I suppose this is the preamble of the list where I make comments on how strange and different the year 2020 was. Well, yeah, it was, and now we’re here, the part of the list where I say, “Thank God for movies!” And, yes, thank God for them. Of course. But also, here we are, at another point in my list where I say…
Ya know, I love movies, but if 2020 gave me anything, it was a newfound appreciation for, literally, anything-other-than-screens. It may be insensitive (and I understand how lucky I am), but I’ve told pretty much anyone who’s asked that 2020 was fairly good to me. Granted, we here at Story Screen Beacon were furloughed as far as the physical cinema went, but we took those kernels and made some VERY successful popcorn out of a Drive-In, and, ya know...that was a lot of fun. And, outside of work, I spent so much more time with my husband (Heath) and my pets; I got to help Heath finish so many household renovations (inside and out of the house), and I really cemented my fitness routine (I ran 193.1 miles in 2020...what?). It had been a long time since I had stepped out of that dark, cinema bubble and while I love that bubble, distance can make the proverbial heart grow fonder and, also, more appreciative of the films that really, truly, speak to you. I’ve seen A LOT of great cinema this year, but without the constant discourse I’m used to, it allowed some breathing room to solidify just what makes a “Bern 2020.” (And if I’ve left out your favorite film of the year, I can assure you, without a doubt in my mind, that film just missed the cut at “number 11.” “Number 11”s ad infinitum.)
10) i’m thinking of ending things
i think in almost any other year, charlie kaufman’s i’m thinking of ending things would have ranked higher, but this isn’t just any ole year. i’m thinking of ending things is right up my alley (stellar acting, complex narrative, wallpaper), but more than anything, it reminds me of how i felt as a pre-teen when i first started developing my own personal cinematic tastes. (these types of films don’t come along super often, and i think i felt it last while watching 2017’s thoroughbreds; that’s what makes them so special.) kaufman is the type of filmmaker that can enter a cluttered space in my brain, decorated with malkovich timelines and lacuna inc. pamphlets and say, “you know, i’ll make some room here.” in terms of filmmaking, i’m thinking of ending things is a real treat, starting seemingly normal enough before taking a quick turn into the surreal and descending into an ominous madness. jessie buckley and jesse plemons star as a couple (supposedly) traveling back home in order for the latter to introduce the former to the parents, but you never quite get a handle on just who the former and, especially, the latter are. but the mystery isn’t even necessarily the point of the film. as the two jess(i)es participate in a wrestling match of the mind, toni collette and david thewlis dazzle as the confused parents, and the waters just get muddier and muddier. and they never unmuddy as they approach a crescendo of dance and stage design and old gymnasiums and the questions multiply until you’re left out in the cold in an old pickup, picking up the pieces.
if you haven’t yet watched i’m thinking of ending things, log in to netflix and give it a shot. byo head-scratcher and opinions. (and once you’re finished, check out our hot takes episode where we don’t get any closer to answers, but we have a damn good time tryin’.)
9) One Night in Miami...
Regina King is a gift that just keeps on giving. Her directorial debut, One Night in Miami... is one epic night indeed. Adapted for the screen by Kemp Powers (a busy man who also co-penned/directed Pixar’s Soul), One Night in Miami... is based on his very own stage play by the same name. Taking place (mostly) during a fictional account of one evening where four very real, and very prominent, Black Power Players meet in 1964 to discuss how to proceed in the Civil Rights Movement, the events in Miami couldn’t feel any more prescient. (And boy, I cannot wait until I never have to make a statement like that again.) The four players in Miami are Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, and while I could just use this space to endlessly praise Regina King (I could do it, you know), I gotta talk about the performances, because while the entire film is masterful, the performances are truly incredible and are the reason this film cemented a spot on this list.
