20 for 20: Diana's Top Films of 2020
Despite movie theaters closing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 released so many fantastic films. And while I would have loved to see many more of them on a bigger screen, I am grateful to have seen them period. I do not claim that these are all “the best” films of 2020, but after much deliberation (and binge-watching) these are my top picks released during a very unusual year. But before I get going on the films of 2020, however; here are a few words on some of the TV series that helped me get through the especially trying times.
2020 TV Series:
Dark but Satisfying: (HBO for the win):
I May Destroy You
The Third Day
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You is captivating. It deals with questions of consent and trauma, while also looking at friendship and how you portray yourself to others once given a public platform. The Third Day is just one of several mesmerizing performances by Jude Law in 2020 - with a story that turns on its head halfway through, as Naomie Harris takes the lead. Matthew Rhys plays the titular Perry Mason, which is an origin story of sorts, but so beautifully shot and anchored by Rhys’ performance, that I am happy with it just as a standalone piece. And finally, there’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the HBO documentary series based on the book of the same name, covering Michelle McNamara's investigation into the Golden State Killer and what that investigation cost. It is gripping and devastating, even if you already know its ending.
Ennui & Personal Demons:
We Are Who We Are (HBOMax)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
High Fidelity (Hulu)
Anya Taylor-Joy kills it as a chess prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit (a series that looks like a film). Luca Guadagnino creates his first series for the small screen with We Are Who We Are. The show is as dreamy and stunning as his film work; it follows teenagers living on an army base in Italy as they deal with death, sexuality, religion, patriotism, and family. Zoë Kravitz stars in Hulu’s reboot of Nick Hornby’s work, High Fidelity, which winks to the original film while offering pleasant and satisfying changes. For more about this series check out my article here.
Fantasy but not total Escapism:
Tales from the Loop (Prime)
While Devs and Tales from the Loop both deal with stylized futures, they are still grounded in dealing with grief, loss, and what motivates us as human beings (and all of the emotions ranging in between).
Hilarious yet still Poignant:
I was definitely late to the game in watching Pen15. I used to rewatch episodes of Broad City when I was feeling down and needed a pick-me-up, and Pen15 has definitely filled that void during 2020. As adult actors portraying adolescent versions of themselves, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are so believable at times that they blend in with their tween peers. The first half of season two deals with crushes, divorce, puberty, and that epic beast: the middle school drama club. This show made me laugh out loud but dealt with friendship and coming-of-age in such a way that still struck a strong chord of sincerity. It is worth your watch and I cannot wait for future episodes.
On to the films of 2020…
...of which, I watched many. I wanted to stick with my usual criteria of only picking a “Top Ten List” despite there being so many heavy contenders in 2020. But there were so many to choose from, so here are ten noteworthy films that definitely would have made it into my “11-20” if I had made a “Top 20 List” (in no particular order):
i’m thinking of ending things, Dick Johnson is Dead, Corpus Christi, One Night in Miami..., Saint Frances, Sputnik, Wolfwalkers, Da 5 Bloods, Babyteeth, and Lovers Rock (but actually, ALL of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films: Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheetle, and Education are worth your time).
Now, down to the nitty-gritty:
10. Love & Monsters - I’ve already watched this movie twice, and I definitely see it as one I will return to again in the future. While some may compare it a bit to Zombieland, it is Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, The Maze Runner) who really carries the film into greatness territory. A scared, clumsy boy and a very brave dog are on a journey in a world where the creatures that were once swatted away, now top the food chain. The special effects and creatures are a lot of fun, as are the side characters (shout out to Michael Rooker), and the movie has a really tight script with plenty of payoff throughout. Plus, Dylan O’Brien is just so dang likable. With so many great films in 2020 being of “heavier” content or sentiment, Love & Monsters was refreshing, entertaining, and funny. I hope that we will get another one of these films (or two?) in the future.
9. First Cow - We see so many films that focus on romantic love, but in First Cow we really examine a story about friendship. The movie’s two main characters are initially united by their otherness, but also by a wish to better their situation in a new world. John Magaro is the sweet to Orion Lee’s spicy. They compliment each other so well, one fueling the other in their goal to succeed in the Pacific Northwest during the nineteenth century. The film is beautifully shot and heartbreaking to watch.
