As I mentioned in my blog post about the movies that got me through the last year, 2020 was a weird one for movies. With no trips to the theater, hardly any discussions with friends about new movies, and very few “big” movies to speak of, watching movies in 2020 often felt less like I was experiencing something and more like I was consuming it.
But 2020 was not without great art, so I’m here to talk about some of the new movies from the past year that made me feel like I was still experiencing something special, even if I was just watching it alone on my couch. Here’s hoping to a return to theaters in 2021.
Before we get started, I want to give honorable mentions to a few films that just missed the cut: Minari, Da 5 Bloods, Mank, and Mangrove.
10. One Night in Miami… – Directed by Regina King
On the night that Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston to become the World Heavyweight Champion, Clay gathers together with his friends Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke as they discuss their roles in the world that exists before them.
It’s hard to believe that there’s now a movie in existence where MALCOLM X of all people gets told, “You used to be so much more than your public persona.” But in all, that kind of sums up this fantastic character drama: all these legends were just men in trying times, trying to figure out what to do about it. Although this is based on a play, Regina King does an excellent job taking from the work and using it to illustrate the humanity of legends. It all culminates in an incredibly powerful ending.
One Night in Miami… is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
9. The Invisible Man – Directed by Leigh Whannell
Although I sadly did not get the chance to see this one while it was still in the theaters, The Invisible Man was the first movie I saw at home that made me truly feel like I was watching a new release for the first time in a long while. It literally had me on the edge of my
Elizabeth Moss gives a stellar performance in a movie that’s more than just a horror flick with a clever premise – this is a full on social commentary about abuse and the impossible position survivors often find themselves in. It’s scary, it’s emotional, and most of all, despite the liberties taken from the source material, The Invisible Man is still a monster movie through and through.
The Invisible Man is now available to rent on VOD and own on home video.
8. Lover’s Rock – Directed by Steve McQueen
Remember Steve McQueen? No, not that one, the one who won a bunch of Oscars for 12 Years a Slave. He made and released FIVE MOVIES this year, and practically no one batted an eye. That’s criminal.
Lover’s Rock – which is set entirely at a 1980s house party – brought me so much dang joy. It’s really just a lovely film about community and the ways in which we relate to one another…but it’s all just told through the story of one house party. Maybe I’m just missing being around people, but there is one scene in particular where the music cuts out and all you can hear are people singing and moving and it’s just the most wonderful thing.
Lover’s Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime as a part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films.
7. Sound of Metal – Directed by Darius Marder
Sound of Metal follows the story of a heavy metal rock drummer – played by Riz Ahmed – as he realizes that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating, leaving him to choose between one life or another.
I did not expect Sound of Metal to be moving in the specific ways that it is. It’s not sappy or overly-dramatized, and best of all, it doesn’t treat the deaf as less than. This isnt a movie about coming to grips with losing ones hearing – it’s about moving on to a new part of life and learning to find peace in places other than where you expect to find it. Riz Ahmed delivers the kind of performance that not many can pull off – powerful without being over the top.
Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
6. Promising Young Woman – Directed by Emerald Fennell
A young woman played by Carey Mulligan is haunted by a tragedy in her past, leading her to take revenge on the predatory men unlucky enough to cross her path.
Promising Young Woman is the kind of film that starts off looking like one thing, only to quickly reveal its true intentions. Like many of its targets, the film itself is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, disguising its razor-sharp edges in lush cinematography and bright colors. Like its main character, however, Promising Young Woman’s goal is ultimately to make you as inescapably uncomfortable as possible. Job well done, Emerald Fennell.
Promising Young Woman is now playing in theaters and is available to rent on VOD.
5. The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Directed by Aaron Sorkin
I will humbly accept any criticism I receive for putting this film on my list as I am an unabashed fan of almost all things Aaron Sorkin. The subject matter – the peaceful protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – might seem like a curious topic for him considering that his “political” scripts yield grand soliloquies that can sound like a rousing defense at best and a cheesy position paper at worst, but for a guy who spends a lot of time in his career touting the need for decency and democracy, it’s really nice to see him bring his style to the subject of protest.
