Thank goodness that’s over, right?
To say 2020 was a challenging year is like announcing the Hindenburg had a rough landing. In a period that’s transformed how billions live their lives, there isn’t one person, family, business, or industry that wasn’t impacted significantly by upheaval. And that includes going to the movies.
Just 12 months ago, moviegoers were turning out by the millions to see their favorite space adventures in theaters. Now they’re watching them, and everything else, on streaming. It’s an astonishing journey we’ve detailed further here, but even if our relationship to how we experience films is changing, the fact remains cinema is as vital a form of escape and inspiration as ever. And even in 2020, as Hollywood studios largely abandoned multiplexes to fend for themselves, there also remained excellent motion pictures. Some were released on Netflix, some experimented with premium video on demand, and a rarified few still entered theaters.
Here’s 25 of them.
This Zoom horror movie, completed from start to finish in 12 weeks during the middle of a pandemic, might be the movie that sums up 2020 better than any other. But it should also be noted that it’s genuinely very good. The feature debut of Rob Savage runs at just 57 minutes (how very 2020, as in any other year its halfway house runtime might have hurt the movie’s chances), and in that time it sees a group of friends attempt to carry out a séance over Zoom. However, something goes wrong (or is that right?) and a malign entity enters the call.
Performed by a group of women, and one man, who already know each other really well, it’s the easy shorthand of their friendship that elevates this and helps the audience to instantly care. Meanwhile it’s the ambition and inventiveness of Savage and writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley which increases the scale of this beyond a lockdown found footage movie and into territory where complicated stunt work was involved. First and foremost though, it’s scary. Like really scary. How very 2020. – Rosie Fletcher
There is currently a bit of controversy over the Golden Globes categorizing Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari as a “foreign language film.” If that stands, it will be a genuine shame, and a greater slight, for this is an all-American story. A semi-autobiographical reverie for its writer-director, Minari depicts a family of Korean-Americans who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and are now trying to make it as farmers in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.
A beautiful ode to childhood, and both the hardships and joys of the immigrant experience, what’s most rewarding about Chung’s film is its quiet intelligence at working from first the perception of a child named David (Alan S. Kim), and then also from the vantage of his parents and their increasingly frayed marriage (a mutually raw Steven Yeun and Yeri Han). It even has a deep reservoir of understanding for the more complex sorrows of grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung). Minari is a sophisticated multigenerational snapshot of a distinct group of American lives, and it’s among the best films of the year, however you categorize it. – David Crow
Miranda July’s ethereal scammer dramedy carries the con-artist torch from Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 masterpiece, Parasite, and once again allows audiences to live vicariously through a scrappy family surviving on society’s margins. But unlike Bong’s Kims, Kajillionaire’s Dynes (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) are far from sympathetic; they’re poisoned by their warped take on the American Dream.
Evan Rachel Wood turns in one of 2020’s most stunning performances as their strange daughter, Old Dolio: fierce yet naïve, raised to regard all relationships as transactional and so utterly at a loss as to how to navigate her attraction to their new co-conspirator Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Old Dolio’s roughness contrasts beautifully with the surreal wonder of July’s dreamy motifs—here, soap bubbles representing the fragility of a life that could change with one puncture.
No one could have predicted that this year would implode worse than a scam gone wrong, nor that even the most well-adjusted families would have to grapple with setting uncomfortable but life-saving boundaries with loved ones. Yet here we are, and somehow July’s hopeful story came to us at exactly the right time: We can delight in Old Dolio breaking toxic patterns, and the elder Dynes learning that letting go of something valuable can be more beneficial than squeezing the life out of it. – Natalie Zutter
22. The Assistant
One of the year’s most unassuming but devastating films is writer-director Kitty Green’s seamless foray from documentary (Casting JonBenet, Ukraine is Not a Brothel) into a classic “inspired by true events” feature. Those true events are the Harvey Weinstein scandal, as the film follows a day in the life of a low-level assistant (Julia Garner) in a prominent Hollywood executive’s New York City office. The Weinstein-like character is never directly seen, and Jane is one of many peons who sketch out the space around his considerable form, as they arrange his midday hotel reservations and restock his private stash of erectile dysfunction medication.
Yet out of the whole office, Jane is both the most valuable and the least valued: first one in, last one out, she has devoted all of her waking hours to streamlining this powerful man’s day—which includes covering over his gravest sins with regard to the pretty, impressionable young women she ushers into his office.
