Best movies of 2020

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes the year's best movies (Part 1)

“Crip Camp” and “Tiger King” were among the Best Documentaries of 2020.

“Succession” and “Schitt’s Creek” were among the Best TV Series of 2020.

Now, it’s time to rank the Best Movies of 2020.

Let the countdown begin!

Bonus Slide: “Hamilton”

Make no mistake: The streaming event of the year was Broadway’s “Hamilton” on Disney+.

Sadly, it’s also the hardest to categorize. Was it a documentary? A TV special? A stand-alone film? It’s a little bit of all three, so it belongs on its own bonus slide.

Below are some honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions:

  • “The Vast of Night” — Andrew Patterson
  • “News of the World”— Paul Greengrass
  • “Greyhound” — Aaron Schneider
  • “Onward” — Dan Scanlon
  • “Tenet” — Christopher Nolan
  • “Lovebirds” — Michael Showalter
  • “Save Yourselves” — Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson
  • “Miss Juneteenth” — Channing Godfrey Peoples
  • “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” — Jason Woliner
  • “Alone” — John Hyams
  • “Host” — Rob Savage

10. “The Invisible Man”

Director: Leigh Whannell

One of my biggest gripes is seeing year-end best lists that include only Oscar bait from late December that most folks haven’t seen yet. Instead, let’s kick off my Top 10 by reaching all the way back to February for a horror remake that actually rivaled the original.

Written and directed by “Saw” creator Leigh Whannell, “The Invisible Man” featured a powerful performance by Elisabeth Moss, who believes her abusive boyfriend is transparently stalking her. Is she just going crazy? Or is something supernatural actually at play? Boasting #MeToo themes and juicy plot twists, it was one of the few actual blockbusters we had this year.

9. “Palm Springs”

Director: Max Barbakow 

Imagine a screenwriter entering a room to pitch “Groundhog Day” meets “Wedding Crashers.” That’s the basic premise of “Palm Springs,” which wowed the Sundance Film Festival before streaming on Hulu.

Set in Palm Springs, California, this rom-com fantasy follows a carefree wedding guest (Andy Samberg) and a reluctant maid of honor (Cristin Milioti), who meet at her sister’s wedding. Thanks to a magical force in the desert, they can’t escape the venue and are forced to relive the chaotic wedding day over and over again.

Equally heartwarming and hilarious, it’s an inventive take on a gimmick that you thought was played out.

8. “Bad Education”

Director: Cory Finley

Produced by HBO Films, “Bad Education” should be competing for the Oscars this year instead submitting for the Emmys in the “TV Movie” category. Quarantine has shown us that such labels are outdated, as “Bad Education” isn’t episodic content but rather a stand-alone film that should compete against other streamers.

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney are in top form as Long Island Superintendent Frank Tassone and Assistant Superintendent Pamela Gluckin, who carried out the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history from 1992 to 2004. In a year where Hollywood stars went to prison for the college admissions scandal, “Bad Education” is as much a zeitgeist flick as any movie made this year.

7. “Mank”

Director: David Fincher

Is there a film whose merits have been argued about more this award season than “Mank?” David Fincher’s nostalgic biopic to “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is not for casual moviegoers, but rather a black-and-white love note to cinephiles who appreciate the significance of Orson Welles’ masterpiece — not only to cinema history, but for its commentary on egomaniacal media moguls.

“Mank” is not really a “making of” film at all; it’s a collection of puzzle pieces in the life of a man on the ground floor of a booming industry who sabotaged his own career with booze and shame for his creative vocation. The fact that its “greatness” is so polarizing might be its biggest homage to “Kane.”

6. “Da 5 Bloods”

Director: Spike Lee

Tied for the No. 6 slot are a pair of movies featuring the final roles of the late Chadwick Boseman.

First is Spike Lee’s war joint “Da 5 Bloods,” the much anticipated follow-up to his long overdue Academy Award win for “BlacKkKlansman” (2018). The June release starred Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis as Vietnam vets searching for the remains of their fallen officer, played in flashbacks by Boseman.

Little did we know that he would pass away just months later, making his role eerily prescient as he returns from the dead in rays of angelic light to say, “I forgive you. God is love. Love is God. I died for you, blood.”

6. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Director: George C. Wolfe

Also tied for our No. 6 slot is Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous Netflix release, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Based on the second of 10 plays in August Wilson’s renowned Century Cycle, the story is set on a hot day in 1920s Chicago, where the so-called “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey records her newest album.

Viola Davis is a tour de force as the impossible diva demanding Coca Cola, while showing empathy toward her stuttering nephew. Still, it’s Boseman who steals the show as brash trumpeter Levee, who carries a chip on his emaciated shoulders. It’s hard to watch this beloved man dying before our very eyes, lending a transcendent power to monologues challenging God as if Boseman himself is shouting, “Why me?” on death’s door.

