Photo Edit by Alek Sabin
It’s that time of the year folks – the end. It’s that time where we all look back, take a hit of recency bias and make our top (insert number here) films of the year. I do mine a little differently than others. I pick a large number in 25 because I see a lot of great films each year, and if I just did a top 10 then I’d have a long “honorable mentions” section which is pointless – just make the list longer. Please note, this is a list of my favorite films of the year, not a list of what I think are the best films of the year – that’s a completely different list and it’s not as much fun to make so I’m not gonna do it. There is simply no joy in making that list. Also please note, if I have written about the film I will embed a link to said writing in the title of the film.
Even in a year like this where so many titles I was anticipating were pushed back to next year, I did not experience a drop in quality films released this year. I still had trouble keeping this list at even 25 films, there were other titles I really enjoyed that I couldn’t fit on here. I’ve always believed that there’s been no bad year for film, and that did not change this year. The absence of the theater made me search a bit harder on VOD/streaming options to unearth some gems.
There are some titles this year that won’t be on the list. If it’s in theaters right now, I’m sorry, I’m not going to, so quit asking. I’m not going to the theater until it’s legitimately safe to do so. So sorry Promising Young Woman. Sorry Minari (it has a general release in February so if you see it on my favorites of 2021 list just mind your own business). Sorry Synchronic, it doesn’t hit VOD until next year. Those titles are not going to be in this list because I’m not waiting several months to make this list just to be sure. Basically, if your film is not a VOD/streaming option right now, I did not watch it. I have no idea if Ema will ever have a US release so I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that 2021 is the year. I must also apologize to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, I haven’t watched it yet so it’s not going to be on this list. I’m sorry, I know. I know I’ll love it when I’m emotionally prepared to watch it. There are also titles that I saw at Sundance this year that would have been on this list but have yet to see a release due to Covid or otherwise (Zola, Vivos and Into the Deep).
So yeah, even with all the changes this year, I didn’t find the quality of films diluted at all. I still had trouble narrowing things down to just 25 films. I left off quite a few good films I really liked. Alright, let’s get to it.
This is the greatest performance by Russell Crowe. I’m not joking. In his sweatiest and most coked-up performance, anything is possible in this film when Crowe is on screen. He’s cycling through different accents at will and absolutely hamming up every moment he’s on screen. This is essentially a straight-to-dvd film that somehow got Russell Crowe in it and it’s like he was just blasted during the whole filming and can’t recall a single thing about it and it somehow got a theatrical release so of course I loved it. I’m glad I rented this before the year was over because I had a blast with it.
24. Let Them All Talk
Just a pleasant two hours with Steven Soderbergh, and a film that never goes the traditional narrative routes you’re expecting it to. Any other filmmaker would have stuffed this film full of “look at these old people getting into funny shenanigans!” but Soderbergh instead crafts a heartwarming, tender examination of legacy and love.
23. May the Devil Take You Too
As much as I love Timo Tjahjanto, I was quite underwhelmed with the first film in this series, May the Devil Take You. It just felt stilted and moved at a poorly slow pace, so I went into this one with tempered expectations and was absolutely surprised at how much I loved this entry. It’s so much more fun, bonkers and scary. It opens itself up to fun sequel opportunities that I’ll be intrigued to stay with.
May I refer you to this excellent piece of film criticism.
21. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
An adaptation that I actually thought improved upon the novel. One of my favorite endings of the year, it just goes for it and I admire it for that.
20. The Wild Goose Lake
The most inventive movie kill of the year. You’ll know it when you see it.
19. Bill and Ted Face the Music
Man I just had the biggest smile on my face watching this. Desperately needed something as wholesome and fun as this in 2020.
I also desperately needed something that captured utter despair and nihilism this year like She Dies Tomorrow did. Amy Seimetz forever.
17. Da 5 Bloods
One of my favorite things about Spike Lee is his ability to abandon the accountants truth in favor of the ecstatic truth. Think about He Got Game’s ending, with Jake Shuttlesworth throwing the basketball from the prison yard into the air, and then the ball lands in an empty stadium and bounces to Jesus Shuttlesworth. Their entire relationship is conveyed in one beautiful sequence. He does something similar that I loved in Da 5 Bloods, by having the older actors still play their younger selves in flashbacks, visually signifying how they are still trapped by the events that brought them back to Vietnam. A career best performance by Delroy Lindo, a towering Chadwick Boseman performance to gift us before his passing, and my man Jonathan Majors excelled in holding his own against treasured veterans.
Like I said in my review: “There’s a Kenny Powers quote that resonates with me that, to paraphrase, goes: “I got two hard rules I live by. I don’t fuck with the devil, and I don’t do tag-teams with blood relatives.” I’d like to add a third to that for me personally: I don’t ever pass up an Indonesian genre film.” Those films go hard, they know how to party.
Aneesh Chaganty forever.
You should know by now I’m the biggest sucker for any webcam genre film. Of course I was going to love Shudder’s hidden gem Host. Filmed and release in the earlier days of quarantine, this little hour long horror movie used the backdrop of Covid to its advantage, crafting effective scares along the way. The image of a mask (in a sly nod to Alice, Sweet Alice) hanging midair is one of the top scares of the year.
