Table of Contents
Honorable Mention: Palm Springs
Palm Springs is a hilarious and refreshing take on the Groundhog Day spin on the romantic comedy. Don't roll your eyes yet. The "reliving the same day over and over" plot device might be tired and overwrought, but this is a unique, original, and completely self-aware script that is played to perfection by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. Their chemistry is palpable and their comedic timing is consistently on-point. Additionally, I typically despise the romantic comedy as a genre as it's commonly bland and formulaic - but Palm Springs is a far cry from any of the run-of-the-mill romantic comedies we've come to know (and hate). Palm Springs is a fun, raunchy, and surprisingly heartfelt (at times) romantic comedy that takes a familiar gimmick and treads familiar ground while also making it refreshing and keeping it (mostly) believable. Fun fact: the film broke a Sundance record with its purchase of $17,500,000.69 by NEON and Hulu at the festival.
Another honorable mention: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. I won't say anything about it, except that you can find my full review for it: here.
Honorable Mention: Shithouse
Shithouse, written, directed, and starring Cooper Raiff, is a genuine and surprisingly heartfelt coming of age dramedy about a homesick college freshman struggling to adapt to college life. The film is almost entirely an "all-nighter" and I love those types of films, when done well - which this one is. The film is hilarious, immensely relatable, and has so much heart for a film of this title. The film is practically carried on its back by its perfectly paired leads who had spectacular chemistry. The 2020 SXSW winner has won over critics and the select few audiences who have had the pleasure of viewing, and is sure to do the same for you, given the chance. I have written a review regarding the surprise dark horse wonderful indie hit Shithouse which can be found here.
Edit: I do need to point out, this film was in my top 10 before I saw Another Round and Soul.
10. Another Round
The foreign language film written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg starring Mads Mikkelsen seems to have been capturing the hearts of many, including this one. I won't say a whole heck of a lot about it, as I've written a full review of it right here on this site. But, beyond the obvious that it features a remarkable and ranged lead performance by Mikkelsen, it is a well written and well shot film which captures the lives of four men as they decide to go on a binge of sorts. They all are fed up with being inadequate at their jobs and experiment with day drinking while on the job, teaching at their local high school. It's a fun, funny, and dramatic look at these four friends and colleagues as they embark on a risky, alcohol fueled journey filled with hijinks and decreased motor skills, often with mixed results. But what's not mixed, are the reviews. This film is widely regarded as one of the best of the year, and the frontrunner to win Best International Feature at the Oscars in April. You can find my full review of the tremendously effective (and affecting) film here. You won't want to miss the last five minutes of the film, as well. They are positively electric, gleeful and revelatory.
Possessor is a blood-soaked, high concept Sci-Fi action/thriller which is just as thought-provoking and mind-bending as it is visually dazzling. Two fantastic lead performances by Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott guide us through the smoothly paced gory thrill-ride that's one for the ages. Fans of the genre who don't mind a little blend of arthouse will love the heady themes, well-executed action and sleek production value. Possessor is sure to garner extreme reactions with its presentation and its brain melting rollercoaster of a premise. I have also written a full review of this film which can be found here.
8. First Cow
First Cow, which enjoyed its initial release in late 2019, was set for a proper theatrical release in 2020 but was met with COVID opposition and was forced to direct-to-streaming - much like many other films this year. Written and directed by the brilliant Kelly Reichardt, this film perfectly captures the old American frontier during Westward expansion times. The very basic premise is two men, who happen upon each other, also happen upon the first cow brought to the States and decide to embark on a risky business venture together. It's a film of friendship, creation of one's own opportunities, and colonialism. Beautifully shot, serenely written, and superbly acted, First Cow is a wonderfully executed drama/period piece that will certainly test one's patience, but it will ultimately be a rewarding viewing experience if that's for you - or if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone. First Cow is available to rent on most streaming platforms.
