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  • by Jeff Beck

The Top Ten Films of 2020

It's once again time to honor the best films of the year, in a year that has certainly been like no other. From theaters getting shut down for long periods, to release dates being shuffled, to many films moving to streaming, it's been quite a wild time for movies, but despite several contenders moving to next year ("The French Dispatch," "Dune," "No Time to Die," etc.), there were still several great films that made it out there in one form or another, so let's dive right in.

10. The Twentieth Century - To say that Matthew Rankin's film is about a young man that dreams of becoming Prime Minister of Canada wouldn't begin to describe the bizarre experience it entails. It's a fever dream that's part Orwellian nightmare and a large part absurdist fantasy. It's simply one of the craziest things I've seen in a long time, and for all its weirdness and abstract designs, it ends up being one of the most memorable films of the year. There really isn't a sufficient way to describe it. You just have to experience it for yourself.

9. Collective - One of the most riveting documentaries of the year delves into the incredible inadequacies of the Romanian healthcare system following the death of several survivors of a club fire in 2015. First we follow a journalist who demands answers on various subjects from hospitals using diluted products to the managers of these facilities being completely corrupt, then we follow the new Minister of Health as he tries to fix a system that is utterly rotten to its core. It's startling, horrifying, and frustrating all at once, and just as compelling as many of the best narrative features of the year.

8. News of the World - On the surface, Paul Greengrass' latest feature seems like the simple tale of a news reader in 1870, who is trying to return a young girl to the only family she has left after having spent years living with a tribe of Native Americans. However, looking deeper, we find an incredible tale of two lost people who are thrown together in an extraordinary circumstance, as they try to find a future while grappling with the past. Ultimately, Greengrass' film is a magnificent character study, featuring stunning direction, cinematography, production design, and a pair of fine performances from Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel. With its captivating narrative and gorgeous visuals, it's one of those films that's quite easy to lose yourself in.

7. Totally Under Control - Another fascinating documentary, this time about the history of the COVID-19 virus and the Trump Administration's completely failed response to it. It lays out the events quite well, and features interviews with numerous experts who were involved, including scientists and politicians. Like "Collective," this is a very startling look at real-life events (in this case, events within the last year) that is also horrifying and frustrating in how it delves into how poorly this administration handled the situation (calling it a "hoax," not taking it seriously, repeatedly lying about having it "under control," disbanding teams and ignoring playbooks that were specifically for this kind of event, etc.). It's a remarkably compelling look at a terrible situation, and one of the best documentaries of the year.

6. Onward - Pixar had two major films come out this year, "Onward" in the first half of the year, and "Soul" in the second. While I enjoyed the latter, for my money, the former was their superior effort. Taking place in a world where magic is real, two elf brothers set forth on a journey in an attempt to spend one day with their father, who died when they were both very young. In typical Pixar fashion, the film is highly entertaining, beautifully animated, and skillfully deals with deep themes, all culminating in a film that hits every level of satisfaction as it unfolds its touching tale that will undoubtedly play on your heartstrings. Pixar is no stranger to delivering excellent films, ("Inside Out," "Up," "Ratatouille," etc.), and "Onward" is most certainly keeping in that great tradition.

5. All In: The Fight for Democracy - For the first time since I started doing these lists many years ago, three documentaries have earned a place, and while all three are outstanding and deserving of Best Documentary awards, this one just barely edged ahead of the others. It's a fascinating glimpse into the history of voter suppression, exploring various terrible policies (some of which have only cropped up in the last few years) that have attacked basic voting rights for well over a century. As with the other two docs on this list, it's very timely, important, informative, and gripping as it gives you a breakdown of the history and how the practice still goes on today. Simply put, it's a must-see examination of a very pertinent, ongoing issue.

4. The Father - Sir Anthony Hopkins has given us no shortage of great performances. From his brilliant renditions of Othello and Titus Andronicus to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, he has always lit up the screen with his presence. In Florian Zeller's "The Father," he portrays a man who is succumbing to the effects of his age, with the lines of reality blurring along the way. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more effective by Hopkins' masterful performance (for which he may very well earn his second Oscar), which, when coupled with Zeller's skilled direction and a somewhat mind-bending script by Zeller and Christopher Hampton, gives you a stunning portrait of a man who's slowly losing his mind. It's emotionally devastating, but easily one of the best films of the year.

3. Wolfwalkers - When I first saw "Wolfwalkers," an animated film from the same studio that brought us "The Secret of Kells," I had enjoyed it well-enough, but on a second viewing, its greatness really came through. Taking place in 17th century Ireland, the film tells of a father and daughter living in a town that's under constant threat of wolves. Wanting to help her father hunt them down, the young girl sneaks into the woods, but ends up befriending a "wolfwalker" (a human who can become a wolf) instead. The film is beautifully animated, enchanting, and filled with emotion as it unfolds its touching tale. It's already won multiple awards for Best Animated Feature, and could be a somewhat surprising winner at the Oscars (i.e. if it can somehow defeat Pixar). It's simply a magnificent film for all ages and shouldn't be missed.

2. The Trial of the Chicago 7 - Leave it to a master screenwriter like Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network," "Steve Jobs") to continually bring us such remarkably compelling projects. In "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (which he also directed), he tells the story of the seven defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, etc.) who were charged with causing a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Fueled by Sorkin's sharp, crackling dialogue and a brilliant ensemble that includes Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Frank Langella (and many more), the film flies through its seemingly-brief two hours, delivering a riveting story that grabs you from the start and doesn't let go until the credits roll. It's yet another example of why Sorkin is one of the very best in the business, and it would not be surprising at all to see him receive his second screenwriting Oscar for this (with the film having a strong possibility of walking away with the top prize).

1. I'm Thinking of Ending Things - While 2020 presented a harder-than-usual challenge of putting together ten films for a year-end list, one of the easiest things to decide was what film should ultimately be at the very top. It seems like it's been ages since I've seen a film that I've been able to give a four-star review to, but Charlie Kaufman's weird and wonderful "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" easily earns the rating. On the surface, the film is the simple tale of a man taking his girlfriend to meet his parents, who live on a farm out in the country. However, we quickly discern that everything is not as it seems as very strange things begin to happen.

This is one of those films that's best to go into knowing very little, giving you the best possible experience as it plays out its twisted, enigmatic tale. Chances are that, by the end, you won't have understood everything you saw (I know I certainly didn't), but it's one of those films that makes you want to go back and figure out what everything meant and how all of the different pieces fit together (similar to David Lynch's masterful "Mulholland Drive"). Kaufman, working from the novel by Iain Reid, has crafted something truly unique and unforgettable. It's by no means an easily accessible film, and it will no doubt frustrate those who are too impatient to sit through its weirdness and apply a little more thought than usual, but those who do will be rewarded with one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences of recent memory. Again, nothing came close to challenging it, ultimately leaving Kaufman's masterpiece as 2020's clear choice for best film.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


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