by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
In a 2020 unlike anything I could have imagined beforehand, writing about the year in film feels understandably strange. Considering all that has transpired, talking about how COVID-19 has likely transformed the motion picture industry forever from a distribution and exhibition standpoint seems rather minor as far as the grand scheme of things is concerned.
But here we still are. Just because most movie theaters closed their doors in March that does not mean movies stopped being released. While several high-profile pictures jumped around the 2020 calendar before bolting entirely for next year (including highly anticipated titles like the latest James Bond adventure No Time to Die, the next installment in the Fast and Furious franchise F9, Marvel's Black Window and Steven Spielberg's musical extravaganza West Side Story), there was still plenty for audiences to choose from to hopefully distract from the self-isolating tedium.
This was the year major Hollywood studios embraced the concept of streaming, Universal going so far as to make a deal with theater chains to reduce the theatrical window for major releases down to a meager 17 days from the formerly agreed upon 60 to 90 (depending on the title). It was a time when Disney and Warner, in particular, went to war over their own streaming platforms, Disney+ and HBO Max, both debuting $200 million epics like Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 for home consumption in large part to expand their respective subscriber bases.
Audiences learned what "PVOD" stood for (premium video on demand), while streaming services Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Hulu and even Shudder gobbled up as many pictures as they could get their hands on, delivering new titles every week with as much fanfare as they could afford to muster. Even the stodgy Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had to amend their eligibility rules as it pertained to the Academy Awards, opening the door to countless independent productions that normally wouldn't have had even a passing chance to be nominated for an Oscar.
I'm not sure what all of this adds up to. I have no idea what it all means going forward. While I'm sure the theatrical experience will remain as vital and as important as ever, it is equally clear the landscape for distribution has fundamentally changed forever. Warner Bros has already announced all of its 2021 titles will debut in theaters and on HBO Max day-and-date, while Disney told their investors they intend to prioritize streaming going forward.
One of the issues I do foresee is an inability for titles to make a lasting impression. Netflix, in particular, has an awesomely difficult time keeping any of their films in the spotlight, the streamer allowing even their biggest pictures to vanish into a bottomless pit of content almost immediately. There's also the ways viewers react and comment on new releases, doing so all at once over a single weekend and not an extended period as they would if a film had received traditional theatrical exhibition.
At the same time, never have I seen so many motion pictures from female and minority filmmakers released with such consistency. Critics and potential audiences have been able to focus on them as they never have before, the intensity of this spotlight hopefully signaling a new dawn of inclusive storytelling the likes of which will become the norm and not an exception to it.
Personally, I saw over 100 motion pictures I'd happily recommend and only 50 or so I'd urge viewers to stay far away from, and that's still only scratching the surface of every title which received some sort of release. I had the good fortune to see a trio of films, Lingua Franca, Bit and The Craft: Legacy which showcased transgender representation in groundbreaking fashion, and selfishly this warmed my heart more than almost anything else that happened throughout 2020.
In the end, these were ten of the films that moved me the most, all of which I cannot wait to sit down and watch again as soon as the opportunity to do so arises.
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 / Streaming PVOD in January (TBD))
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 powering screenwriter Kemp Powers' (adapting his own hit play) and director Regina King's One Night in Miami..., and it all leads to two hours of mesmerizing greatness I found positively delightful. 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. (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. (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.)
Twenty-Five More (Because I Can)
The Assistant (D. Kitty Green); Bacurau (D. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles); Beanpole (D. Kantemir Balagov); Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (D. Cathy Yan); Color Out of Space (D. Richard Stanley); Da 5 Bloods (D. Spike Lee); First Cow (D. Kelly Reichardt); His House (D. Remi Weekes); I'm Your Woman (D. Julia Hart); The Lodge (D. Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala); Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (D. George C. Wolfe); Mangrove (D. Steve McQueen); Minari (D. Lee Isaac Chung); The Nest (D. Sean Durkin); News of the World (D. Paul Greengrass); The Outpost (D. Rod Lurie); Palm Springs (D. Max Barbakow); Possessor (D. Brandon Cronenberg); Proxima (D. Alice Winocour); Relic (D. Natalie Erika James); Sound of Metal (D. Darius Marder); Summerland (D. Jessica Swale); Sylvie's Love (D. Eugene Ashe); Underwater (D. William Eubank); The Vast of Night (D. Andrew Patterson).
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).