Year-End Rituals. You may recall how during my 2019’s Best Films list last December, I spoke about how we have finally reached a stage where the voice and talent of young & upcoming independent filmmakers shall not be deftly suffocated by the hedonistic politics of mainstream film studios and box office moguls anymore. Well, here we are – twelve months later after enduring what I can honestly call the most unusual year most of us have seen in our respective lifetimes, concerning films or otherwise. This was finally the year when the prophesied paradigm shift towards streaming services and home cinema started experiencing a substantial push, much to the chagrin of cinema-theatre chains and purists all across the world. Blockbusters were delayed, productions were halted, indie films found a wider audience, projects were cancelled, film-festivals became an online event, big titles were sent straight to streaming services – not even one of these things even remotely fits the bill for the term ‘usual’ in this hundred-billion dollar industry. I always knew this day would come, the pandemic merely got us there faster.
I should mention that I have not had a chance to watch films like Nomadland, The Father, Minari, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or One Night in Miami, among a bunch of other titles which have been deemed as strong contenders for the golden statuette race by critics around the world. Naturally, this list will be consistently updated between now and March 2021, by which time I am hoping most of these remaining films will have hit the streaming service platforms worldwide.
So here are my personal picks for the Best Films of 2020 so far:
1. Never Really Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s third directorial venture, Never Rarely Sometimes Always starring Sidney Flanigan is one of those rare films that says far more than what’s on the surface, without having to make its points didactically or with any false sense of preachiness. This raw, authentic narrative about the horrors of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy follows our 17 year old protagonist, Autumn from her first visit to a crisis pregnancy centre in Pennsylvania, all the way to her journey through the streets of Big Apple alongside her cousin/friend Skylar (Talia Ryder), painting for its audience, a bleak, unsettling picture of a world where women even in this day and age have to put up a fight in order to exercise control over their lives and their bodies. Sprinkled with a plethora of claustrophobic close-up shots and some breathtaking cinematography from the talented Frenchwoman Helene Louvart, this complex emotional drama is a must-watch experience that showcases the craftsmanship of its filmmaker in all its glory, avoiding any and all cliches related to the genre along the way. Do not miss this one for the world – as of now, this one holds a rather well-deserved top spot on my list.
2. Sound of Metal
I once asked a renowned artist what his greatest fear was – he replied “Losing the very hands I make my art with.” On paper, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal has no right being as good as it is, so it goes without saying that no other film this entire year pleasantly surprised me as much as this one. Here, we essentially follow a recovering drug addict drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed in an Oscar-worthy performance), as he struggles with accepting his new life after realising that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating. While it may not sound like much of a premise, this understated drama offers a delicate exploration into the mind of a relatable character who has been forced to recalibrate his life in ways one could seldom imagine. Both Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke gave some of the most raw, awe-inspiring performances of the year, and I sure as hell hope the upcoming awards season is kind to both of them. In conclusion, not only is Sound of Metal one of this year’s best films, it is also the one that stuck around with me the most after my initial viewing.
3. Da 5 Bloods
Are you up for another hard-hitting history session from Spike Lee after 2018’s Blackkklansman? This unusual, yet compelling war drama stars Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. in a good ol’ fashioned Hollywood adventure involving a treasure-hunt, some unstable family dynamics and scars from the Vietnam War that veterans still endure. Although it does overstay its welcome by just a tad bit, this 154 min feature aptly showcases the toxic impact of the infamous war on black veterans and their families, and somehow manages to keep us captivated all throughout its runtime. And amidst the sea of deep character explorations and riveting performances that this film had to offer, perhaps one of the most pleasant things was being able to see Chadwick Boseman in one of his strongest (and unfortunately also one of his last) performances ever. If you still haven’t checked out Spike Lee’s latest, go make your Netflix subscription count – this one has a lot to offer.