7. Sound of Metal
A metal drummer with tinnitus expertly played by Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal explores the loss of hearing and the ever-so-relatable plot point of one's passion being ripped away by unfortunate circumstances. The film is surprisingly quiet considering its premise, and is unafraid to take its time with the exceedingly grounded, down-to-earth story. Sound of Metal is dramatic, poignant, and wholly sympathetic in its portrayal of a lifestyle that is likely unfamiliar to many. Riz Ahmed hopefully will be recognized for his stunning work and the mesmerizing sound design simply cannot be ignored come awards season. Sound of Metal is on Amazon Prime and should be considered if you're willing to take a chance on it. My full review of the film can be found here.
6. The Assistant
The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green, is a slow-burn drama featuring a beautifully understated performance by Julia Garner which carries the quiet and nuanced film. It follows the workday of Garner's character who acts as assistant to a studio executive who carries dark secrets which are gradually made clear to her by the end. The film is mostly visual, but dialogue lingers all around her throughout. The film is slowly paced as mentioned, but it is careful, calculated, purposeful and methodical. The film is incredibly subtle and nuanced which is exceedingly important and refreshing for a film with this prescient subject matter, and can be done and has been done horribly in the wrong hands. But, Kitty Green's deft hand brings this masterfully told timely store to the fore. Also, this film was in my Top 5 before I saw a certain film coming up. The Assistant can be found streaming on Hulu.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Another slow-building drama to round out my top 5 - Never Rarely Sometimes Always is almost sure to ruffle some feathers, depending on one's viewpoint. The beautifully understated film follows the journey of a 17-year old young lady who intends to have an abortion, but must travel to New York to do so due to Pennsylvania's laws regarding the procedure. She travels with her cousin who supports her in the decision and she must navigate the bureaucracy involved in, and leading up to, the procedure itself. Remarkably well written and directed by Eliza Hittman, the film succeeds at its most grounded and stripped down elements. The film is not overly flashy, but very well photographed and restrained. The film's centerpiece is Sidney Flanigan who carries the film with her wonderfully subtle performance - it's all behind the eyes. The performance culminates when its title is made clear in the film's pivotal scene - which is superbly acted, written, and directed. The film will certainly not be for everyone considering the subject matter and the fact that it's yet another slow-burn. But, for anyone who can appreciate the craft, it's all expertly on display and can land in your top films of the year if you're anything like me. The film and its technical elements will likely be rewarded come indie awards season. The film is available to rent on most streaming platforms.
Mank is yet another film that will likely not satisfy the cinematic desires of the masses. A slow-burn drama/biopic about the screenwriter of Citizen Kane is not always a topic of interest for casual viewers, but for anyone who does care about this subject matter - this film is almost certain to be right up your alley. Mank is cleverly written by Jack Fincher, father of David Fincher, the director who brings his unique cinematic touch and vision to the mastery of the screenplay. Remarkable performances by Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried bring this film its glossy shine which is accented by the black and white cinematography and the faux old timey editing and sound tricks. Mank hearkens back to the days of Old Hollywood with its signature filmmaking techniques, for better or worse (I think better). Anyone who wishes to venture into the complicated and enigmatic mythology of Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles will certainly find a version of that narrative here. Mank is another film I reviewed on this site which can be found here.
3. The Invisible Man
Believe me, I never would have thought The Invisible Man remake would enter my top 5 going into this year. I rolled my eyes at the idea that they would remake this classic, iconic horror film character, but this expertly crafted horror/thriller remake update more than exceeded expectations. Elizabeth Moss is stellar as always in the lead role, having to bear the brunt of the weight acting alone in a good portion of the scenes. Her expressiveness and range serve her well, in addition to the overall film. Leigh Whannell does a wonderful job updating the story for the modern age, in theme, tone, and plot devices. He brings a timely theme to the fore which makes sense to the story, characters, and how the antagonist is brought about and presented. The film is slow-building and the few action sequences are well crafted, structured, directed and choreographed. The low budget is not apparent as it looks surprisingly great and the visual effects are few but incredibly effective. This film features some of my favorite action set pieces of the year and of all-time and deserve to be seen as well as recognized. The way the camera moves and frames action and negative space is masterful. Sound and the lack of sound are also used exceptionally well throughout. The Invisible Man is a shocking hit that lands so high on my list because of how it completely shattered my expectations in every conceivable manner. Leigh Whannell is one of the most interesting writer/directors working today and his sense of style is clear and visionary. The film is available to rent on standard streaming platform and is available physically on DVD/BluRay/4K.
