Jacob Hall's Top 10 Films of 2020
Look, here’s your obligatory opening sentence about how 2020 stunk to high heavens. Here’s your obligatory second sentence about how everyone thought this was a bad year for movies, because so many major titles were delayed. So I’ll offer this third obligatory sentence about how that’s not true and how movies were as good as ever in 2020, as VOD and streaming allowed smaller titles to shine brighter than ever.
Here’s the obligatory fourth sentence, where I kindly request that you read my top 10 movies 2020 list.
Jacob Hall’s Top 10 Movies of 2020
When it comes to terrifying movies about dark houses being haunted by something awful and unknowable, Relic is top-tier stuff. But co-writer/director Natalie Erika James has more on her mind than scaring the pants off you, even if she pulls those strings with aplomb. Here, the supernatural horror is just a symptom of something far more relatable than a haunted house: a loved one who is slipping away, slowing losing her faculties and transforming into a stranger, an unrecognizable shell of her former self. The domestic drama and the slow-burn terror ramp up together, leading to a climax where the decaying mind of a once-loving mother transforms her home into a nightmarish labyrinth, ensnaring her family in a maze that reflects her broken mind. Rarely has a movie so unnervingly conveyed what it feels like to watch someone you love decay before your very eyes and never have those personal terrors been so eloquently tied into a heart-pounding horror film.
9. His House
Ghosts have always been one of fiction’s greatest and most common metaphors, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything derivative about His House. This is the second utterly terrifying haunted house movie on this list, and like Relic, writer/director Remi Weekes uses scares to help land one emotional punch after another. The ghosts of survived traumas become literal when a married refugee couple attempts to make a new life in the U.K., only to find themselves the victims of a violent spirit that has followed them from their former home. There’s a patience to how Weekes stages sequences of surreal terror, an understanding of how to really milk a great jump scare. More importantly, each of those exquisite scenes of horror inform the story, the characters, and their guilt, which doesn’t linger as much as it suffocates. His House is murky in the best ways, refusing to offer easy answers as it uses its ghost story set-up to invite us into a very personal hell.
8.The Personal History of David Copperfield
Too many uninspired literature classes have incorrectly informed people that Charles Dickens is stodgy. The great miracle of The Personal History of David Copperfield is that it fires a jolt of modern energy into the legendary writer’s most personal novel while remaining true to what makes the book so beautiful in the first place. Filmmaker Armando Iannucci sets aside the cynicism that has defined his previous work to make one of the warmest, funniest movies of 2020, a film brimming with humanity and wit. Because Iannucci knows that Dickens’ work is hilarious. Because Iannucci knows that Dickens’ work is about the power of community overcoming oppression and cruelty. And with the magnificent Dev Patel leading a cast of actors no one has ever not wanted to see on screen, it’s all performed with such charm. This is a film about overcoming a difficult stretch (oh, can’t we relate?), but it’s one told with joy and whimsy so specific it can’t help but feel relatable.
7. The Invisible Man
2020’s trilogy of socially relevant horror movies concludes with its most accessible, and also its best. The Invisible Man is a shocking, unpredictable joyride into a nightmare, taking H.G. Wells’ classic novel and Universal’s equally classic 1933 film and thoroughly reinventing for a modern audience. Elisabeth Moss, the patron saint of cinematic women-on-the-edge, gives an incredible performance as the survivor of an abusive relationship who is convinced her psychopathic ex has found a way to become invisible. Director Leigh Whannell, who has made good moves before this but never anything this good, builds his film around Moss’ shattering performance. She is framed like she’s being followed, like she’s being watched, like she’s not alone in an empty room. The use of negative space in each frame is as haunting as the third act theatrics, which feel like earned escalation rather the reason for admission. All of this extraordinary filmmaking works in service of a through-line that couldn’t be more chillingly relevant to the year of its release: this is a horror movie about a victim no one will believe, about safe spaces being torn to pieces, and about dangerous men gaslighting their way through life. Whannell and Moss offer audiences a chance to fight back.
Bacurau is a curious film. Like the small Brazilian town of the title, it keeps its secrets to itself, suspicious of outsiders and unwilling to explain itself or its customs until you’ve proven you can be trusted. The more you watch the film, the more time you spend getting to know the citizens and their quirks and their customs, the more the actual plot begins to click into place. It’s formally daring filmmaking from directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, who trust your patience and your curiosity. Eventually, Bacurau does hit the gas pedal and it reveals itself to be unlike anything you have ever seen: a film about a science fiction-tinged near future dystopia and a lurid action movie and a social satire about class and a stirring anti-fascist scream of rage and a downright lovely portrait of a town that, despite being literally far from “civilization” as we commonly define it, has built a community that has everything authoritarian figures seek to snuff out. The cathartic final act, with its depiction of necessary revolution in the face of imperialism, is one of breathless carnage but also great beauty.