Every phone conversation or behind-closed-doors meeting is intentionally muffled so that Jane herself can hardly hear it, let alone the audience. These murmuring pockets invite the viewer to fill in the blanks, imagining the worst possible scenario. The film never gets explicit, but Jane’s dawning realization and horror at her complicity is unsettling enough. Even more so when her attempts to flag this unimaginably inappropriate behavior get undermined by the self-protecting hierarchy of the company. The Assistant is more character portrait than anything else, and it treats its archetypal figure with more sympathy than her real-life counterparts might have earned, but its depiction of seemingly harmless eccentricities snowballing into an unconscionable abuse of power is a must-watch. – NZ
21. His House
This Netflix original horror movie took people by surprise when it landed on the service. The feature debut from Remi Weekes, His House is a clever, nuanced political movie that leans hard into horror tropes, working both as a commentary on the treatment of refugees in Britain and as a seriously frightening ghost story. Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) and Sope Dirisu (Gangs of London) play a Sudanese couple who escape the violence of their own country only to find themselves hemmed in by the bureaucracy and judgement of the UK. Placed in a decrepit home that they can’t leave, they are haunted by spirits they brought with them while facing the nightmare of a country that pretends to care but barely sees them as people.
The performances across the board, including a supporting role from Matt Smith, soar, and the production design is unique, haunting, and at times very beautiful. This is a powerful first film from an exciting new voice, a must-watch for genre lovers, and a showcase for a strong, if not often told, social message that talks about culture, society, and gender. It’s about the demons we see and the ones we do not. – RF
Jane Austen’s fourth novel, and the last published in her lifetime, has been filmed many times. But director Autumn de Wilde’s version is the best one, perhaps because she is the first woman to helm a straightforward adaptation. Leaning into Austen’s own designs for the book, where the author mused she would “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Emma. embraces the mischievous and sardonic side of Austen’s wit, and her heroine who was gifted with being “handsome, clever, and rich” from the word go.
Filmed with supreme confidence and a sumptuous color palette of bright pastels in brighter natural lighting, Emma. is vibrant and often veers cheerfully near screwball comedy. This approach is only buoyed by Anya Taylor-Joy, who began a strong year of work with this multifaceted and exceedingly rich portrait of Ms. Woodhouse, in the most magnanimous sense. She and her director searched for “questionable intent” in the material while still crafting a warm film that bubbles with life. It also enjoys a wonderful soundtrack thanks to a collection of actual 18th and 17th century English folk songs, and a puckish score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge. – DC
19. The Father
Director and screenwriter Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play stars Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, an elderly English man suffering from the onset of dementia. Olivia Colman is his daughter Anne, who is planning a move to Paris to live with her partner, and is desperately trying to find a new caregiver for her father. People drift in and out of the narrative under different names, Anthony’s spacious apartment seems to change around him and time itself seems to bend before we realize we are seeing almost all the events from Anthony’s point of view—which means that none of what we see can truly be trusted.
This makes what could have been a conventional drama about illness and memory into something brilliant and terribly heartbreaking, with Hopkins and Colman giving performances that are nothing short of titanic and Zeller’s cool, controlled direction making the emotional cost even more profound. The final scenes of this nearly perfect film will leave you devastated, even if this awful disease has never impacted your life personally. – Don Kaye
18. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal gives us an up-close, immersive look at what it feels like to suddenly go deaf, and to realize that massive life changes don’t have to portend the end of what it means to live. Riz Ahmed is excellent as Ruben, a recovering drug addict who drums in a heavy metal duo alongside his girlfriend, singer/guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke). The two tour the indie rock circuit in a beat-up but cozy RV that also serves as their home, but their gypsy lifestyle is upended when Ruben abruptly loses his hearing.
Director Darius Marder (who co-wrote the script with Abraham Marder) does not give into sentimentality even as Ruben moves through grief, loss, denial, anger, and self-pity, all the while clinging to the possibility that he may find a surgical way to restore his hearing. His journey also takes him to a home for deaf people in recovery (headed up by the marvelous Paul Raci, whose own real-life story involving deafness is remarkable), and eventually opens his heart and mind. The excellent sound design is the final touch on a captivating and highly original story. – DK
17. The Personal History of David Copperfield
After exposing the sheer absurdity of modern politics in films and series like In The Loop, The Death of Stalin, and Veep, Armando Iannucci found solace this year in creating this earnest, light, charming adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, David Copperfield. The film still tackles Dickens’ persistent themes of class, privilege, poverty, and human rights, although in far less scathing fashion than Iannucci is known for. Casting his project in colorblind fashion has also allowed the director to subtly modernize the piece while grounding it firmly in 1850s England.
