Once Upon a Stream: The Best Films of 2020

“Sound of Metal” directed by Darius Marder

When I started writing about movies for a weekly newspaper back in 2006, the world was very different.

Myspace was the largest social networking site in the world, Twitter was in its infancy, and Netflix was still mailing out DVDs with varying degrees of playability as its primary form of customer interaction. Now, Zuckerberg is king, Twitter continues its publicly traded evisceration of civil discourse, and Netflix is firmly entrenched as the largest streaming platform in the universe with 183 million paid subscribers. This matters, because people’s relationship to cinema continues to be influenced by all of these external forces whether they realize it or not.

For example, when a film comes out that dares to present a worldview at odds with whatever the progressive establishment deems acceptable, the shitstorm of vitriol emanating from the Twitter hive can prevent an otherwise intrepid work of art from ever being consumed by the public. People are already losing interest in the long-form analysis of anything at an alarming rate, so the fact that we’ve allowed 280-character hot takes to carry more weight than a meticulously thought-out essay means that the casual filmgoer likely determines what to watch based on whatever they’ve read on social media.

Thus, the role of the critic has changed, as well, because the days of writers having any incentive to challenge readers to think beyond themselves appear to be long gone. What people really want is universal reinforcement of their opinion at all times and anything to the contrary to be verboten regardless of the source.

Many critical voices are happy to oblige, but I’m not one of them. I still believe that intellectual disagreement is healthy and don’t see the value in dismissing anyone with an alternative opinion as my mortal enemy. For all the talk about how much we yearned for the theatrical experience this year, the fact is that we’ve been ideologically isolating ourselves for years, so perhaps watching movies without the potential to be offended by something someone else said or did in your presence is just the next step in the process.

I’ve been putting this list together every year since 1997 and this is the first time that none of the 10 films selected were seen in a theatre, which means that a considerable amount of effort went into making sure that I sought out everything that needed to be seen before narrowing them down. COVID-19 may have resulted in the labeling of movie theatres, concert halls, and other cultural institutions as “non-essential,” but how many of us made it through the last nine months without watching a film or listening to an album?

While you’re contemplating your response, check out my choices for the best and worst films of 2020:

“Sound of Metal”Directed by Darius Marder – We seldom see the deaf community portrayed in such an authentic and respectful way on screen. Riz Ahmed’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Available on Amazon Prime

“Da 5 Bloods” – Directed by Spike Lee – As good as 2018’s “Blackkklansman” was, this is the return to form that I’ve been waiting for from Lee. Delroy Lindo is at the peak of his artistic powers. Available on Netflix

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Directed by George C. Wolfe – Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman square off in a battle of wills that is nothing short of electrifying. Available on Netflix

“Small Axe: A Collection of 5 Films from Steve McQueen” – Directed by Steve McQueen – I suppose you could say that it’s cheating to include five films in one spot, but they’re impossible to separate given how much passion went into telling each story. It’s the only binge-watch that matters this holiday season. Available on Amazon Prime

“Palm Springs” – Directed by Max Barbakow – It pushes the irreverence of “Groundhog Day” even further and ends up being the funniest film Andy Samberg has ever done. Available on Hulu

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” – Directed by Radha Blank – Every frame of Blank’s directorial debut gives the impression that we’re witnessing the emergence of cinema’s next great voice. Available on Netflix

“On the Rocks” – Directed by Sofia Coppola – I could watch Rashida Jones and Bill Murray drive around the streets of Manhattan all day, but it’s the gradual reconciliation of the father/daughter relationship that really moved me. Available on Apple TV

“His House” – Directed by Remi Weekes – The plight of Sudanese refugees is exacerbated when their new home isn’t quite what they had in mind. Available on Netflix

“Mank” – Directed by David Fincher – Debating whether or not the title character actually wrote the script for “Citizen Kane” isn’t nearly as interesting as how Fincher frames Old Hollywood as a sleaze factory whose only allegiance is to its own sustainability. Available on Netflix

“Sylvie’s Love” – Directed by Eugene Ashe – A sweeping romantic tale in which both characters feel lived-in and devoid of cliche. Tessa Thompson shines. Available on Amazon Prime

Honorable Mentions – “The Invisible Man,” “Soul,” “Relic,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and “Other Music”

The Worst

“Antebellum” – This is what you get when your script has nothing to it other than the tired “white people are the devil” trope.

“You Should Have Left” – Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried should have left this script at the bottom of the pile.

“Fatal Affair” – Nia Long and Omar Epps are wasted in what I hope is the final attempt at reimagining “Fatal Attraction.”

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