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., and Aldis Hodge (blink twice, because you just saw this chameleon in Leigh Whannell’s inventive The Invisible Man) are the four men who embody the four leads, respectively, and even though I’ve only had a few days to sit with this film before writing this list, I can’t get these performances out of my mind. Now, this is the first time I’m gonna open myself up to you, dear reader, but I have yet to see Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X (I know, I know) so I’m not familiar with Denzel’s performance. But I DID watch Hulu’s High Fidelity, and I’ll tell you I was excited to research who this Kingsley Ben-Adir character was and was shocked to find that I had just watched him play Mac opposite Zoë Kravitz’s Rob. I’ll also tell you I’ve never seen 2001’s Ali (sorry, Will). So, I suppose Ben-Adir and Goree are my first introductions to portrayals of these epic men, and I’m glad for it. But it was Hodge’s quiet and strong interpretation of Jim Brown and Odom Jr.’s intellectual read of Sam Cooke that really had me on the ropes. If you’re familiar at all with Cooke’s work, it’s no surprise when (redacted) is the song of choice for the close of the film. But that foreknowledge doesn’t take away the weight (redacted) had on my heart. Remember when I mentioned I was learning to cry in public back in 2019’s “Best of” list? Well, now I’m just crying at home a lot, and that DEFINITELY happened at the end of One Night in Miami... (and a lot of other nights too, but we won’t talk about those right now.)
(Also, I haven’t watched Hamilton yet. Aren’t confessions fun?)
8) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Helloooooooo pre-pandemic! Coming in hot, half a lifetime ago, Portrait of a Lady on Fire saw a wide US release in February of 2020, so you better believe it made my 2020 list. But I’m probably more surprised than you are. I’ve watched my fair share of “period pieces” (I’m a slut for that type of costume design), but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, while enjoyable, I do find them to fall into similar patterns. My favorite period piece is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and I gravitate to it due to its inventive soundtrack and how fresh Coppola’s interpretation is. What I wasn’t expecting with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, after seeing the previews, was just how fresh it would feel without the modern soundtrack. Sciamma takes her creative liberties (since she is telling an original story rather than an adaptation or recounting a factual event) with the time period and all but eliminates the male presence, and let me tell you, reader, man it felt good. If you’ve seen the trailer for PoaLoF, you’ll of course understand that it follows a painter having to paint a portrait without the subject knowing, because she is obstinately refusing the work to be completed (because...reasons!). And during the subterfuge of the portrait’s completion, the two women fall in intellectual and physical understanding (the truest of love there is). There is plenty the trailer doesn’t allude to, and I wouldn’t want to take that discovery away from you, but this somewhat basic love story is duly fleshed out with a handmaiden and a mother, and an entire coven of women who all seem (although the mother is somewhat blind to it) to truly understand one another. It hearkens to a time when people could learn more truly, fall more madly, and feel more deeply, and the cinematography and composition are haunting. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, frankly, still haunts me. Tourner autour.
7) The Wolf of Snow Hollow
I was late coming into the Jim Cummings’ fan club back in 2018 when Thunder Road hit cinemas. (I saw it in 2019 and thoroughly loved it, as much as you can love a film that wrecks you), and I didn’t want to make the same mistake with The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Cummings, once again, doesn’t disappoint in delivering something completely refreshing, relatable, and foreign all in one go. The manner in which characters speak to each other in a Cummings film is something altogether unique, and even though they’re sometimes delivering soul-crushing dialogue, you still can’t help but laugh at the delivery. The man knows how to write a script, my kind of script. In The Wolf of Snow Hollow (billed as a comedy/horror), the town’s police force is trying to curb the attacks of a monthly predator that’s killing women in gruesome and other-worldly ways. But, then the film *SPOILER* shows you an actual werewolf, like, pretty early on in the film. Because that’s not what the film is about. It’s about something so much more sinister and prevalent. I don’t want to say much more because I found it so heartbreaking and raw that I’d like you to go on that journey yourself. Just know: Cummings delivers, as expected, as Officer John Marshall; Riki Lindhome (from Garfunkel and Oates fame) finally gets to shine in a somewhat serious role as Officer Julia Robson; and Robert Forster turns in his final performance as Sheriff Hadley and, truly, brings the house down. The film is dedicated to Forster, and if you happen to relate to the subject material, it feels like it’s dedicated to you too.