Some of us may get a bit lost in the onrush of characters and events in this fast-paced film, as Iannucci breezes through a lot of the book’s events. But the story itself, and the multitude of vivid, colorful, oddball characters who are led by an enthusiastic Dev Patel as David, are so timeless and relevant to the human condition that only diehard loyalists to the original text may find something to grumble about. The rest of us can enjoy a delightful adaptation that we might not even know we needed. – DK
16. Bad Education
For his whole career, Hugh Jackman has been celebrated for his consummate showmanship. Whether it is as ambassador for a major superhero franchise or the song and dance man who can win Tonys at the same ceremony he’s hosting, his charm is irresistible. So imagine his delight when director Cory Finely presented him with Bad Education: the movie where his ability to ingratiate turns into something sinister and perfectly apt for the year it was released in.
Based on a 2004 New York Magazine article about the largest school embezzlement scandal in history, Bad Education plays like a dark comedy about American greed, as well as prologue for the 21st century hucksterism that was to come. Filmed with the same clinical nihilism found in Finley’s Thoroughbreds, this film is so much larger in its landscape of apathy of self-delusion. And at the center of it is Jackman’s affable Long Island school superintendent, a man who hides dark secrets and a bottomless pit of narcissism, both of which allow him to tell any lie that keeps him on top. Hence why watching his house of cards fall is pretty satisfying, especially these days. – DC
15. Small Axe
Steve McQueen’s latest effort, an anthology of short films set around Black communities in 1970s and ’80s Britain has been the source of some debate. Should these be looked at as individual films or can the work only be considered as a whole? We don’t have a satisfactory answer either, but Small Axe is as thoroughly compelling as the rest of McQueen’s work, and two films in particular, Mangrove and Lovers Rock are standouts.
Mangrove is the longest, most traditionally “feature length” entry in Small Axe. Gifted with urgent, authentic performances to tell the story of the Mangrove Nine, it’s also (like the rest of the films in the anthology) an effortlessly immersive recreation of its era, even as its subject matter resonates uncomfortably with today’s headlines. But while the other movies that comprise Small Axe are shorter than many features, they’re no less powerful. The immensely beautiful Lovers Rock, with its haunting reggae soundtrack and beautifully filmed party scenes, serves as a reminder of so much of what we’ve lost and taken for granted in this pandemic year, and the intimacy that can be found in crowds. It’s essential viewing as both a snapshot of a moment in time and a reminder of something else we’ve lost to this pandemic year. – Mike Cecchini
14. Tenet (READERS’ CHOICE)
In a tumultuous year, no blockbuster has had quite as much controversy surrounding it as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The director was notoriously adamant that his film should be the one to lead moviegoers back to cinemas worldwide, a quixotic (some might say selfish) endeavor that might’ve undercut the ambition of a movie that blends the action and spectacle of the wildest James Bond movies with elements of time travel, quantum physics, and Nolan’s famed attention to detail.
But lost in all that controversy—and perhaps in its nigh-incomprehensible plot—is the fact that maybe, were the world not in the midst of a deadly pandemic, Nolan was right.
Perhaps more than any other blockbuster of the last year or more, Tenet was clearly designed with the cinematic experience in mind. Action set pieces, filmed in gorgeous locations that would be spectacular on their own, take on the quality of magic tricks as events and performances are “inverted” by the film’s central, mysterious technology.
Even Nolan’s notorious penchant for emotionally distant main characters is undercut by performances from John David Washington and Robert Pattinson that bring this about as close to a buddy action movie two-hander as you’re ever likely to see from the director. Whether you ultimately view Tenet as a smarter-than-your-average thrill ride or a puzzle that can only be unlocked via repeated viewings, it still deserves, even demands, your full attention. – MC
13. One Night in Miami
Regina King has been in the business of making movies for nearly three decades. Who knew she could also be such an astonishing director? Yet with her first theatrical feature, she announces undiscovered talent in this sweltering, jubilant film that interrogates what life is like at the intersection of Black art and Black commerce in America.
