By Ryan C. Showers
Guys, 2020 was weird. The COVID-19 pandemic may have up-ended dozens of theatrical releases, altered the entertainment industry’s fabric forever, and exposed both the normalization and power of streaming services. Through the ups and downs of this eventful year, there was breathing room in the market for smaller films to bubble up to the surface and have a real chance for the spotlight. Some may look back and regard this year as a weaker year for cinema. However, I dissent. Film and awards season kept me going in 2020, through the shutdowns, social distancing, and time spent at home. And I loved that smaller art films took center stage. Any year in cinema is what you make of it.
Narrowing down my top tier was a challenge. Below are some films that did not make the strict cutoff for my top ten but were competitive enough for a spot on my list that it does hurt to leave them off entirely without a mention.
My relationship with “Mank” has not been the smoothest of sailings. In fact, upon my first viewing of it, I had an adverse reaction and was left disappointed by the expectations established by the talent involved and Netflix. I wanted more Citizen Kane and fewer discussions of communism. However, there was always something inside that urged me to give it another chance. Once I did, I was able to let go of what I wanted the film to be and appreciate it for what it is: an expertly crafted vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood with a reflective commentary about power and politics at the time. David Fincher’s filmmaking is pretty sensational in scope. Fincher’s directing allows the best parts of the screenplay – the snappy dialogue, parallel timelines, and complicated political discussion that mirrored the landscape of 2020 – to come alive. The production, musical score, and cinematography stand out as sublime assets at the film’s disposal. Despite the universal struggle among film fans, “Mank” could age better for almost everyone if they choose to revisit.
This may be the most peculiar choice in my top ten. And if you watched “Swallow” and thought it was a merely good yet very bizarre thriller and nothing more, we’re cool. But for my taste, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s written and directed feature goes the extra mile in the way it runs with a concept and central issue. “Swallow” finishes as something entertaining, original, and essential. It is such a creative way to explore iron-clad feminist themes of trauma, abuse, and toxic relationships. Additionally, a massive part of the effect of “Swallow” relates to its piercing message about socio-economics and inequality. Mirabella-Davis portrays these big ideas with the “Show, Not Tell” approach, and one could mine this piece for days with ripe analysis. There are incredible production values and strategic technical components that show the great potential of Mirabella-Davis’s career going forward from this debut. And speaking of debuts: this may not be Haley Bennett’s first film role, but it is certainly one that accelerates her path from unknown to stardom. Her central performance allows the story to find its center. “Swallow” is one of the most forgotten films of 2020.
8. ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY
“All In: The Fight for Democracy” is an essential piece of American filmmaking. Even though the Academy did not see this fit to include on its shortlist for Best Documentary Feature of the year, I feel comfortable declaring it with that title of the best documentary of 2020. Directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus produce this nonfiction film with confidence and dignity. My love and respect for this film go beyond the subject matter or of Stacey Abrams. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is accomplished in its exploration and execution of the topic, both in substance and style. The compilation of video footage, the use of animation, and film editing are unparalleled for documentaries this year. The construction is so good that it should have competed for Best Film Editing. As someone with an appreciation for cinema and as a proud American, “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is an amazing sight to see.
“But I already am in a cage!” – you have no idea the way this line of dialogue struck me when I watched “Wolfwalkers” for the first time. The significance can be interpreted on several different levels. That is the brilliance of the film: it is so many things simultaneously, and the emotional impact it achieves cannot be understated. “Wolfwalkers” develops its plot in surprising directions, and the writing is as three-dimensional as a movie can be. The creative team behind “The Secret Life of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” allows their fully-formed ideas to stand on their own two feet and flourish. The film possesses an interesting prism of feminism, among its other themes, which is incredibly satisfying. And that’s only the narrative; the craftsmanship on “Wolfwalkers” is exquisite. It is a one-of-a-kind gem – the visual style, animation, and score are wholly distinctive. Going in, I was not expecting “Wolfwalkers” to enthrall me in the way that it did. The climax and imagery left me jaw-dropped.
6. QUO VADIS, AIDA?
My friends saw “Quo Vadis, Aida?” at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and even their glowing recommendations did not prepare me for what writer-director Jasmila Zbanic had in store. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is a tense and tightly constructed thriller. From the get-go, it launches you into the storm without much exposition to contextualize what you are seeing or experiencing; Zbanic continues to hold you in this stress position until the emotionally devastating epilogue of the film. This is an intelligent approach to the material and real-life massacre. It transports the viewer to experience this situation as though they are living it. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” reaches the height of storytelling through everything it attempts to characterize this event in history. Zbanic uses stirring negotiation scenes, intense politicking for survival, and brutal takeover sequences to make this story come alive. It is the best international film of the year.