6) Dick Johnson is Dead
You just don’t come along a film like Dick Johnson is Dead every day...you just don’t. How many fathers (suffering from dementia, approaching the end of their life) have a documentarian as a daughter who can film their death in multiple ways to provide a historical, and cathartic, record of their life? I mean, I know a lot of people, but I don’t personally know anyone who matches this description...except now I can say I know Dick Johnson, and I’m absolutely enamored with Kirsten Johnson, his documentarian daughter. Kirsten began her work in filmmaking after earning her BA in Fine Arts and Literature from Brown University in 1987, and you may know her camerawork from award-winning films like Pray the Devil Back to Hell and Citizenfour. Kirsten is fascinating enough that she should have a documentary made about her life (which you get a taste for in Dick Johnson is Dead), but her MO while documenting her father’s twilight years is much more concerned with cementing her understanding of her family’s history before the last remaining historian is gone. Now, don’t be misled, Dick is just as invested in mapping out his deaths as Kirsten is, and is often the giddiest with his “heaven” escapades, which ceremoniously follow his many deaths. Documentaries are usually more interested in covering events passed, trying to figure out just what happened, and how. But where Dick Johnson is Dead soars is in its attempt to come to terms with the great inevitable, and in the process, Dick and Kirsten get exactly what they want: the opportunity to spend more time together. As a society, we constantly shy away from the practicalities of death, and yet are enamored with the gruesomeness death presents. The Johnsons transcend that gothic fascination, and most often when you transcend, you find art.
Okay, so I haven’t watched the MTV Movie Awards in years, probably well over a decade, and I’m in no way shaming them by saying this, but I feel like they just have to have a category that’s something like “Coolest Movie.” Right? That seems like an award they would have. Like, “Coolest Movie and Now You’re Cooler by Association Just by Watching It.” Right? Well...regardless, that’s the award Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor would win, and there needs to be more room for films like this in the “Big Boys” circuit of film awards. Possessor is not only cool, but it’s incredibly polished for Cronenberg’s sophomore feature film effort. My favorite sci-fi films are those that just drop you into the fray and let the story loose (2019’s High Life comes to mind - a film that has since moved up the ranks the longer I’ve dwelt on it), and this is exactly what Possessor does. Throughout the film, we get a few moments of technology exposition, but they’re handled in more of a jargon way than an explanatory way, and these moments are far eclipsed by the stunning visuals and performances.
In Possessor, Andrea Riseborough (THE titular Mandy from the 2018 masterpiece, Mandy) plays a renowned biotech assassin (Tasya Vos) who is transplanted into unsuspecting, breathing human-beings via [sci-fi explanation here] who she then manipulates to carry out hits before committing suicide in the body and pulling out into her own physical form (which lies mostly dormant in the organization’s facility). So, take these ingredients, add Vos’ family, and then put Vos in a body that begins to reject her, and you’ve got Possessor. Christopher Abbott (blink twice again because you just saw him deliver a stellar performance in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear) plays said reluctant body who is chosen as the vessel to complete the main assassination within the film. I was already very much digging the atmosphere of Possessor leading up to the “possession,” but when Abbott’s character (Colin Tate) begins to play a predominant part in the plot, it’s after he’s supposed to have been possessed by Vos and, let me tell you, Abbott IS Riseborough. The way Abbott can flip and show signs of Tate trying to escape Vos’ control is Out. Of. This. World. You would think Riseborough was wearing a literal Abbott costume and playing a big charade. As much as I enjoyed Riseborough in this film, Abbott deserves an Oscar nomination for this role, and I know he’s not gonna get one (I mean, One Night in Miami... has four lights’ out performances alone, and then you have Chadwick Boseman’s heartbreaking turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Riz Ahmed’s Ruben in Sound of Metal…), and it really breaks my heart. This is the type of performance that feels truly grounded, and I suppose that comes from the lack of press regarding the role, but I was both surprised and floored by how cool this movie was. “Coolest Movie” hands down, all four of ‘em.