With screenwriter Kemp Powers adapting his own stage play, One Night in Miami imagines a fictional account of an evening where Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and the man who would soon be Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) walk into a 1964 motel room. Their conversations about the challenges of Black celebrity in a world that pulls them both toward the desperate need of social equity and the more comfortable appeal of white-friendly affability, is one that is still going on to this day. But it’s told here with bombastic performances and a visual flair that is so kinetic it overcomes the admittedly stagebound limitations of the film’s conceit. – DC
What does it mean to have soul? How do you feed it? Joe Gardner, the Jamie Foxx-voiced protagonist of Soul, thinks he has the answer in the keys of his music, but the beauty of this latest Pixar film is it lives within the ambiguous places that aren’t be so easily defined. As yet another sophisticated offering from co-director Pete Docter, who previously co-helmed Inside Out, Soul pushes Pixar back toward its ambitious best, finding a way to convey complex ideas in an adventure with universal appeal.
With dazzling animation that leans into abstract concepts about life, death, and a weird transient state between the two, the film asks big questions in a way a child can appreciate, if not fully understand. To be sure, it’s the rare kids’ movie that gingerly suggests there is happiness in the seeming pointlessness of existence. It also benefits from ascendant music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste on the piano. In fact, realizing Nine Inch Nails penned one of the great Disney scores might be 2020’s most pleasant surprise. – DC
11. Saint Maud
The directorial debut of Rose Glass did the festival circuit in 2019 and was due to land in cinemas in the spring. Instead it was pushed back to October in the UK, mid-pandemic. So perhaps it didn’t get the fanfare it would have garnered in a normal year. Set in a rundown seaside town, the movie sees young palliative care nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) become obsessed with her patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is dying of cancer. After a highly traumatic incident, Maud has found God—a God she believes talks directly to her and has made it Maud’s mission to save Amanda’s soul.
A nightmarish horror of shifting perception, where bodies and minds are in conflict, this is a movie packed with indelible imagery, not least the devastating final scene. Ehle is excellent as the former dancer whose body is letting her down, but Clark is a revelation as the tiny, fierce Maud, all self-flagellation and buttoned up piety until she’s not. – RF
Utilizing both actors and real people, director Chloé Zhao (The Rider and Marvel’s upcoming Eternals) chronicles the lives of America’s “forgotten people” as they travel the West, searching for work, companionship, and community in the years following the Great Recession. A brilliant Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman in her mid-60s who lost her husband, her house, and her entire previous existence when the town she lived in—Empire, Nevada—vanished off the map following the closure of its sole factory.
Zhao’s film quietly flows from despair to optimism and back to despair again, all while the hardscrabble lives of its itinerant cast (many of them actual nomads) is foregrounded against stunning, if lonely, vistas from the American countryside. Nomadland shows us both the best and worst of America at once: the cruelty of a nation that refuses more and more to take care of its own, juxtaposed with the decency and compassion one can find on an individual basis. Whether the latter is enough to overcome the former is one of Nomadland’s haunting, unanswered questions. – DK
9. Wonder Woman 1984
A movie about flying and lying (even to one’s self), Wonder Woman 1984 came onto the pop culture scene at the very end of a very bad year. For many, the film’s muddled superhero logic and lackluster third act action scenes were enough to ruin the experience. For others, including many of us, the big budget earnestness of Diana Prince won the day. The film’s delights include charismatic performances from Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig as complex antagonists Maxwell Lord and Cheetah; a breathtaking Themyscira sequence; and Chris Pine pretending to ride an escalator for the first time.
Ultimately, however, Wonder Woman 1984 warrants a spot on this list due to its unexpected thematic priority. While many storytellers use a 1980s setting as an excuse to blast Blondie (fair enough), give the costume department free rein on shoulder pads (yes, please), or to harken back to an imagined simpler time (sure, whatever), director and co-writer Patty Jenkins uses it as a way to rewrite American history.
If the 1980s was an era that saw economic policies shifting the power from government to Wall Street, then here is a superhero flick that goes back in time to imagine a different path forward, one in which America is able to avoid the path that prioritizes the few over the many. It’s a fantasy, sure—and one that is understandably too porous for some to enjoy—but it’s a particularly cathartic one for 2020. – Kayti Burt
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Adapted from August Wilson’s play by director George C. Wolfe (and not quite able to escape its stage origins), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set during a heated recording session by the title artist–one of the pioneering blues singers of the 1920s–and her touring band. As tensions rise between Ma (Viola Davis) and certain band members, plus Ma and the white men, who of course own the record label, the band members find themselves at odds over the music they’re making and much more.
