Is this the part where I type it’s been as good a year as ever for movies? We’re all allowed our clichés now and again, especially when there’s backing truth. It’s been a rotating door of contenders when it comes to Matt Donato’s personal 2020 favorites, and I’d be remiss not to mention those on the outside looking inward. Sound Of Metal should land Riz Ahmed a nomination, Scare Me creatively conveys the comfort of campfire storytelling, voters shouldn’t forget Da 5 Bloods despite its earlier release, and Big Time Adolescence is a pitch-perfect Pete Davidson vessel.
Those aren’t the cream, though. On the last day of 2020, my Top 10, they have risen.
10. After Midnight
“That's what we do, you know? We fill in the blanks that we don't understand. It's human nature. We've been letting our imaginations draw faces on the noises in the dark since we were living in caves. And we always draw sharp teeth.”
I promise there won't be much horror crossover between my Top 10 and previously posted Top 20 in Horror 2020. After Midnight is one of the lucky few. I've written about this romantic creature-defense dramedy for What To Watch, /Film, and roughly seventeen other websites, so I'm running out of alterations of the same adoration. Allow me a different approach here. Basketball royalty Jim Valvano once said, "If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day." Well, apply that to movies. I laughed (the stunt shot), I thought (Gardner's character battling demons), and I cried (the warmest third-act moments). This movie has more heart than the insides of a Kaiju. It showcases how horror's versatility, through hybrid genres no less, knows no boundaries—spoken from soulful depths by a creator with nothing and a character with everything to lose.
“Trump’s gonna look up at me from his gold-encrusted coffin and go, ‘Who the fuck is this bitch,’ and I’ll tell ‘em, ‘That’s President Bitch’ to you, motherfucker.”
I never, once, knew what to expect from Brian Duffield's Spontaneous. Maybe that's why it's my obvious contender for 2020's greatest discovery. A "Young Adult" take on life's inexplicable cruelty in the form of exploding children that is hopelessly romantic and endlessly energetic despite its darker outlook. Katherine Langford is allowed to play an adolescent character at her messiest, no Hollywoodized facade. It's to be expected, as Duffield uses his undetectable outbreak to parallel school shooting epidemics amongst countless other coming-of-age crises. Yet, still, he ends with a ceremoniously upbeat finale that punches home one of the year's most invigorated monologues. An applause-worthy surprise in an otherwise unpredictable-for-the-wrong-reasons year.
“Remember what we said when we got married? That we'd move to America and save each other?”
There is no more American story in 2020 than Lee Isaac Chung's Minari. Steven Yeun stars as the patriarch of a Korean family with dreams of rural Arkansas livin' on a massive, Korean-specialty produce farm. What transpires is Yeun's character plummeting into the promises of an American dream with blinders on, only to lose certain aspects of heritage and homely comforts along the way. Grandma has to move in, Yeri Han's wife feels forgotten and unheard, his son tricks granny into drinking something that looks like Mountain Dew...all issues every American household deals with, of course. What works best is when Chung picks up the pieces, a family rotting as vegetables sprout, and what it takes to regrow the roots that were once firmly planted in foreign soil. Also, Will Patton for Best Supporting Actor maybe?
“Are you happy, or are you pretending to be happy?”
A theme you’ll continue spying throughout this list is feature debuts, which Carlo Mirabella-Davis narratively accomplishes with Swallow. A pointed paradox about preservation, Pica, and being present versus accepting our place. Haley Bennett delivers one of my favorite performances of the year as a woman who seemingly has it all - affluence, a dream partner, health - and yet, her character’s only control is over an obsession with ingesting objects. Mirabella-Davis toys with ideas of abuse and imprisonment, mostly how they can outwardly remain hidden. Confident direction conveys the intimacy in household dread and domination through manipulated paranoia. Never an episode of MTV’s My Strange Addiction, and always focused on the well-being of a character who’d be viewed as an ungrateful Princess Peach based on unaware bystander perspectives.
6. Promising Young Woman
“WHY DO GIRLS HAVE TO RUIN EVERYTHING?!”