Just as Troy’s baseball dreams were stolen in “Fences” (2018), Levee’s hopes are dashed here, but Boseman’s greatness is forever frozen in time on screen in a final performance that deserves to win a posthumous Oscar.

5. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Director: Aaron Sorkin

In perhaps Netflix’s best shot at winning Best Picture, writer/director Aaron Sorkin combines his mastery of politics (“The West Wing”) and courtroom drama (“A Few Good Men”) to chornicle the true story of seven men arrested during an uprising outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The deep cast boasts Frank Langella as the judge, Mark Rylance as the defense attorney and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead prosecutor, but the real standouts are Eddie Redmayne as academic Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as activist Abbie Hoffman, who dropped f-bombs in a flag shirt in “Forrest Gump” (1994).

Their clash of ideals explodes as Redmayne confronts Cohen: “My problem is that, for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. They’re not gonna think of equality or justice, they’re not gonna think of education or poverty or progress, they’re gonna think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed, lawless losers, so we’ll lose elections.”

Cohen gets the last laugh as he takes the stand. “Do you have contempt for your government?” Gordon-Levitt asks, to which Cohen replies, “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that are right now populated by some terrible people.”

4. “Sound of Metal”

Director: Darius Marder 

“Sound of Metal” was my favorite streaming film at this year’s hybrid Middleburg Film Festival. The film follows a heavy metal drummer and his lead singer girlfriend, who drive from town to town in their mobile home to perform. However, when he begins losing his hearing, they must decide their future as a band and as a couple.

Riz Ahmed brilliantly expresses emotion with his face, Olivia Cooke is believably torn as his girlfriend and Paul Raci is an Oscar dark horse for Best Supporting Actor as the wise operator of a remote home for deaf folks, teaching sign language through tough love and total immersion.

The filmmaker similarly immerses the audience with his masterful use of sound design from ringing ears to distorted voices. The final shot is perfection, reminding us to block out the noise and enjoy the silence, knowing that true peace is the ability to sit with one’s self.

3. “One Night in Miami”

Director: Regina King

It doesn’t arrive until Christmas Day, but “One Night in Miami” has all the makings of a strong Best Picture contender. While it takes place almost entirely inside a Miami hotel room, Kemp Powers’ screenplay is surprisingly engaging as it imagines the conversation between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in their real-life meeting in 1964.

As the four very different men discuss the civil rights movement, their personalities shine and clash as they rib each other, question themselves and break down the state of race relations from various perspectives.

Regina King is on fire after her Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) and her Emmy for “Watchmen” (2019), so it should be no surprise that her directorial debut is dynamite, turning an intimate chamber piece into an electric proving ground for symbolism, foreshadowing our heroes’ doom by filming them behind wooden bars. In the end, Malcolm X closes his eyes as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come” on national television for his first public political statement. The song swells with the same smooth voice that Odom brought to “Hamilton,” proving once again in this Miami hotel, it’s thrilling to be in the room where it happened.

2. “Nomadland”

Director: Chloé Zhao

In 2017, Chloé Zhao showed indie promise with her poetic rodeo film “The Rider.” Now, she returns to her favorite canvas of the modern American West in “Nomadland,” winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival — the only film ever to win both.

The film follows Fern, a drifting widow who becomes a van-dwelling nomad after losing her husband, her factory job and her identity during the 2008 Great Recession. Surrounded by real-life nomads, Frances McDormand is utterly vulnerable in a role reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas” (1984). She will surely compete for her third Oscar after “Fargo” (1996) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017).

As for Zhao, she’s an early favorite to win Best Director for capturing the plight of Americans displaced by technology and globalization, as Fern works an assembly line at Amazon and stocks shelves at Walmart. It all builds to a trio of silent scenes at an empty Thanksgiving table, an abandoned factory office and a foreclosed home, giving smart viewers credit to decipher Fern’s thoughts: it’s time to let go of her grief and carry on.

1. “First Cow”

Director: Kelly Reichardt

It’s no coincidence that my top three movies are helmed by female filmmakers whose unique insights offer wise lessons on the human condition. Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” competed for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February and was one of the last films released theatrically in March before the pandemic shut down multiplexes. The rest of us finally got to stream it on-demand in July, quietly discovering a poetic work of art.

Reichardt’s pacing is blissfully patient as her camera holds for painterly compositions where the natural world exists before and after the humans enter and exit the frame. She opens in present day as a hiker discovers the skeletons of two men side by side in the wilderness, then proceeds to show us how they got there. Set in 1820s Oregon, it’s a tranquil tale of frontier friendship between a fur-trapping chef (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee), who plot to steal milk from the region’s first cow to make delicious baked goods to sell.

Will the cow’s wealthy owner discover their scheme once he tastes the food? Their fate is tragically sealed from the very beginning, but the men’s bond endures into eternity. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good Western, or maybe I just love a simple story beautifully told, but I surprised myself to find that this was my favorite of 2020.

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes the year's best movies (Part 2)

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