2020 Recap – Top Ten

by - December 31st, 2020 - Features



1. Nomadland (D. Chloé Zhao)

Lyrical. Haunting. Profound. Masterful. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an existential delight that drips in knowingly humanist atmosphere, stunningly literate character development and introspectively incisive atmosphere. It is the quintessential American road trip drama that feels more alive and of the moment than any other motion picture I was lucky enough to watch in 2020. Two-time Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career, while a supporting cast made up of familiar veterans (like David Strathairn) and real life self-described “nomads” is nothing short of spectacular. (In Theaters Feb. 19)

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (D. Eliza Hittman)

There is something about Eliza Hittman’s devastatingly naturalistic drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always I have not been able to shake all year. This marvelous miracle of a motion picture never turns preachy, refuses to wallow in sanctimonious treacle. Instead, this hard-hitting journey of a small town teenage girl having to travel from Pennsylvania to New York to receive an abortion is a life-affirming marvel that refuses to pull a single punch as it builds to its heartrending, if still hopeful, conclusion. Young actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are magnificent. (Streaming on HBO Max)

3. Shirley (D. Josephine Decker)

Director Josephine Decker’s and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’ adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s best-selling book is a monumental what-if achievement that captured my imagination whole. A character study of a quartet of disparate individuals centered on author Shirley Jackson, this wispy dream of a motion picture digs deep and refuses to offer up any easy answers or conclusions. Featuring a tour-de-force performance from star Elisabeth Moss and superlative supporting turns from Michael Stuhlbarg and Odessa Young, this is a ferociously unnerving masterwork of intelligence, companionship, love and so many fascinatingly human emotional disasters listing them all here is next to impossible. (Streaming on Hulu)

4. Promising Young Woman (D. Emerald Fennell)

Wow. That was my initial wide-eyed reaction after watching writer/director Emerald Fennell’s spellbindingly cutthroat debut for the first time. A maelstrom of sound, fury, compassion, vindication and sacrifice, this astonishing mixture of pitch-black satire, tragic romance and cold-blooded revenge must be seen to be believed. Not an easy sit, and its controversial ending will undoubtedly spawn all types of reactions that crisscross the emotional spectrum, this mind-bending social commentary is unlike anything I ever could have anticipated beforehand. Carey Mulligan delivers the performance of a lifetime. (In Theaters)

5. One Night in Miami… (D. Regina King)

What if, on the night he defeated Sonny Liston (still under the name Cassius Clay), Muhammad Ali joined Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in a hotel room for an evening none of them would ever forget? This is the question driving screenwriter Kemp Powers’ (adapting his own hit play) and directorRegina King’s One Night in Miami, and it all leads to two hours of mesmerizing greatness. Featuring superb performances from Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr., while watching this one play out there were multiple moments where I wanted to stand up and cheer. This film is an absolute knockout. (In Theaters / Streaming Amazon Prime Jan. 15)

6. Swallow (D. Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

There are those who get scared off by the initial one-line premise of writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ magnificent Swallow (young newlywed woman develops Pica and begins swallowing a variety of household items including earrings, marbles, pushpins and even a battery). They shouldn’t be. Davis delivers a masterfully modulated character study of abuse, isolation, depression and obsession that grows in intensely eerie complexity as it moves along, revealing its true colors only as events progress towards a conclusion. Haley Bennett is extraordinary, delivering a performance of such staggering specificity I’m shaking thinking about it again right now. [Interview with director Carlo Mirabella-Davis]
(Available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, etc.)

7. The Invisible Man (D. Leigh Whannell)

Featuring another excellent performance from Elisabeth Moss (her second of 2020), director Leigh Whannell updates and transforms the iconic H.G. Wells’ story with magnificently discomforting precision, delivering a tale of suspense and tension that should be taught about in film schools. The filmmaker tackles a bevy of topical hot-button issues with intelligence, respecting that the audience can put one and one together on their own so he can focus on the characters, their journey and scaring the bejesus out of every viewer who might be watching. An almost instant classic. (Streaming on HBO Max)

8. Lingua Franca (D. Isabel Sandoval)

One of the year’s most unanticipated surprises, writer/director/star Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca is as topically resonant and as bracingly vital as they come. The story of a transgender undocumented immigrant fighting to remain in the United States no matter what the cost and the young man, the grandson of the elderly Russian woman she works as a caregiver for, who finds himself inexplicably drawn to her, this is a powerfully intimate melodrama overflowing in haunting truth. Packs a mightily unforgettable wallop. (Streaming on Netflix)

9. A Good Woman is Hard to Find (D. Abner Pastoll)

One of the best hard-boiled crime-thrillers of recent memory, Abner Pastoll crafts a crackerjack tale of a recently widowed single mother who finds herself forced to do whatever it takes to protect her two small children from harm. Sarah Bolger gives a titanic central performance where she dismembers all attempts to pigeonhole or easily classify her character’s intentions with bloodily volatile relish. [Interview with director Abner Pastoll] (Streaming on Shudder)

10. Gretel & Hansel (D. Osgood Perkins)

Osgood Perkins, the malevolently clever mind behind The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, does it again, updating the well-known fairy tale with screenwriter Rob Hayes that continually amazes, startles and surprises. Alice Krige is villainous perfection as the witch who convinces the titular sister and brother to dine with her, while Sophia Lillis is a mesmerizing revelation as the teenage girl who must decide whether or not she wants to hold their seductively sinister benefactor accountable for her crimes. A triumph of atmosphere, production design, costumes and score, it is this central battle of feminine wills that makes Perkins’ gothic fable essential. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, etc.)


Small Axe (D. Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen’s five-film series currently streaming on Amazon Prime is a magnificent revelation. My favorite of the series, Mangrove, is a stunning tour de force featuring incredible performances from Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright. The other four features in the set, Lovers Rock (arguably the most singularly entertaining of the quintet), Red, White and Blue (centered on a bravura turn from John Boyega), Alex Wheatle (probably the only one I didn’t outright love, and that still makes it outstanding) and Education (effortlessly endearing) allows McQueen to assemble a shatteringly mesmerizing puzzle of a community and a country in a profound state of flux, making Small Axe the anthology event of a lifetime.

Hamilton (D. Thomas Kail)

I hadn’t watched Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s Tony-winning Broadway smash Hamilton before it aired on Disney+ earlier this year. Heck, other than Kelly Clarkson’s cover of “It’s Quiet Uptown” I hadn’t even heard any of the songs. So to say I was slapped upside the head by this show’s superlative brilliance isn’t that much of an understatement. The songs. The costumes. The sets. The choreography. All of its is incredible. Best of all? Leslie Odom Jr.’s jaw-dropping performance as Aaron Burr. I’ve watched this musical four times now since it first appeared on the streaming service, and each time what the actor accomplishes here impresses me even more.


Born to Be (D. Tania Cypriano), John Lewis: Big Trouble (D. Dawn Porter), Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (D. Laurent Bouzereau), Queer Japan (D. Graham Kolbeins), Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (D. Roman Chimienti, Tyler Jensen), The Way I See It (D. Dawn Porter), You Don’t Nomi (D. Jeffrey McHale), Zappa (D. Alex Winter)

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– Portions of this feature reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

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