Yes, I’m another critic telling you to get hyped for Promising Young Woman even though it won’t release until February. My stance hasn’t changed since December’s theatrical review dropped. Emerald Fennell takes some mighty thematic swings that will infuriate, stoke discomfort, and in the best instances, drive audiences to ponder long and hard about ingrained societal behaviors. It’s a jagged, bitter pill to swallow, because Fennell is sick of seeing the topic of assault accusations and excusable misogyny handled on-screen in the same patterns. Also? The film is a delightful neon-pop burst of vitality through cinematography, acted by wolves and sheep who exploit their characters’ stereotypes with purpose. Technically tremendous, narratively tenacious, and unmistakably intentioned whether you're ready or not.
5. One Night In Miami…
“They got souls, don’t they? Every living thing with a soul can have that soul tapped into.”
Regina King captures a moment in time and successfully adapts Kemp Powers’ acclaimed stage play. As the struggle rages on, titans of celebrity, of protest, verbally spar over the racism that impedes their larger communities, or further. Kingsley Ben-Adir as activist Malcolm X, Eli Goree as boxing butterfly Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge as NFL’er Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke form a performance quartet whose talents barely fit their one-location walls.
From Goree’s charming larger-than-life-ness to Odom’s defensiveness as Cooke, Ben-Adir’s emphatic outrage to Hodge’s physical imposition and searing bluntness. One Night In Miami stings with dialogues about humans as weapons, as black Americans argue over how best to find their due justice in white America. It’s powerful, a performative knockout, and another example of filmmakers using history to repeat themes that are ever-relevant years, nay decades later. Also? It’s amazingly delightful, despite the harshness and severity of discussions in-full.
4. Get Duked!
“Fuck off, Granddad.”
There’s a much larger monologue that better encapsulates the generational angst felt in Ninian Doff’s Get Duked!, but the above quote is more poignant. I’ve already written about how this classist riff off The Most Dangerous Game is an acid-washed blast that shares some serious Attack The Block vibes. Look farther, and you’ll sense the seething temperament underneath conversations about mutants and mongrels and deejay nicknames. Doff isn’t mixing messages. Elders thin the herd by offing underprivileged children who “squander” what the most magnificent generation left behind, so they proclaim. Nah, bruv. This is the pushback, the rebellion, and firework shoved up the tyrannical asses of ruthless governors who fail to see the folly of their elitism. With rapper’s-paradise interludes!
“I’m going to enjoy becoming part of a sky like this, Dad.”
It’s been a year for feature debuts, few as accomplished as Shannon Murphy’s unrelated sibling to Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Lead actress Eliza Scanlen shaved her head to play Milla, an Australian teen suffering from a severe illness who chases happiness in whatever moments she has left. Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn play parents who toss rulebooks in the trash, stuck between enforcing good behavior and aiding in Milla’s destructive tendencies. Toby Wallace is equally memorable as homeless criminal-type Moses, but young love cannot be thwarted. Life is precious, limited, and often far more complex than our rationales can handle. Babyteeth is the pinnacle of ecstasy and tragedy, an abolition of the one-size-fits-all existence model.
2. His House
“Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you. It’s when I let them in, I could start to face myself.”
Remi Weekes’ feature debut deserves to be revered with the same emphasis we heaped (rightfully) upon Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku navigate the horrors of refugees who chase a dream far away from poverty and oppression, only to find a haunted house of their own designs. At the intersection of cultural representation and genre embellishment exists His House, this year’s most provocative blend of traumatizing terrors juxtaposed against real-world monsters. I reviewed it here at What To Watch, it rightfully topped my Best Horror of 2020 feature, and welp, here we are again. Sick of me, yet?
1. Palm Springs
“Well, we kind of have no choice but to live? So, I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence.”
Who knew a cynic-approved romantic comedy about infinite time loops, wedding chaos, and dinosaurs would be my euphoric cinema high of 2020? Max Barbakow's narrative feature debut confessional about the nightmare of normality warms my life-is-just-a-meaningless-cycle heart. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti find blistering chemistry between jaded existential barbs and cheap catered liquor, while J.K. Simmons is the supporting-role clincher. Entertainment that’s afraid, forlorn, and endlessly enjoyable as an anti-rom-com that, itself, finds its path towards happiness. We’re all stuck here, yeah? Inflate your pizza slice floaty and find a nice patch of sunshine to ride it on out.
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