4) The Third Day (Limited Series - HBO and Sky Atlantic)
Hooooooo, boy, I feel like I’ve told every single person I know to watch The Third Day, and, most likely, I told them multiple times. Honestly, I can’t shut up about it. There were quite a few of these limited series floating around that I considered also including on this list (HBO’s female-forward I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie and FX’s always-impressive, Season 04 of Fargo - the episode “East/West”...get outta here), but despite my initial predictions for these series, The Third Day paralyzed me. I think about it, I don’t know...maybe every other day? Even now, and this show dropped in September.
The Third Day is split into two, three-episode-long, halves, the first being titled “Summer” and the second, titled “Winter.” “Summer” follows Sam (Jude Law, c’maaaaaaaaaawwwwn, how can you resist), a grieving father who is, by circumstances, drawn to the mysterious Osea Island. The transportation to get on, and off, Osea Island is primarily facilitated by a periodically flooded causeway. So, of course, once he arrives on the island (which is somehow familiar to Sam), events unfold and he is unable to get back home to his family. For a day. But then, you know, more events happen. These events take place for three episodes, and that’s the first half - “Summer.” “Winter” is also three episodes long and, tonally, is the exact opposite of “Summer.” During the first half of The Third Day, colors are bright, the land is lush, and the island is bustling with activity, preparing for a mysterious festival. But, in “Winter,” when three new people come to the island looking for answers, the island is blue - in color, in mentality, and in harvest. There’s death here, and for all the intrigue “Summer” built, “Winter” is equally complex. I truly won’t, and can’t, say much more without robbing you of the magic of Osea. (Although, quick aside - the rest of the cast other than Jude Law is also stunning. You’ve got Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, Paddy Considine, Katherine Waterston...really, the entire cast is incredible.)
What cemented The Third Day as a contender on this list (amongst the television heavyweights) was watching all six episodes (which already ended with what brought your good friend Bern here to inconsolable sobs) only to discover there was a 12-hour Facebook live-stream featuring the connecting season: “Autumn.” This live-stream was a fully immersive theatrical experience that was recorded in one continuous take that the entire “population” of Osea (a very real place) participated in to better facilitate the story that bridges “Summer” and “Winter.” THIS is next-level storytelling, and you can still watch “Autumn” (now separated into two parts) by searching “The Third Day Autumn” on Facebook. (Don’t be mistaken: this is a Third Day endorsement and not a Facebook endorsement...that’s just where you can watch it.) So now, can you please just go watch The Third Day? You and I are friends at this point, so I’m contractually obligated to tell you to watch this show. It’s like I’ve almost built a personality out of it.
3) Palm Springs
This is, probably, the film that is the most difficult to write about, because it could have ended up in the number one slot, and even now as I write, I’m remembering how delightfully surprised I was by Palm Springs (a similar feeling to the one I had while watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga). I also have to keep reminding myself what a treat it was to watch this in July of 2020. If 2020 woke me up to anything in the world of film, it’s that I’ve really grown to appreciate films that are released just to be released (the unsung heroes of the summer). No ulterior motives of snatching awards in sight. Politics be damned! Anway...if you’ve been living under a rock, or, more appropriately, in a cave, Palm Springs is the Hulu darling/rom-com starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti where a couple has to come to terms with relivinglivinglivinglivingliving the same day, because, they’re what? Stuck in the same day, forever. (That’s right, y’all, it’s a Groundhog Day scenario up in here!)