Buddy, if you’re blood isn’t boiling this whole movie, I don’t know what to tell you. A staggering tale of institutional failure and negligence and the extreme efforts that have to be made for any sort of acknowledgement of a government betraying its people. In 2015, a tragic fire broke out in a club called Colectiv in Bucharest, Romania, killing 27 and hospitalizing 180 more. 37 more burn victims died in the hospital in the following days and weeks, leading journalists to discover that hospitals across the nation were deliberately supplying themselves with diluted disinfectant to cut costs, resulting in unsanitary, life-costing conditions and led to a revolt so large the government party resigned. What starts as a “fight the power” inspirational story born out of tragedy becomes absolutely soul-crushing when the central characters we’ve been following come to the realization that the system didn’t fail them, it actually worked exactly as it was intended to to crush meaningful change. One character asks early on into the investigation “Could they be so cruel as to provide us false documents?” (regarding the sanitary conditions in hospitals) and you sense that he crushingly already knows the answer.
12. Sound of Metal
Featuring an incredible performance from Riz Ahmed, if Darius Marder’s film does not clean up in every sound category this awards season than the pointlessness of awards shows is that much more obvious. The sound will go in and out scene to scene in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky but more authentic to the deaf experience. How and when Marder chooses to change the sound throughout is the treat. And for what it’s worth, Ahmed did some damn fine drumming himself in this movie.
11. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
When he went to the GOP convention in a klan outfit and said he was Stephen Miller I was dying. Sacha Baron Cohen’s ability to stay in character is still unmatched. Maria Bakalova has that gift too.
10. The Vast of Night
Watching this film, I had the same wide-eyed wonder I’d have as a kid watching films on the big screen. That’s all I really have to say about this gem.
I didn’t see this until a few weeks ago when it hit VOD because I’m not stupid, and I successfully avoided spoilers and was able to go in pretty blind and was grateful for that. This is by far the most bonkers film Nolan has ever done. My man was doing fat fucking rails of cocaine and percocet with producers and telling them “But in our film, the action scenes happen backwards.” While this is the clunkiest film of his exposition-wise – there were entire sequences in the film where I had no clue what the context of anything was, and I’m still unclear as to what exactly certain aspects of the third act mission were supposed to be – it is a god-damned visual marvel. These are some of the most exhilarating and gorgeously crafted action sequences I’ve seen, and by far the best action he’s done so far. The fact that there were only 280 shots in this film that required vfx is an astounding feat. Nolan has always gotten everything he can out of practical effects in his films – for example, Batman Begins only had 620 shots of vfx work in it – this is still an insane achievement that is mind blowing when you watch the film and realize how much of this was done practically without CGI. (Yeah, he actually ran a Boeing jet into a hangar that exploded just because he could.) It is something only Nolan could possibly pull off. Tenet has issues, but it is an absolute blast and remarkable work of practical effects. Also worth noting, this film wouldn’t work for a second without John David Washington’s charisma and his chemistry with Robert Pattinson. When it’s legitimately safe to go back to the theater, I hope they roll this film back out because I’d love to see it in IMAX.
This short film has everything I love about Yorgos Lanthimos packaged into a tight 10 minutes. He takes an intriguing premise built on social norms – a cellist finds himself being replaced by a complete stranger, proving that everything can be replaced – and takes it to its most horrifying conclusion in dark hilarity. I could have happily watched a feature length version of this.
Jim Cummings is the real deal, and I’m happy good films continue to be made in my home state of Utah.
The general consensus on this sequel set in the same universe as the beloved Train to Busan had been pretty underwhelming when I watched this film. I was stunned at how wrong everybody is about this film. It doesn’t even try to be Train to Busan 2.0 and I love it for that. It’s completely it’s own beast, and it is a BLAST. You can’t 2 Train 2 Busan this shit, so why even try? There’s far less social commentary in Peninsula than there is in Train to Busan, which may have turned some off of it, but the little bits of immigration commentary it does have is intriguing. It hits the dramatic notes when it needs to, but is far more concerned – and rewardingly so – with crafting some of the best action sequences of the year. We got a dude doing John Wick headshots on zombies. We got a little girl driving around doing car stunts like she’s Tom Cruise and mowing down scores of zombies. We got a third act that turns into Fury Road with some excellent vehicular mayhem. If you’re focused on how it’s not Train to Busan, you’re completely denying yourself of how much damn fun a film Peninsula is. I hope they make 30 more films set in this universe.
Don’t have much more to say that I didn’t in my review, so I’ll just point you that direction.
It already has what will be the frontrunner of best jump scare of the decade. Experiencing that moment with an audience is a high I’ve been riding all year. You’ll know it when you see it. Leigh Whannell forever.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
“Dylan this came out last year.” Shut the fuck up. It played in like 3 theaters in 2019, and didn’t see a release outside of that until 2020, I’m counting it for this year bitch. The last act of this film absolutely wrecked me, I was inconsolable.
2. First Cow
I’m still finding the words for this film. Kelly Reichardt is one of my favorite working filmmakers, one of the pioneers of the New Americana movement. First Cow is a beautiful, kind film about friendship and the brutality of capitalism. I’m just grateful we got to see this movie this year even if I was watching it on my television.
I suppose I should note I’m talking about the Uncut version of this film, as it’s the one I saw at Sundance and the one that was the main focus of its release. You should know by now I’m a pretty easy mark when it comes to hyper-violent, neon-lit movies. Brandon Cronenberg is definitely the son of David Cronenberg, and that’s a wonderful thing we have another Cronenberg that feels authentic and not a pale imitation of his father. Possessor has stuck with me since Sundance, and I had a great time revisiting it recently. I always love watching Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, and loved every second we spend in this quasi-future that Cronenberg has crafted. Here’s to many more years of Cronenberg supremacy.