half step below costar Jessie Buckley but still- he deserves credit for giving himself over to this ambitious project.
best performance female: Jessie Buckley is where you have to start here for her work in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Her performance has it all (including blowing raspberries at Plemons’ character just like Gena Rowlands did in A Woman Under the Influence). Frances McDormand lands here as well for her work in Nomadland. Casting a major actor/star at the center of a film dedicated to realism is a tough choice to make. Think of De Sica making the brilliant choice not to use someone like Cary Grant for Bicycle Thieves —and how Cuaron went with Yalitza Aparicio for Roma. But this casting choice with McDormand in Nomadland works– this is a triumph for her (along with Zhao of course). McDormand’s weathered face and natural style are the canvas here but McDormand dials it way back so she is not acting in a different movie than everyone else (almost all non professional actors). In one scene Fern’s sister describes her as “braver and more honest than everybody else” and who better to play that than McDormand? Vanessa Kirby is the breakout actor of 2020. She lands the third slot for her work in Pieces of a Woman. The fourth and final slot of 2020 goes to Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. This is a choice role for Carey Mulligan. On a per-minute basis she is better in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)—but it is tough to compare because she is in almost every frame here in Promising Young Woman as she plays Cassandra.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Pieces of a Woman
- Red, White and Blue
- Lovers Rock
- Promising Young Woman
- Shiva Baby
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|Alex Wheatle – Mcqueen||R|
|Another Round – Vinterberg||R|
|Antebellum – Bush, Renz||HR|
|Come True – Burns||R|
|Da 5 Bloods – S. Lee||R|
|Days – Ming-liang Tsai||R|
|Education – McQueen||R|
|Emma. – de Wilde||R/HR|
|Escape from Pretoria – Annan||R|
|Extraction – Hargrave||R|
|I Care a Lot – Blakeson||R|
|I Know This Much is True – Cianfrance||R|
|I’m Thinking of Ending Things – C. Kaufman||MS|
|Let Them All Talk – Soderbergh||R|
|Lovers Rock – McQueen||HR/MS|
|Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Wolfe||R|
|Mangrove – McQueen||R/HR|
|Mank – Fincher||HR/MS|
|Minari – Chung||R|
|Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Hittman||R|
|News of the World – Greengrass||R|
|Nomadland – Zhao||HR/MS|
|On the Rocks – S. Coppola||R|
|One Night in Miami…– R. King||R|
|Palm Springs – Barbakow||R|
|Pieces of a Woman – Mundruczó||HR/MS|
|Possessor – B. Cronenberg||R|
|Promising Young Woman – Fennell||HR/MS|
|Quo vadis, Aida? – Zbanic||R|
|Red, White, and Blue – McQueen||HR/MS|
|Relic – James||R|
|Riders of Justice – Jensen||R|
|Shirley – Decker||R|
|Shiva Baby – Seligman||R/HR|
|Soul – Docter, Powers||R|
|Tenet – Nolan||R/HR|
|The Devil All the Time – Campos||R|
|The Dry – Connolly||R|
|The Father – Zeller||R/HR|
|The Forty-Year-Old Version – Blank||R|
|The Nest – Durkin||R|
|The Rental – Franco||R|
|The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Sorkin||R|
|Undine – Petzold||R|
|We Are Who We Are – Guadagnino||R|
|Wolfwalkers – Moore, Ross Stewart||R/HR|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives