Combustible Celluloid

2020: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

My usual title for my year-end wrap-up doesn't apply this year, because most of the 270+ movies I saw in 2020 were not seen in the dark. They were viewed in my living room, without the benefit of the lights going down, or the swell of excitement I get every time they do. Most year-end wrap-ups are going to talk about what a challenging and exhausting year it was, from the pandemic to the economy to politics. And all that is true. Damage was done to our country and to us in 2020 that we may never recover from. I was lucky that I was able to continue my work, as did my loved ones, and I know very few people who got sick. My natural state as an introvert even felt comfortable at home sometimes. But of course, I miss so many things. I miss holidays with my family, and camping with my friends. I miss going out to eat and going to Amoeba Records on Haight Street. I miss chatting with my critic friends, sometimes clashing, sometimes sharing. And I miss the movies.

Nevertheless, there were quite a few very strong movies to be seen at home, and even a year such as the one that just passed cannot stop me from celebrating the ones that affected me the most strongly. Here we go.

- The Top Ten -

1. First Cow

Kelly Reichardt's First Cow was the only movie on my top ten that I saw in a theater, and the memory of it sustained me for many months. I love Reichardt's films, and they have placed on my ten-best lists before, but my girlfriend asked whether it reached number one because of my seeing it on a big screen, in the dark. I don't know. No one can say how the year might have turned out otherwise. But I can say that this patient, observant movie, the tale of friendship during the pioneer days, and of a scheme to sell sweet treats, is so full of small moments and gentle, poetic touches, that it would have worked during any year.

2. Vitalina Verela

I shamefully confessed in my review that Vitalina Varela was the first Pedro Costa movie I had ever seen, and, despite my vow to catch up with some of his others, I was much busier than I could have guessed in 2020 and have not yet succeeded. However, this one is a rigorous, masterfully composed film about spaces and houses and the people that occupy them; it moves faster emotionally than it does visually, and it may be a tough sit for some, but it's a work of greatness.

3. On the Rocks

Some of my colleagues were savaging Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks on Facebook a few weeks ago, and their arguments are about the same as the ones Coppola usually gets: "shallow," "insufferable," "superficial," "vapid," "tepid," and that Coppola herself was "overrated" and "privileged." I'm a fan, however, and love her soft touches, and the way she manages to tell stories of a much-hated group (the upper-crust) and make them human, even sympathetic. Admittedly, this movie is something of a trifle, but it reminded me of Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, another story of a troubled marriage, released during another economic crisis as well as during another era of fascism, and it won an Oscar for Best Director. It was just the ticket for those times, as is this one. As I watched it, I was just tingling at how deeply Coppola let her scenes run, and how much tenderness was wrought.

4. The Vast of Night

Sometimes we go into films by filmmakers we already know and love, and we have an idea that we're probably going to get something appealing or affecting. And then sometimes we sit down to something totally unknown, like this sci-fi movie. It was an assignment for me, and I'm not the world's biggest sci-fi fan, but after Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night — on the surface a story of a UFO visit in a small town in the 1950s — was on for only a few minutes, I knew it was something great. It was one of those miraculous discoveries that we hopefully get to make at least once, if not a few times, in our lives. Moments after it was over, I was online, trumpeting my enthusiastic reaction, hoping to send others its way. I'm still doing that now.

5. I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I had no idea what I'm Thinking of Ending Things was about, or what exactly happened in it, even after it was over. Yet I was still drawn in by its expert weaving of dream logic, and by its quiet, wintry atmosphere, full of longing and sadness, and with far less queasiness than I found in filmmaker Charlie Kaufman's earlier directorial efforts. I took to Google to get some pointers. The more I read, the more the movie crystalized in my head, growing better and even more profound. And I look forward to seeing it again, much the way that, in days of old, one might re-watch a lunatic Fellini film several times to dig more deeply into its mysteries.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

"Quiet" seems to be a theme on my list this year, and perhaps I responded more strongly to films like Eliza Hittman's extraordinary Never Rarely Sometimes Always due to the chaos happening in the outside world. It tells the story of a young woman who, accompanied by her cousin, takes an illicit trip from their puritanical small town to New York City for an abortion. It's a small, lingering tale, choosing surprisingly banal moments to reveal its most powerful themes. Even small victories here ring hollow when it becomes clear that young women are sandwiched between predatory men on one side, and a prudish system that scorns abortion on the other.

7. David Byrne's American Utopia

8. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee's one-two gut-punch to 2020. His vibrant, vital filming of the stage play David Byrne's American Utopia resulted in an exuberant concert movie, a multi-cultural, swirlingly musical spreader of joy and empathy that provided a soul-restoring tonic. Last summer's Da 5 Bloods was something different, a story of Black treasure hunters in Vietnam full of thundering, wrenching righteous fury and sermoning — with Terence Blanchard's musical score thickening things — but also a vicious, contrasting commentary on our times. In the center of it all, Delroy Lindo gives a monster of a performance, as did the late, great Chadwick Boseman in a smaller role.

9. Hamilton

Hamilton was everywhere during the pandemic, from a glorious surprise appearance on John Krasinski's "Some Good News," to doing fundraisers for the Democrats. But if the play is one of the greatest shows of all time and Thomas Kail's movie version is a dazzling cinematic adaptation, then why can't it be one of the year's best movies? With its array of fluid camera movements and close-ups, the magic of the play works in a slightly different way here, but no less powerful. Masterful, nuanced performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, and the others can now be experienced by those that once had to sit in the back row. Originally meant to be released in theaters in 2021, it was one of the summer's most welcome gifts.

10. She Dies Tomorrow

I'm one of those weirdos that finds horror somehow soothing compared to my innermost anxieties, and given that 2020 was the most anxious year in a century, horror was very important to me. I saw some great ones, like Relic, and some others, like Host and Sea Fever that tapped directly into themes of the pandemic. But the movie that haunted me most was Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow, with its alarmingly simple conceit. A character believes that she's going to die tomorrow, and every person she meets comes to believe the same thing. Seimetz's film doesn't explain, or answer the question, but it does achieve a kind of zenlike acceptance, using dreamlike visuals and sounds, to find the genuine emotions that surround death and yet are rarely explored. In a year in which death seemed so prominent, this film stood alone with an eerie calm.

12 Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)

16 Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

Great Performances

  • Jane Adams, She Dies Tomorrow
  • Riz Ahmed & Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
  • Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods & Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
  • Jessie Buckley & Jesse Plemons, I'm Thinking of Ending Things
  • Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Willem Dafoe, Tommaso
  • Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Tom Hanks, Greyhound & News of the World
  • Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
  • John Magaro, First Cow
  • Margo Martindale, Blow the Man Down
  • Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
  • Bill Murray, On the Rocks
  • Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton & One Night in Miami
  • Aubrey Plaza, Black Bear
  • Steven Yeun & Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

12 Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases

The Year's Worst Films

I usually try to cap my "worst" list at around twenty, but the things that were bad in 2020 were unbelievably bad, so, rather than sort through my worst movie experiences and try to rank them in terms of badness, here are the 34 worst movies I saw, in alphabetical order. Let an equal amount of shame fall upon each of them.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate you all. May the future bring peace and joy to each and every one of you. -- JMA

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