Okay, so Samberg’s character (Nyles) is attending the wedding of his girlfriend’s friend in Palm Springs, and during the day, prior to the festivities, he stumbles into a mystical cave that homes a portal. This portal, once you step through, makes you relive the same day...seemingly forever. Nyles experiences this on day one of the “calendar,” thereby being forced to repeat the same wedding over and over. (Seems fun, right? Open Bar? Anonymous Sex? Where’s the catch?) Well, I guess eternity is kind of boring, and Nyles has played out every possible outcome (even, mistakenly, luring someone else into the cave - an outstanding JK Simmons). But what he hasn’t done, is gotten a member of his desired sex caught into the cave, and this is exactly what happens when Milioti’s character (Sarah - sister of the bride) also gets caught in the infinite time-loop.
Okay, okay, so...there have been plenty of other time-loop films throughout history, sure. But what if the time-loop wasn’t about convincing (i.e. gaslighting) someone outside of the loop to fall in love with you, but was more about staying with that person who you already love...forever? What if the time-traveling, time-loop romp was more about choosing that person, on your own terms because you’re on the same page, every single day? And then take that scenario, and what if, additionally, your desired partner (in this case, the lady) wants to solve for x (x = getting out of the time-loop) because the lady can’t live here...in the same day...forever. And the reason for that is a commentary on how women are held to live in their guilt far more often than men are and the woman is compelled to find an actual solution to that societal quandary.
Whew….okay, okay, so this, among many other reasons, is why Palm Springs ranks so high on this list. I’ve found, as I get older, that when the discussion of monogamy comes up in works of art or in conversations amongst “intellectuals,” monogamy tends to take a bad rap. It’s argued, with panache, that, perhaps, the human life is too long to consider only bonding to one person. I’m not here to argue whether or not monogamy is the way to go. But what I will say is that Palm Springs offers a smart, feminist perspective on how to pursue monogamy, if that kind of thing is your bag. It also heavily features Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” in its third act, and well, if I wasn’t already sold on this phenomenal film by that point, Kate Bush sealed the deal.
2) Promising Young Woman
I sometimes make the mistake of mentally reserving a spot in these lists for films I assume I’m just gonna love (I did it earlier this year with both Sound of Metal - my mom’s half deaf and the speaking volumes in SoM didn’t hit me in an overwhelmingly authentic way - and First Cow - while I found the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 2017’s A Ghost Story positively sorrowful, I found its use in First Cow to be a little flashy and distracting)...but Promising Young Woman did NOT disappoint.
I never want to be that person who doles out “life lessons” to those younger than I am (“take it from me,” “if I were you, young whippersnapper,” etc.) but as I’ve entered into my 30’s these past few years, I’ve really begun to take personal stock of where I am, and where I’m going. As you read this, in 2021, I will have been out of undergrad for 10 years, the big 1-0. The further removed I’ve been from that time in my life, the easier it is to acknowledge that those four years I spent in college were fairly damaging, for both my self-esteem and for my pursuit of higher education. I attended an overwhelmingly Greek university, and if you weren’t in a fraternity or sorority (which I wasn’t - I didn’t make the cut), you were left to cling to your Independent nomenclature with either pride, indifference, or in my case, condemnation. As the social butterfly I am, in order to make a name for myself and make friends, I partied, and I partied HARD. There were multiple evenings where fellow party-goers would claim I had gone missing for periods of time, only to return even more wasted than when I left. I had a problem. I was depressed, I couldn’t afford all of the books I needed for classes (because I was too poor to be there), so some of my grades weren’t to my own personal standards and in order to ignore all of these issues I drank even more. It was a difficult circumstance to avoid because everyone on campus had their own, different reasons to drink and did so every weekend. And, really, there’s a decent amount of these excursions that hold positive memories for me, because I can remember them. You’re either having fun, or you’re not, or you’re having fun until you’re not. I wasn’t having fun a handful of times, but any of those fun evenings could have taken a turn for the worse with one false step. There were 11 fraternities on my campus and on any given weekend, you could bank on at least three of them throwing some kind of rager. Most often, the plan was to ping-pong around campus until you found the party that stuck. On any given weekend, how many women did I party with that took that one false step? How many times was I in the room moments before the step was taken, leaving to find another frat that felt more my speed?