A lot of people have recently complained of Mank being an inaccessible film, and I wouldn’t blame them. David Fincher’s latest film is an impeccably crafted nostalgia-romp that caters to a particular filmophilic niche, and anyone who does not fit that bill may find themselves completely lost – mostly because the filmmaker decided not to waste even a second on unnecessary (or necessary) exposition. You’re thrown smack in the middle of the 1930s & early 1940s Hollywood, during the time when our lead protagonist – the alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz ended up penning down what is arguably the greatest film ever made. Now, as an ardent cinephile who has spent a better part of the last 25 years rewatching and worshipping Citizen Kane (1941) at least two dozen times as well as researching and reading up on the controversies surrounding it, I can proudly say that every frame in Mank is nothing short of pure cinematic gold. It’s true, Fincher alienates a major chunk of the audience by not indulging in exposition, but I wouldn’t hold that against him. Years from now, if and when the haters become a part of the targeted niche, they’ll find a lot to cherish in this Gary Oldman-Amanda Seyfried starrer. Welles and Mankiewicz would’ve both been proud of Fincher. Stream it on Netflix when you’re ready.
5. Bad Education
Although it was showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Cory Finley’s Bad Education had its worldwide release on HBO this April, and therefore occupies a well deserved spot on this list, despite being a telefilm. Penned down by Mike Makowsky, this Hugh Jackman starrer was based on the true story of the Roslyn High School embezzlement scandal from 2004 – featuring a stellar ensemble cast including Allison Janney, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal and Geraldine Viswanathan amongst others. In the midst of those absurd laughs, sensational performances and biting drama, Finley’s captivating exploration of ‘appropriation run amok’ also houses one of Jackman’s career-best performances. It’s reminiscent of last year’s brilliant Bombshell, albeit at a smaller scale – don’t miss this one for the world!
6. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Could this finally be the film that wins Aaron Sorkin another golden statuette in the screenplay category after ten long years? God knows he deserves it. Despite the fact that it exercises creative license, this bonafide crowd-pleaser starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton and a brilliant Frank Langella as the antagonistic Judge Julius Hoffman is a captivating representation of the scars of the infamous anti-Vietnam protests that are still fresh almost five decades later. The last film on the same subject matter which really hit home was Oliver Stone’s Born on The Fourth of July (1989), but Sorkin aims for an altogether different tone with his material. I’ve said this time and again – the guy simply knows how to play just the right cards and push all the right buttons, and in the end, he delivers a courtroom drama for the ages. It hardly needs to be said, but Sacha Baron Cohen has had one hell of a year. If for some crazy reason, you still haven’t gotten around to watching this gem of a film, now would be the time to end the atrocity and shoot up Netflix on your device.
7. First Cow
This A24 title is a rather weird one. The only reason I heard about Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow aside from the fact that it featured a minute-long cameo from Alia Shawkat, was because it somehow found its spot on the higher end of most critics’ mid-year lists back in July. This rather subtle heist tale starts off as an entrepreneurial venture between our protagonists Cookie and King-Lu, aiming to create the town’s best oily cakes by stealing milk from the Chief Factor’s cow, until inevitably -things take a turn for the worst. Is it a film for everyone? Absolutely not. With a near-stagnant pace, this captivating drama may still not sit well with everyone’s palette, but if you give it a chance – you’ll realise that it packs a lot more between its layers than what’s visible on the surface. Perhaps the biggest strength of this 2-hour long flick is that it effortlessly immerses you in a time and place in history utilising its brilliant cinematography, its nostalgia-inducing aspect ratio and plot-structure. The way I see it, there are two ways to tell a heist story in terms of subtlety – if Fast Five (2011) were to be on one extreme end of the spectrum, First Cow would definitely be at the opposite one. Which one serves you better, depends solely on you. In my book, you never compare.