5. Sound of Metal
Yes, Sound of Metal is about a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing. And while there is tragedy in the film, particularly in its opening act, this is not a movie about a man whose life is destroyed. Nor is it a typical crowd-pleasing tale of someone overcoming the odds. Rather, director Darius Marder has crafted something so much more complex and nuanced – a harrowing look at how one man’s pain transforms him and his priorities. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance of the year, never shying away from uncomfortable rage, but also embracing profound joy. Sound of Metal is not a movie about loss. It’s a story of rebuilding, as Ruben finds himself in the care of a counselor (an outstanding Paul Raci) and a community who do not see their disability as a weakness. As Ruben learns to be deaf, Marder offers no easy compromises or pats on the back. This is hard work. It’s never not going to be hard. And Ruben’s desire for a surgical solution to his problems is understandable, even as it breaks the hearts of those around him. This is not a movie about a disabled man who overcomes his deafness – that would be a hoary cliche. This a movie about a deaf man who is forced to come to terms with the life he wants to live and how he wants to live it. And every step of that journey is beautiful and horrible and achingly real.
4. The Painter and the Thief
The Painter and the Thief is the kind of documentary you watch with your mouth hanging open, the kind of experience that makes you grateful for the cosmic string-pulling that allowed for cameras to be present at just the right time to capture these events. Director Benjamin Ree and his team document the unlikely friendship between an artist and the criminal who stole her work off the wall of a gallery, following them for years as their relationship deepens and becomes some profound and beautiful and undefinable. In many ways, this documentary is a love story, a tale of soulmates drawn together because they share one thing: they see themselves as broken and desire only to be made whole. This tale of dual redemption, of a man and a woman pulling themselves and each other back from the brink, is messy in the right ways. The transformations would be unbelievable if you weren’t watching them in an actual documentary. File this one under “you really can’t make this shit up.” And Ree, certainly aware that he’s walked into a once-in-a-lifetime story, captures it all with a cinematic grace sometimes lacking in fly-on-the-wall docs.
Every Pixar movie is made by geniuses, because it takes an entire team of wizards to create any movie on the scale that the beloved animation studio regularly does. But every so often, a Pixar move arrives that is genius, a big swing that reminds us why they’ve become such a trusted name among families and cinephiles alike. Soul is bold, ambitious, experimental and emotionally complex, unafraid to ask big questions and even more unafraid to offer unsatisfying answers. This is increasingly the M.O. of director Pete Docter, whose entries in the Pixar canon have tackled everything from corporate malfeasance to the necessity of sadness in the human experience. Here, Docter and his army of artists and technicians try to define the human experience with a story that leaps through dimensions (and through bodies), occasionally padding the harshest blows with gentle humor but never shying away from hard truths. Soul is a film that appears to be about life and death, but it’s really about living. What should be treacly instead feels honest, and this low-key message is so wrapped up in stunning animation and imaginative ideas (enough to make the head spin, quite frankly) that Soul feels like the new platonic ideal of a Pixar movie. We’re going to measure the next five years of mainstream animated movies against this one.
When you watch most modern animated movies and come across an especially thrilling visual, you know how they made it: computers. The same cannot be said for Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, a traditionally animated film that is so sumptuous to behold, so ambitious in its design and execution, that it leaves parts of your brain dribbling down the back of your skull. “How did they do that?” you wonder, suddenly transported to your youth not by hackneyed nostalgia, but by genuine wonder and awe. The visuals aid a simple story, but one that is told beautifully: the daughter of a wolf hunter meets a “wolfwalker,” a person who can speak with wolves and transform into one, shaking up her entire worldview. Perhaps because Cartoon Saloon does not answer to a corporate overlord, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart are allowed to make a fairy tale that feels utterly uncompromising in its vision and execution. There’s a giddy danger in every frame of Wolfwalkers, recalling the earliest days of feature animation, when these movies were actual cinema, not something that exists to distract children. Wolfwalkers is not a distraction, nor is it a subversion (it’s ultimately a straightforward, if emotionally cathartic tale of friendship). But it is this: the best possible argument for the continued livelihood of 2D animation.
1. Palm Springs
You may know the feeling. You watch a movie and enjoy it immensely, even revisiting it several times, but write it off when it comes time to talk about the best of the year because it’s just a silly comedy. As someone who has been writing about movies on the internet for a living for a decade now, I have made this mistake more often than I care to admit. Palm Springs earns this number one spot not just because it’s a charming romantic comedy with an irreverent sense of humor and a melancholy heart, but because it’s the one movie on this list that I know for a fact I will be watching, and enjoying, 20 years from now. It has a very special vibe: it’s the kind of movie we will all agree is a bonafide masterpiece in a few decades, but it’ll take some time for everything else to fade into the background so it can showcase its longevity.
I know this because this movie just plain works, and it works on every level. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti showcase an unbeatable chemistry as two people trapped in a time-loop during a rotten wedding at a boring hotel. Andy Siara’s screenplay avoids nearly every trope (except the ones you actually like), twisting the premise in strange, wonderful directions. And director Max Barbakow instills a quiet beauty throughout the whole thing, finding grace and wisdom amidst the silliness.
Perhaps I’m letting 2020 do the talking here, but a movie about people trapped together in the same day over and over again feels like the definitive summary of the past 12 months. But the film’s final message, that the world is brutally unfair and the best possible escape is to power through with the people you love and to make your own destiny by force if necessary, feels vital. The world is cruel and life can seem like a joke. Yes. That is true. But we can break that loop – we just have to do it together.
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