While Ma and the events of the story may be fictionalized, the issues that come up—race, religion, money, and art—are not just universal but as relevant as ever in terms of the Black experience in America. Davis is a supernova as Ma, and the rest of the supporting cast is just as terrific. Yet the spotlight undeniably belongs to the late Chadwick Boseman in his final screen appearance. As Levee, the trumpeter who wants to go solo, Boseman radiates rage, pain, and frustration in a performance as incendiary as it is tragic. – DK
7. Birds of Prey
Harley Quinn’s fabulous emancipation was just that—fabulous. As a fierce, funny, feminist ensemble piece with a quality cast that flipped on its head Harley’s dubious treatment at the hands of Mr. J in Suicide Squad, Harley herself, Margot Robbie, pitched the movie back in 2015. Birds of Prey shows a different side to Gotham City where a grubby underworld of people are trying to scratch together a living, and the only thing objectified in this female team-up is a bacon and egg sandwich (and what a sandwich it is).
Working from a script by Christina Hodson, director Cathy Yan’s film has a totally different flavor from anything that had come before from the DCEU. R-Rated, rude, and colorful, the movie sees the whole of Gotham out to get Harley now that she’s no longer under the Joker’s protection. But a young pickpocket, a stolen diamond, and Ewan McGregor’s gangster bring together a mismatched bunch in a joyful slice of anarchy that hits exactly the right notes. Superhero movies don’t get much more fun than this. – RF
The authorship of Citizen Kane has divided critics and film scholars for generations. So you can almost sense the glee boiling up in David Fincher as Mank wades right into the middle of it with a stylized and exquisitely crafted love letter to Herman J. Mankiewicz—and proverbial middle finger toward Orson Welles. One sympathizes, as Mankiewicz (or “Mank”) has been an unsung figure in film history: a member of New York’s 1920s generation of literary writers and journalists who bought into the allure of easy money in Hollywood but never got the credit he deserved for selling his soul.
Well, Mank attempts to return it with interest. A film that basks in demolishing Old Hollywood nostalgia, even with its black and white photography and heightened melodramatic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mank recalls the ugly side of yesteryear, and the greed that slaughtered talent, be it for money as embodied by Louis B. Mayer, or ego as personified by the film’s vision of Welles.
Yet its elegy for Mankiewicz—portrayed with delicious self-loathing by Gary Oldman—and his generation of forgotten writers is what makes the film unexpectedly warm for a Fincher joint. As does Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies, an also overlooked movie star given spirited reconsideration by Amanda Seyfried in one of the year’s best performances. – DC
5. Palm Springs
There must be something hypnotic about the banality of time loops, because to date the concept hasn’t produced a bad movie. Harold Ramis and Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day remains the paterfamilias, and prime original day, for the form. Yet that film’s many imitators have still pushed other filmmakers toward genuine inspiration. And that may have never been truer than for Palm Springs, a millennial reimagining of Groundhog’s exploration of a romance stuck on repeat—but with an ingenious added wrinkle.
Instead of one half a potential couple being oblivious to her role in a cyclical love story, both Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) are keenly aware of their shared Sisyphean hell. Worse still, they’re also trapped at a lame wedding. The small addition has massive creative repercussions, with director Max Barbakow and company lightly critiquing the implicit ickiness in Ramis’ film, as well as providing an opportunity for a true two-hander film between Samberg and Milioti. It’s Samberg’s best work to date, but Milioti is the real revelation as the woman who is our eyes and ears into a circular existence that is both horrifying and pleasant, romantic and exhausting. Like the film as a whole, this is a delightful nightmare. – DC
4. Da 5 Bloods
Hollywood’s great reckoning with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War may never truly end. But few films have gotten to the human cost of the war that lingers long after soldiers came home quite as emotionally as Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
Alternately a heartfelt tale of friendship and identity amidst shared hardship and a raucous action movie, effortlessly connecting the dots between the racial politics of the Civil Rights era during the Vietnam War and the Black Lives Matter movement of today, Da 5 Bloods may be the most clear-sighted movie about the conflict ever made. The film’s emotional power is bolstered even further by a rousing Terence Blanchard score, as well as a significant chunk of Marvin Gaye’s era-defining masterpiece album, What’s Going On.
Even at 156 minutes, Da 5 Bloods never overstays its welcome. Despite an action heavy third act that may seem incongruous with some of the film’s weightier themes, its characters are so powerful, and the performances so unforgettable, that nothing is ever lost. And while each of the film’s five leads (not to mention Chadwick Boseman’s almost ethereal “Stormin’” Norman Holloway, seen only in flashback) are terrific, none are more haunting than Delroy Lindo’s manic, tortured turn as Paul, a soldier still bearing the scars of war, both foreign and domestic. – MC
3. Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan plays against type in this candy colored fable of an avenging angel who goes to nightclubs and pretends to be wasted in order to shame the men who try to take her home and take advantage. It’s an ultra modern take on the rape-revenge subgenre with a very female gaze. Mulligan’s Cassie is a delicate clothes horse with multicolored nails who works in a coffee shop and lives with her parents—her brand of revenge is specific, personal, and highly female.