In the script, you can see the exact ways in which Sorkin’s understanding of complicated subjects has changed over the years and the places where it hasn’t. No matter its shortcomings, the story is really brought to life not so much by Sorkin’s abilities but by the incredible cast and by the sheer lunacy of the story. It’s one of those films that makes you angry because it’s clearly TRYING to make you angry, but it’s absolutely worth the watch whether you’re a fan of Sorkin’s work or not.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.
4. Soul – Directed by Pete Docter
You know, after I saw Into the Spider-Verse, I thought “It’s going to be a long time before we see innovative and beautiful animation like this.” I am glad to say I was wrong. Soul is a beautifully animated and incredibly well-written story that takes a painfully abstract concept and turns it something understandable and relatable.
It’s a surprisingly deep film that doesn’t seek to tackle the meaning of life, but rather addresses the ways in which we find meaning once we’re here. Much like Pete Docter’s previous film, Inside Out, Soul encourages us to find joy whenever we can, even if life doesn’t look the way we want it to, and that kind of tale is always welcome.
Soul is now streaming on Disney+.
3. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Directed by George C. Wolf
Adapted from a play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sees tensions rise when the trailblazing Mother of the Blues and her band gather at a Chicago recording studio in 1927. At their worst, plays adapted into films can feel stiff and overacted, as though you’re watching a diorama. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a great example of a stage adaptation at its best, with a crackling script and absolute knockout performances from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
It makes me genuinely upset that this will be the last performance we’ll see from Boseman, who tragically passed of cancer in the summer of 2020, but what a final performance he gives. It’s rare for me to be swept away by acting, but combined with a part snappy/part heartbreaking story about the relationship between Black artists and the White businessmen who seek to profit from them, this film had a hold on me from the very first shot to the very last.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.
2. Nomadland – Directed by Chloe Zhao
Of all the films I saw in 2020, this was by far one of the most beautiful. Nomadland plays out like a poem told from the perspective of Fern, played by Frances McDormand in a remarkably soulful performance. The film has no interest in where Fern is headed, but rather focuses on the beauty found in the things we so often take for granted such as people, places, support systems, and the sheer act of getting to live another day. It’s stunning from a technical perspective, and it’s just such a soul-filling and gentle movie. I won’t say anymore, just go see it whenever you can.
Nomadland will debut in theaters and on Hulu on February 19th.
1. Hamilton – Directed by Thomas Kail
Is it cheating to put this movie as number one? It feels like it’s cheating. Doesn’t matter; I’m doing it anyway.
It’s truly amazing that this show exists. Like, the fact that someone thought of it and then brought it into the world is absolutely incredible. On top of being endlessly creative, unique, and illuminating, it’s also just pulled off SO WELL. I honestly think this is one of the best pieces of performative art of the 21st Century. Both in seeing the musical live and watching it again on film, it’s hard for me not to get choked up at the sheer talent that brought such a show into existence. And that doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of Miranda, Kail, and Lacamore. The performances across the board are astonishing, and every single person involved in this show should have PROSPEROUS careers.
What I love most about Hamilton is not just that it brings humanity back into the history books, but that it also uses the full power of theater to make the viewer confront the truths about America’s founding. The show is, after all, split into two parts in more ways than one. Act One is about the spirit that brought America into existence: the need to be free from oppression, and the hope that breaking free can lead to the creation of something better. Revolution is American. But Act Two is about the story that was told and the legacy that was left behind, for better or worse. After revolution, how do you build that thing you think can be better? Washington and Hamilton say it best: “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.” In the creation of its systems, its story, and its legacies, America committed many errors, and Hamilton puts them front and center.
Hamilton is now streaming on Disney+.