To say that Tenet is ‘The Last Jedi‘ of the Christopher Nolan catalogue would be a massive understatement. Nolan’s most divisive film till date, aside from being his most convoluted feature (plot-wise) also happens to be his least accessible. It took me three attempts to completely map out everything that Tenet was ambitiously setting up, with each subsequent viewing being far better than the last. It hit me much later on that beneath the layers of this grandiloquent cerebral thriller, indeed lies hidden fodder for the ‘multiple viewing’ cinephile-enthusiasts, because Nolan cleverly sprinkles breadcrumbs all throughout this incoherent narrative. Most people seem to have had a rather frustrating first viewing experience with the film, and they eventually start questioning the various filmmaking choices, until it is finally revealed that every scene in the film exists for a very particular reason, and that this crazy flick warrants a series of viewings to map the various timelines as well as the entire landscape of the story that’s being told. If I start comparing this to Nolan’s previous directorial ventures, Tenet is probably the most labyrinthine one amongst the bunch – far more than Inception (2010), which I personally found to be a rather straight-forward, albeit brilliant feature. So is Tenet the ‘flawed masterpiece’ critics and audiences worldwide are claiming it is? Possibly. But then again, I like being challenged with puzzles. Do you?
9. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – Borat 2 is the sequel I never even knew I wanted. There – I said it. Jason Woliner’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a unique satire that doubles down on its 2006 original in every way, and somehow manages to be funny, astonishing and heart-warming at the same time. There is so much to appreciate here, starting from the madcap humour that results from Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen’s genuinely amazing performances all the way to the film’s ability to subvert your expectations at every single point, throwing all those crazy scenes featuring Rudy Juliani, Mike Pence and Tom Hanks in your face. Also, it continues to expose a particular faction of people for who they truly are, and I find it rather shocking, how even after fourteen years since the original, some people do not seem to know who SBC is, or what he’s up to. But hey, as long as we have more of these coming our way, who’s complaining? In the end, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will also be remembered for being the first mainstream comedy about the coronavirus – so Cohen has that to look forward to as well. If you’re among the few people who didn’t watch the film when it came out, remember that on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Borat series will make for an amazing double-feature viewing experience.
10. On The Rocks
As far as ‘slice-of-life’ films go, Sophia Copolla seems to have made quite a name for herself in the last two decades. That being said, her new directorial venture, On The Rocks is essentially Lost in Translation meets Manhattan, and at the centre of it all is a father-daughter dynamic wonderfully brought to life by Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. Showcasing the complexities of marital and parental life in this bittersweet cocktail, Coppola once again manages to tell a heartwarming tale effortlessly with the same charm as her transcendent Tokyo feature, Lost in translation (2003). I must mention that not a lot happens in the film, plot-wise, but at a runtime of 90 minutes, I honestly had absolutely nothing to complain about. Plus, there are certain things in life you just can’t put a price-tag on, and watching Bill Murray cruising around the streets of New York during the night in a classic ’59 Alfa Romeo Giulietta just happens to be one of them. If that’s the brand of cinema you enjoy, then there’s really no reason for you to miss On The Rocks on AppleTV+.
11. Happiest Season
Clea Devall’s Happiest Season is a stark reminder of a genre that I have mostly outgrown in the last few years, but still don’t mind a few random encounters with, especially given its ‘harmlessness’. In the years to come, this formulaic holiday entertainer won’t exactly be remembered for bringing anything new to the table, other than a lesbian-twist to the classic ‘Meet the Parents’ storyline, but it does feature some remarkably strong, yet grounded performances from its cast – especially those from Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis and Audrey Plaza in a film that manages to balance its tonal consistency rather well between ‘dramatic’ and ‘comedic’. The show stealer, however, in this sassy, sensitive romp is without a shred of doubt – Dan Levy, who recently picked up four Emmy awards for Schitt’s Creek. If you don’t mind taking a slight detour into the ‘holiday-season genre’ and being bombarded with all the usual cliches, this film may just end up surprising you.
So there you have it – that’s all for now. Like I said, this list will be subject to a lot of changes as and when other films find their way to worldwide streaming platforms between now and March. If you have any recommendations from your own personal list that you couldn’t find up here, feel free to leave a comment below with your recommendation – I’d love to check ’em out! Until next time, PP out! :’)