Besides the film in the top spot on this list, “Possessor” was the most nominated film in my personal lineups for the year 2020. And this is not because of some personal, irrational love for it. Instead, it reflects a sober view of the accomplishments, narrative and technical, that are possessed within this shrewdly made sci-fi mystery. The filmmaking technique is of the highest quality, and the storytelling is transfixing and wildly original. The film soars with great focus and is brought to life with radical editing montages, glorious visual sensibilities, and a thunderous sound design. “Possessor” handles graphic horror and twisted psychological storytelling better than any film since “Black Swan.” “Possessor” checks every box, and its accomplishments tower over most feature films this year.
4. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
The last time an August Wilson play was adapted for the screen was “Fences,” and how it was conceived did not agree with me. Therefore, going into “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” I was nervous that I, again, would feel disconnected if it took a similar flatness to the literature. And yet, every issue I had with “Fences” was remedied by director George C. Wolfe’s concise and dynamic approach to the theatrical material. His directorial ideas combined with the transformative adapted writing by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” not only justifies its existence from stage to screen, but rather, this adaptation turns out to be one of the most complete feature films of 2020. What “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has to say about power dynamics and race in the 1920s shook me to my core. The screenplay excels at examining the material on a larger cultural level, but also in reviewing the two leading characters – Ma and Levee, both of whom are reached to their potential through Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman – as two sides of the same coin and the overlapping tragedy that is inherent in that connection. I wish it would have been memorialized in the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay lineups for its thematic power and racial analysis.
3. I CARE A LOT
Slick, stylish, and creative, “I Care A Lot” is a firecracker of a movie. It achieves walking this tightrope balance of being a character study of a fascinating antihero and a biting, cynical Marxist criticism. J Blakeson creates a surface to “I Care A Lot” that seems like it is a lot of fun, which it is. But underneath, there is a specifically curated, dark message about feminism and capitalism in society. It is revealed in both his writing, but also how the audience interacts with the material. Blakeson pushes the viewers’ comfort levels by having a morally dubious woman at the center – the soon-to-be-legendary Marla Grayson, magnificently played by Rosamund Pike in a role that won her a Golden Globe award for Best Actress – who challenges an old-school patriarchal system of crime with a novel enterprise and methodology. At its barest of bones, that is what “I Care A Lot” is all about, and it makes people uncomfortable. The tragedy at its core is that once Marla appears victorious in the battle between the old and new guards of crime, she becomes absorbed in the capitalist system she had previously been against. “I Care A Lot” stings with irony and makes people really react. And that is why it is such an exhilarating piece of filmmaking because it revealed very unique points of view from people who watch it.
Two words: Chloe Zhao. That is “Nomadland.” The little film with a nebulous plot and brought to life with a majority of unprofessional actors owes its steamrolling success to the singular, auteur vision at the helm. Since she is responsible for the writing, directing, and editing of the film, “Nomadland” feels like one of the most cohesive films I have ever seen. A good reason why it can win Best Picture is the fact that it is objectively a perfectly executed film, from the remarkably natural cinematography to Frances McDormand’s perceptive performance. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, per se, but it is difficult to impugn the integrity of “Nomadland” as a piece of filmmaking. Under Zhao’s unyielding control, the ideas and themes “Nomadland” communicates about humanity, consequences of the Great Recession, and expanding corporatization of America (from the obvious Amazon prologue down to “The Avengers” being screened at a movie theater the protagonist Fern visits later in the film) are gentle, reflective, and honest.
1. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
It only took about ten minutes into the runtime for me to realize that “Promising Young Woman” was going to be the best film of the year. Emerald Fennell takes on many goals in the agenda of her feature directorial debut and achieves every single one of them. Her direction and screenplay are both epic accomplishments, as well as every single production and technical value of the film holding the quality of some of the most creative films ever made. “Promising Young Woman” succeeds, in part, because of its eclectic identity: it is a carefully arranged character study of someone that has never been portrayed on screen before; a genius cultural critique on feminism, consent, and the millennial experience. It is a wonderful example of postmodernism in cinema. If nothing else, the only Oscar categories I have a serious investment in are Best Original Screenplay – for all the reasons I have listed above, Emerald Fennell should easily win – and Best Actress for Carey Mulligan. As time has passed, I have seen “Promising Young Woman” six times, and the performance Mulligan gives as Cassie only grows wealthier in value through each viewing. Cassie is a fascinating, complicated character on her own, and Mulligan lives up to the potential of the woman on the page while also teasing out the subtlest of her emotions and motivations. Mulligan excels in creativity as an actor but also in constructing a character who feels like a three-dimensional person in our real lives. Cassie will live on beyond the bounds of this film. This is made even more true and impactful by the brilliant yet divisive ending. “Promising Young Woman” is made with a zest and love for movies that is simply irresistible for cinephiles. It’s a movie’s movie.
What do you think of my list? Let me know what you think in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Check out more of the NBP Team’s Top 10 lists from 2020 from Matt Neglia, Daniel Howat, Josh Parham, Casey Lee Clark, Cody Dericks & Tom O’Brien. The winners of the annual NBP Film Community Awards were announced earlier this week and the winners of the internal NBP Film Awards will be announced the on April 11th.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818