I must admit, I simply did not expect an animated film to crack my top 10, let alone my top 5 - but, here we are. I also did not expect it to impact me so greatly, but I suppose it's not nearly as surprising when this is from writer/director Pete Docter who also wrote and directed my favorite animated feature of all time, Inside Out. This is seriously a children's film that makes you sit down and think about who you really are as a person. I mean, really? Holy cow. Simply put, Pixar's Soul grabbed me and never let go. The visually hypnotic, existential, and contemplative animated dramedy captured my heart, and Soul. The film is not only heartfelt, heartwarming, and deeply introspective, but it's also surprisingly hilarious. The script features so much clever and witty dialogue, I found myself laughing throughout its entirety. It's such a wonderful exploration of finding one's passions, living to pursue one's dreams, and capturing a high on life while never letting go. The film also inspires us to be a shining light for our friends and family - guiding them to find their passions, pursue them, and to never lose an attitude which leads one to strive to be happy. Enjoying the little things in life is important to Pete Docter, and he beautifully communicates this to his audience. The messages and themes of the movie are cliched and quite possibly overwrought, but they're so carefully and intentionally interwoven into the fabric of the story that it actually hits different than other lesser films. I understand that it might be basic of me to love a film about pursuing one's passions, whether they be creatively or artistically inclined, but I just simply cannot help myself. The film is so impeccably done and I cannot say I related so heavily to a film more than this. It simply changed my life, and leads me to want to change for the better. I hope this can be achieved for you, as well. And how about that score?! Magnificent. You can find my full review of the film here. Soul is a Disney/Pixar animated film and can be found streaming only on Disney+ currently.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Rob needs to have his cinephile card revoked for placing Christopher Nolan's high concept Sci-Fi spy action/thriller Tenet at the top of his list. And that might be true. But, I don't care. This may not be the best film of the year, but it's my favorite - and I believe there to be a huge difference between the two. Tenet feels like a film that was made specifically for me. I enjoyed the film the most, even if its writing falls short of those aforementioned films. Maybe that's because I got to experience it in IMAX twice, but either way it's a film I can't help but love. It feels like a film I had been longing for since I was a kid: a high concept spy action/thriller which has a mind-bending conceit to it. A film that exhilarates, excites, and provokes thought simultaneously. The film is impeccably paced, even at two and a half hours. The film's editing is mind-blowing when you consider the premise, and it's made abundantly clear in the final hour of the film. Tenet features the best action sequences you'll see all year, and some of the most unique and mind-blowing you'll ever see period. This may be Christopher Nolan's best action direction to date. John David Washington charismatically plays our protagonist, and Robert Pattinson in a similar manner. Kenneth Branagh has the most fun chewing up the scenery every chance he gets. Elizabeth Debicki is the standout here, giving the film its much-needed emotional heart. Many will find the expository dialogue and the near-incomprehensible dialogue sound-mixing to be infuriating, but if one can get past that (and with subtitles once it can be owned/rented), then Tenet is a blast. Tenet can be owned physically and digitally come December 15th. My full review of the film can be found here.
Additional Honorable Mentions:
I do need to point out, I have not had the opportunity to see these films that could just as easily have made the list: The Father, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Pieces of a Woman, The Nest, Minari, Wolfwalkers, and many more that I'm sure I'm forgetting.
Let me know if there's anything I missed or if you agree or if I'm just completely off!