Despite the dark subject matter, this is an unashamedly fun film (um, until it’s not) with a killer soundtrack. It’s the directorial debut of actor Emerald Fennell (most recently seen playing Camilla in The Crown), who also wrote the picture, and she reveals an extremely distinctive style. A starry supporting cast also deliver uniformly excellent performances, including Bo Burnham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brodie, and Alfred Molina, which makes this feel big budget glossy.
But it’s Mulligan’s movie. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her, and she owns the screen as a powerful warrior, a vulnerable soul, and a heroine for our times. – RF
2. The Invisible Man
A Blumhouse redo of a Universal classic from the bloke who wrote Saw, on paper this wouldn’t be an obvious contender for a year-end best list. But then The Invisible Man isn’t an obvious movie. As the last film many saw at the cinema before lockdown landed, The Invisible Man is an incredibly smart take on the H.G. Wells story, which focuses not on the scientist who creates the suit that makes him invisible, but the woman he uses it to terrorize.
He may be “the guy who wrote Saw,” but writer-director Leigh Whannell has proved himself incredibly adept at a certain kind of action/horror with this and Upgrade—both include thrilling sequences of people who aren’t in control of their own bodies. Here it’s Elisabeth Moss who is being stalked by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Whannell uses the conceit to great effect: It’s a movie about gaslighting, which has the audience scanning the peripheries of the scene at all times, keeping us on edge, just like Cece, and wrong footing us all the same.
Top notch performances and serious subject matter handled with panache make this a scary standout for any year. We can’t wait to see what Whannell does with The Wolfman… – RF
1. The Trial of the Chicago 7
“The whole world is watching.” That is the chant shouted throughout Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and it echoes in our 2020 ears like the Ghost of Christmas Past. A little more than 50 years ago, the United States government put eight men on trial for protesting the Democratic National Convention—and the Vietnam War its presumptive nominee supported. This legal circus occurred even though the riot that broke out during the protests was started by the police. It would be understatement to note it all plays as eerily prescient today.
Beyond the loaded political subtexts though, the movie’s placement on this list reflects what happens when Sorkin’s screenplays achieve their greatest alchemy: With words being deployed in a courtroom as ruthlessly as batons were on a summer night in Chicago, each dialogue exchange in Chicago 7 is kinetic. The film defies the seemingly stagey quality of its legal setting, and not by just inserting flashbacks to a recreation of the 1968 riots (though they’re here too), but by turning verbose monologues into thrilling set pieces. Defense attorneys duel prosecutors; defendants defy a shockingly biased and corrupt judge; and believers in the system, like Sorkin himself, stare into the abyss of what happens when it fails.
All of these elements amplify the film’s vision of protestors from “the far left” running into the hard wall of mainstream resistance to change. It’s a showcase for Sorkin, his editor Alan Baumgarten, and the whole ensemble, particularly in one grueling sequence between Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale and Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. The Trial of the Chicago 7 can be horrifying in places, and yet always engrossing. And most miraculously of all, it’s never cynical. That might be why it electrifies most at this moment. – DC
Other movies receiving balloted votes (in descending order): Relic, The News of the World, Uncle Frank, Never Always Sometimes, Class Action Park, Freaky, The Way Back, The Old Guard, Synchronic, The Devil All the Time, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Enola Holmes, Shirley, Unpregnant, Wolfwalkers, Rebecca, On the Rocks, MLK/FBI, Scare Me, The Lodge, Happiest Season, I’m Your Woman, Bill & Ted 3, The Platform, Monsoon, Possessor, Ordinary Love, Miss Juneteenth, Athlete A, How to Build a Girl, The Vast of Night, What the Constitution Means to Me, Muscle, Calm the Horses, Color Out of Space, Eurovision, Another Round, Misbehaviour, The Boys in the Band, Borat 2, Extraction, Midnight Sky, Zappa, The Half of It, Greenland, 7500, Onward, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, The Nest, Bad Hair, Capone, Project Power, New Order, The Gentlemen, Lost Girls, The 40 Year-Old-Version.