Promising Young Woman details the long-term effects caused by these toxic college experiences, that are seemingly perpetuated to bolster the young, male ego and line the pockets of academia. Watching PYW was both difficult and a treat wrapped up in a pastel bow by directorial genius, Emerald Fennell (in her long-awaited film-debut). The pastel, “feminine” color palette was a smart choice this year: you can also find it in both Swallow and, the afore-mentioned, I May Destroy You. Choosing to dissect the question of “what do we do with women in a world that is built to only support the male trajectory?” in a pastel environment helps make the problem more palatable for an audience who may not have this issue at the forefront of their minds. Plus, these three projects just look great.
And, obviously, Carey Mulligan is phenomenal as Cassie Thomas, the woman shouldering the guilt and the loss of this broken system. Cassie’s a woman who died a long time ago, and I consider myself lucky that I didn’t leave university feeling the same way. Many women, and men, leave academia broken. The #MeToo Movement has been making strides towards treating this social illness and creating safe spaces for conversations such as these, but Promising Young Woman reminds us there are plenty of survivors still healing. (And after watching PWY, may I offer a nice, comedic chaser of the Netflix comedy special by Natalie Palamides: “Nate: A One Man Show”? Consent!)
1) David Byrne’s American Utopia
It was always gonna be David Byrne. You can’t just give me more David Byrne in a year and expect anything less. If you’re unfamiliar with Byrne’s work, he is the lead singer of the band, Talking Heads, and is responsible for helping to orchestrate what just might be the best concert documentary ever made: Stop Making Sense. If you see Byrne’s name associated with a project, you know you’re in for a treat.
David Byrne released his album American Utopia in 2018, which became the backing project for a world tour of the same name, which eventually became the Broadway show, which was, in turn, captured for the screen by none other than Spike Lee. Whew, American Utopia’s been making the rounds. Byrne was also a musical guest on SNL in early 2020, and he and his cast performed two songs from the said show (“Once in a Lifetime” and “Toe Jam”), immediately piquing my interest. Thank God for Spike Lee for capturing it so beautifully.
Stop Making Sense is expertly stitched together to appear as one, continuous concert, complete with set and costume changes. I was expecting more of the same with American Utopia but was pleasantly surprised to find AU is one part lecture, two parts performance art, three parts concert, four parts protest, and 10 parts celebration. Byrne covers such topics as human interaction and the capacity for community love, the importance of voting, and what music-making means to him. He also touches on how important it is for musicians to honor each others’ cultural differences and the respect between music makers from all walks of life. And boy, Byrne’s music makers are just the best. (And Byrne repeatedly shows his admiration for them, in typical Byrne fashion.) They dance and run around the stage all while weaving old, Talking Heads hits and new, Byrne singles seamlessly into one, awesome production that feels like home.
And you just couldn’t have asked for a better director in Spike Lee. His involvement adds an extra heft of validation to Byrne’s message, and its tribute to those lost in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is perfect. Byrne, and his cast, sing (after asking permission) a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” that is somehow both joyful and sorrowful in the same breath. It became a requiem for me in the quiet moments when I reflect on where we are, as a family, a community, and a nation among many.
American Utopia ends with 2018 single, “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” Byrne sings of a party where everybody’s coming to his house, and he’s never gonna be alone, and they’re never gonna go back home. It’s about a joining of community and a celebration in our understanding that we’re all in this together.
“I wish I was a camera/
I wish I was a postcard/
I welcome you to my house/
You didn’t have to go far.”
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.