8. Time - Produced and directed by Garrett Bradley, Time is a documentary following the fight by Sibil Fox Richardson to free her husband from jail for almost twenty years, while simultaneously raising their family. During this time, Fox filmed several home videos of herself and her family. She is a mother of six, a writer, public speaker, and entrepreneur. When she met Bradley initially, they decided to work on a short documentary film, but towards the end of shooting, Richardson gave Bradley home video footage from the past 18 years, which Bradley used to weave together the feature-length documentary. The film is profoundly sad but also hopeful, as Fox raises their children as a single mother, but continues to fight for the early release of her husband from a 60-year sentence. It is an indictment of the incarceration system and a detailed look at love and family.
7. Another Round (Druk) - What happens when you start losing your joie de vivre? Four friends who are all high school teachers, feel like they are just going through the motions. After reading a study, one of them suggests that they conduct an “experiment” where they each maintain a constant blood alcohol level of 0.05 during the day to help them relax and be more creative, to see what effect it has on their jobs and lives. The results vary and continue to escalate with disastrous consequences. Mads Mikkelsen leads the film as Martin, a father, husband, and teacher who has lost his sense of joy and is just looking for a way back. The final moments of the film (and Mikkelsen’s performance) are enough to make the whole movie worth it. Check it out.
6. Bad Education - This movie really took me by surprise. I didn’t expect it to be so damn good. Based on a real-life scandal, Hugh Jackman shines as Frank Tassone - the Long Island school superintendent who is ultimately caught for embezzlement. Allison Janney is always fantastic, this time as Pam, the financial conspirator to his crimes. The reason this film is so good is just how sympathetic Jackman makes Tassone. He’s living a lie at all times, but we still want him to escape before it’s too late. This is some damn fine acting.
5. Sound of Metal - Riz Ahmed delivers a career-defining performance as Ruben, a musician, and addict who struggles with change when he loses his hearing. This film uses sound (and lack thereof) and closed captioning as a way for a hearing audience to experience what Ruben is going through, all the while never portraying deafness as a disability. Rather than making the film about a challenge that Ruben must overcome, it is more about facing change and learning to grow along with it.
4. Beanpole (Dylda) - Beanpole takes place in Leningrad (Russia) shortly after WWII, where the city and its residents are still reeling from the effects of the war. The titular “Beanpole,” is Iya: a tall, skinny, pale young woman, who is working as a nurse at a hospital caring for veterans after serving in the war herself. She suffers from PTSD and periodic bouts of seizures where she freezes, unable to move, her breath rasping and gurgling until the episodes are over. She lives in a communal apartment with other families, struggling to make ends meet, while caring for a small child. When her friend from the war, Masha, returns to live with her, looking for a new start is when things really start to shake up. I won’t say anything more about the story, or about Iya and Masha’s relationship, but it is their performances that make this such a special and memorable film.
3. And Then We Danced - Levan Gelbakhiani stars in this film by Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin, about a young man, Merab, working to gain a spot in the National Georgian Dance Ensemble. His parents are both failed dancers who are now separated. His family struggles financially. He and his brother both participate in a smaller ensemble, practicing since they were small children. Traditional Georgian dance is seen as a representation of “traditional masculinity” in the conservative country. While Merab is dedicated and hardworking, he is constantly criticized by his instructor. His attempts to join the ensemble are further challenged by Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) a newcomer to his dance class, which shows more natural talent to the artform. While the two dancers are initially competitors, they soon become friends and then more. And Then We Danced deals with Merab’s struggle to reconcile his passions for dance and Irakli, with the traditions and beliefs of his society.
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Eliza Hittman’s film is one of a few released during 2020 that dealt with a plot centered around a journey to have an abortion. It stars Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a minor from Pennsylvania, and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder) who travel to New York City, to visit a clinic that will allow her to have an abortion unaccompanied by a parent. The entire film is an odyssey: showing every detail of their journey and all of the obstacles they must overcome to reach their goal. The performances in the film are often so understated that any explicit show of emotion is jarring but cathartic. For more about the film check out my full review.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Céline Sciamma’s film was one of the last ones I was able to see in a theater before they shut down last year, and it stayed with me throughout 2020. It may be another film where some feel “not a lot happens,” but in reality, everything happens. Noémie Merlant plays a female painter, Marianne, commissioned to do a portrait of the aristocratic Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send to a potential suitor for marriage. Héloïse has left the convent after her sister (presumably) committed suicide, and she does not want to participate in any attempt to solidify her future nuptials. Marianne has been hired by Héloïse’s mother to accompany her on walks by day, and paint her portrait in secret. There’s a lot more to the film than that. But if you haven’t yet seen the film, I strongly recommend it. It is heartbreaking and gorgeous. A lot of the lighting and color palettes create the feeling of an oil painting as we get to know these characters and watch how their interactions will shape them for years to come.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro