My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2020

These are my personal favorite movies released in the U.S. in 2020.  They are not meant to reflect the box office or award-winners for the year.  I suggest that if you like four or five of the movies on the list, you might share my taste and sensibilities, and it might give some credence to you checking out the other films on the list.



Summerland

In World War II Britain, Gemma Arterton plays Alice Lamb, a reclusive academic working on her thesis on folklore and local myth.  She volunteered to help out the war effort in some way, but housing and caring for a youth displaced from London because of the blitz was not the sort of thing she envisioned.

One thing you know early on is that the two of them will learn a lot from each other. Another is that we as viewers will as well.

“People like to have something to believe in,” she explains to young Frank (Lucas Bond – a young actor with an infectious presence who doesn’t succumb to overplaying).

“Nobody knows how to be a parent. Especially now. We all just muddle through as best we can. But you two, gosh, you make quite a pair,” says the always reliable Tom Courtney as the school headmaster.

The movie makes effective use of well-placed flashbacks to reveal how Arterton’s character closed herself off so much that the community believes her a witch in addition to her field of study.

“Life is not kind. Anguish is inevitable. Your heart will break. Your friends will die. You may even think about killing yourself. Planes crash, Frank. What matters is how you deal with it.”

I am coming around to the notion that any movie which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw is one I need to see.

“Stories Have to Come From Somewhere” – Alice’s mantra whenever Frank asks why.  It becomes his as well.



The Gentlemen

Like all Guy Ritchie movies, this one moves in fits and starts, frantic when it might benefit from deliberation and meanders when characters parse out some bit of confusion or hint at a motivation, but that’s a style of sorts.  Perhaps, connected to this is another constant in Ritchie movies: the number of times I can watch them and find something new I hadn’t noticed or can be impressed by.

This Ritchie movie in particular features an amazing cast: Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Strong, and Hugh Grant.  Grant is brilliant as both the shifty narrator and one of the possible antagonists. Farrell and Strong are better every time I see them in anything.

McConaughey’s character, Mickey Pearson, is trying to sell his bush empire (translated: Marijuana production and distribution network) to Strong.

Mickey: But in the new business, once legal and under the jurisdiction of the respectable umbrella of ministerial legitimacy, an enterprise like this will need a face with a clean past, which sadly I do not possess. Retirement doesn't sound so bad. Long walks in the countryside, pruning roses with my better half, raising some cubs. I've earned it.

First time through the movie, there seem to be a bit too many moving parts, but Grant as the investigator Fletcher tells the story as if it were the screenplay he plans to write.

Fletcher (Grant): I think the time has come for me to introduce you to our queen. A cockney Cleopatra to Mickey's cowboy Caesar. The only weak link, in his otherwise impregnable armor, is his devotion, his passion, some would say his obsession, with his beauteous lady wife.

However, Fletcher is premature.  Rosalind Pearson as well as Mickey’s feelings for her turn out to be their greatest strength and the only part of the empire you do not mess with.  He is always asking her if there might be a chance for them to hook up, almost as if they already had the cubs.

The twists and switchbacks are excellent as they always are in Ritchie movies.

Mickey's VO: If you wish to be The king of the jungle, it's not enough to act like a king. You must be The King. And there can be no doubt. Because doubt causes chaos and one's own demise.  My queen told me that.

Mickey (onscreen): "Any chance?" 

She enters, closing the door behind her.



Nomadland

Suffice it to say, this movie belongs on the list if any movie of the year does  Terrifically moving, honest, unflinching, so much so, I was reluctant to watch it again, but I’m sure I will in the near future.  It is so indelible the first time, unforgettable.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are two of my all-time favorites who are as good as ever in this.  The remainder of the cast is filled mostly with first-time actors who were playing themselves as actual travelers in this film and in their lives.

Beyond McDormand and Strathairn’s characters each of the actual nomads had their own stories and their own reasons for their choices.

Swankie: Come around a bend, was a cliff and find hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff. And the swallows flying all around and reflecting in the water. So, it looks like I'm flying with the swallows and they're under me, and over me, and all around me. And little babies are hatching out, and eggshells are falling out of the nests, landing on the water and floating on the water. These little white shells. That was like, it's just so awesome. I felt like I've done enough. My life was complete. If I died right then, at that moment, would be perfectly fine.

Bob Wells, a man who refers to himself as a van-dweller and has written books about the culture and is the president of the Homes on Wheels Alliance, is something of an anchor for the movie.  The characters in the film attend his annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona.

Bob: One of the things I love most about this life is that there's no final goodbye. You know, I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, "I'll see you down the road." And I do. And whether it's a month, or a year, or sometimes years, I see them again.




The Trial of the Chicago 7

This movie makes no bones about total accuracy or verbatim transcripts, etc. It’s an Aaron Sorkin representation of a turning point in American history.  A few years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that began to define how the country would deal with civil dissent and public protest going forward.  A half a century too late it casts a light on the events with clear 20/20 hindsight.

It works because it is an entertainment and not a factual document.  It wouldn’t make this list if it were not for the marvelous performances of two actors in particular, Mark Rylance as attorney William Kunstler and Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.  Again, just like the movie itself, neither attempts to mimic or impersonate the real person they are playing.  Instead, opting for attitude and demeanor to fill the roles.

I am not a fan of Cohen’s in-your-face humiliation and forced awkwardness supposed humor, but he’s a performer with considerable talents and impeccable timing. His retorts with Judge Hoffman who often felt the need to remind the jury that he was not related Abbie (“Father, no!”) and when Hoffman asks him threateningly if he’s familiar with contempt of court (“It’s practically a religion for me, sir.”)

For me, watching Mark Rylance in almost anything is like reading a good book and slowing down to make the experience last longer.

He has my favorite exchange in the movie with the receptionist at the rented office for the defense team:

William Kunstler: Maybe you don't want to call it the Conspiracy Office.

Bernadine: They understand the irony, and appreciate the humor.

William Kunstler: I wouldn't count on it.

Bernadine: Most people are smart, Bill.

William Kunstler: Well, if you believe that, you'll get your heart broken every day of your life.

He also sums up his exasperation near the end of the trial:

William Kunstler: We've dealt with jury tampering, wiretapping, a defendant that was literally gagged, and a judge who's been handing down rulings from the bench that would be considered wrong in Honduras, so I'm a little less interested in the law than I was when this trial began.

Hoffman sums up the essence of the conflict when he is allowed to testify:

Abbie Hoffman: We carried certain ideas across state lines. Not machine guns or drugs or little girls. Ideas. When we crossed from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois, we had certain ideas. And for that, we were gassed, beaten, arrested, and put on trial.

This solid, well-structured movie is a story of its time which unfortunately may be as relevant today as it would have been if it had been made several decades ago.



Mank

This is another movie which may not hold up to a “moment by moment” fact check, but it also is not a documentary, and it doesn’t hide the fact it is a story about Herman Mankiewicz, and not his employers nor the subject of his work.

It is based on an unfilmed screenplay by director David Fincher’s father, Jack who was an article writer and biographer.  Fincher re-wrote and updated the screenplay, but kept much of his father’s original work.  It is a social history of the time just before the second world war intertwined with an examination of one writer’s process and the experiences that informed the writer’s viewpoint on his subject.

Charles Dance is utterly perfect as William Randolph Hearst. His sarcastic reminder to Mank of the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey is the skewer on which the movie hangs:

Now, the organ grinder’s monkey is tiny in stature, and having been taken from the wild, he’s naturally overwhelmed by the enormous world around him. But every morning, a sweet elderly woman dresses him in a fine suit of clothes. She fits him with a red velvet vest adorned with pearl buttons and a handsome red fez with a silk tassel. She slips on brocade shoes that curl at the toe, and he’s paired with a fine gilt music box on an exquisite gold chain fastened to his neck and his neck alone. Whenever he ventures into the city to perform, he thinks, “What a powerful fellow I must be.” “Look how patiently everyone waits just to watch me dance.”

Tom Burke is quite good in a small but pivotal role as Orson Welles. Tom Pelphrey is very good in an even smaller but most important role as Herman’s brother, Joe who tells him not to write about who he’s writing about, but then tells him: “It's the best you've ever written.”

Lily Collins as his recording secretary, Tuppence Middleton as his wife, Poor Sara, and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies are all quite good, but all are there to play off the brilliance of Gary Oldman as Mank.  He is given all the best lines, even if they often make himself cringe at his callousness.

But he also has a few of my favorite lines in film:

Herman Mankiewicz (to Irving Thalberg): Irving, you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.

And after throwing up in the echoing dining room of Hearst’s mansion: Don't worry, folks. The white wine came up with the fish!

Perhaps, my favorite is his Oscar acceptance interview from his home:

"I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written, which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles."

When asked how come Welles shared credit, Mankiewicz dryly responds: "Well that, my friend, is the magic of the movies."




Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

In less than a full day, while Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band try to make recordings of several of her signature songs, we learn as much about black cultural history through the band members’ petty infighting, conflicting moral principles, and blunted ambitions as we do about making records in the infancy of that business.

This was Chadwick Boseman’s last major role and he went out at the top of his game.  Here, he is the brash young trumpet player who sees the future of popular music and can already play like he belongs there.  Like many a great talent, he sees paying dues as a waste of time.  He writes his own songs and is putting together his own band. 

The trombone player and band leader is Cutler (Colman Domingo): “One, two, you know what to do.” Ma Rainey has confidence that he’ll handle the band and follow her instructions.

Cutler: This is an accompaniment band. You play Ma’s music when you’re here.

When Ma finally shows up, she already knows the score at the studio:

Ma Rainey: They don't care nothin' about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me the way I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt them.

Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the stand-up bass player and Toledo (Glynn Turman), the piano player round out the band.  They are talented professionals who can play almost anything and can fit into whatever style. They can tease and banter but would rather do their work without the contention.

A religious man, Cutler draws the line when Levee blasphemes and belittles God.

Levee: God don’t mean nothing to me. Let him strike me. Here I am, standing right here. What you talking about he gonna strike me? Here I am. Let him strike me. I ain’t scared of him.

In the end, there’s some mistakes that apologies, release forms, and cut-rate favors can’t fix.

The Old Guard

This movie is an interesting mix of superhero, mysticism, and morality play.  I found it intriguing and moving within the framework it creates.  Everyone’s mileage may vary.

First, I am big fan of Charlize Theron and believe she may be one of the most underrated actresses working today.  It may have something to do with the type of movies she chooses to make.  She excels in movie like this one where there is both action and moral quandary.  From a business standpoint, her choices have been more often successful than not.

Second, I am also a big fan of the supporting cast here, specifically Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Chiwetel Edjiofor, and Henry Melling (who has creeped me ever since he played the Wingless Thrush in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

So, I was leery, but hopeful.  It turned out better than I might have imagined.

In the opening, Theron’s character is killed in a bullet storm of an ambush. Then, we hear her narrating:

I've been here before. Over and over again. And each time the same question. Is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer. And I'm just so tired of it.

Her body expels the bullets as it heals.  This is what she is so tired of, the death and the healing, and the inevitability of it.  How many times has it happened to her?  How long has she lived without dying?  It’s been so long she isn’t certain.  And she’s not alone. 

She is the leader of The Old Guard.  Others like her find each other and now work together to use their special ability and developed talents to try to help where they can around the world, taking on only the most dire cases and never twice in the same place to conceal their identities as much as possible.

Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting.

KiKi Layne plays the new girl, a soldier who has just begun to develop her ability.

Theron’s character tries to explain about the limits of their immortality:

I know what I said. And we mostly are, but we can die. And one of us did. He was a warrior, just like us. A long time ago. One day your wounds just don’t heal up anymore, and we don’t know when, or why. 

It becomes apparent that someone has turned the tables and is coming after them. Melling is a perfect villain, a big pharma wonder boy who has found out about the old guard and wants their blood and to experiment on them.

Merrick: There’s genetic code inside you which could help every human being on Earth. We’re morally obliged to take it.

By all accounts, there is a sequel planned.



The Banker

In the mid-1950s, Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris were shrewd businessmen, innovative, ambitious, and unable to maximize their potential.  They had two things in common.  They didn’t like each other, and they were both black.  They couldn’t do anything about the second thing, and they didn’t have much incentive to do anything about the first.

What they did have in common was a belief that real estate should be the basis for gaining wealth. Garrett had a foolproof way of finding cheap buildings in disrepair which could be renovated and sold for more than the renovations cost.  He did this with a white partner who died suddenly and left everything to his widow.

Garrett had to convince Morris of his plan to buy a building housing 12 banks in downtown Los Angeles. 

Bernard Garrett: The best place to learn about the present state of the real estate market is inside of a bank. We get that building, we'll be inside 12 of 'em. And next time, they'll think *twice* about refusing to make loans to us if we're their landlords.

Morris is intrigued but isn’t sure how they will ever get anyone to listen to, let alone sell a building, to a couple black men.

Garrett has lined up a white man, one of his renovation workers, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to front for them.  Though he doesn’t know as much about business as Garrett, and it turns out is terrible at math, he is willing and wants to help because Garrett had always treated him fairly.

Joe Morris: I don't trust white people. … Truth be told, I don't trust black people either.

Everything goes as planned until Garrett wants to return to Texas City where he’s from and buy a bank there to help black people get loans to buy houses and start businesses. Morris doesn’t like the idea, but when Garrett says he’ll do it without him, he goes along to protect his past and future investment.

Bernard Garrett: If I was following normal business customs, I'd still be a shoeshine boy in Texas.

Morris turns out to be correct.  Smaller towns than L.A. are harder to keep secrets in.

Matt Steiner: I wanna be respected for what I've done for the business.

Eunice Garrett: (Nia Long in a very nice role) Respect is a big thing. Sometimes people take big risks to chase it.

When the white dude is asking to get some respect, you know something is going wrong.



Palm Springs

At first blush, there’s no reason for this movie to be as good or as effecting as it is.  It seems a poor nod to the premise of Ground Hog’s Day, but perhaps without the charm.  In truth, it resists any effort to be charming.  It also resists slipping into any sort of fairy tale where it could build toward a moral lesson. 

On November 9th of some contemporary year, Nyles (Andy Samburg) wakes up next to his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) on the wedding day of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) at Rancho Calmando. At the reception, Nyles delivers a seemingly impromptu speech, to the relief of Tala's sister, the drunk and unprepared maid-of-honor Sarah (Cristin Miliotti).

Sarah follows Nyles into a mysterious cave that has an eerie light that sucks any person in the cave into a time loop that returns the person to November 9 every day.

Nyles: I guess you followed me. It's one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about.

Also, the movie makes no sense and plays a little fast and loose with the concept. It’s helped out immensely by J.K. Simmons, the only other character Nyles took into the cave. Because of that, Simmons’ character has been trying to kill Nyles ever since, even though he knows it’s fruitless, he’ll just live November 9 again, but that’s not what’s important.

Ultimately, it’s just a love story.  Maybe the best kind, where the two falling in love have actual trepidations, know the precarious nature of the condition, and resist the temptation to pledge undying eternal devotion.

Nyles: Yes, I know that it's crazy odds that the person I like the most in my entire life would be someone I met while I was stuck in a time loop but you know what else is crazy odds getting stuck in a time loop... I hope that blowing ourselves up works but it's really irrelevant to me as long as I'm with you and if it kills us well then I'd rather die with you than live in this world without you!

Sarah: I can survive just fine without you, you know. But there-there's a chance that this life can be a little less mundane with you in it.

I’ve seen the movie numerous times now, but it wasn’t until I set about writing this that I realized the movie never explains how Nyles got into the cave the first time.  That’s another thing in the movie’s favor.  It doesn’t matter.  If you want to get into all the metaphysical, astrophysical, and quantum physical arguments about this movie on the web, have at it with my blessings and sympathies.



Penguin Bloom

I admit it.  I’m a sucker for animal movies, not all of them, not when they get too cute or too maudlin, but if they have a good story, not too ridiculous. I like the ones I like, okay.  That’s it, and I like this one.

I like this bird. Oh, and it’s a magpie not a penguin.  His name is Penguin.  This type of magpie has black and white feathers.  He was rescued by the Bloom family.  He becomes a member of the family.  Thus, Penguin Bloom!

Beyond the baby magpie needing to be rescued, the mother of three Bloom brothers has just fallen from a tower several stories high and broken her back.

Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnstson): [narrating] Mom broke her back at what the doctors called T-6. But what mom calls her "bra strap".

Her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) and the brothers Bloom will have to do as much rescuing of their mother as they will keeping Penguin alive. That’s going to be the maudlin part.  Believe me, Samantha Bloom (Naomi Watts) is almost as special as the bird.

Noah Bloom: [narrating] Mom's not the person she once was. And I know she's not the person she wanted to be. But to me, she's much more than that.

Naomi Watts is one of my favorite actresses, maybe more underrated than Charlize Theron.  She’s the reason I knew I had to give the movie a chance, but believe me also when I tell you the bird is the real star.  Or should I say the ten magpies that played Penguin Bloom.  Each actor bird was taught an individual trick or two while the actual rescued magpie did all the tricks having created them all while living with the Blooms for years.

Stay through the end credits and see the actual photographs taken by Cameron Bloom of many of Penguin’s endearing interactions with the family.

Sam Bloom went on to win medals and championships in kayaking and adapted surfing.

Special 11th:

Arkansas

I can’t make a good case for this being the 11th best movie of the year.  I’m not sure I can make a case for it being a “very good” movie, but there are movies I enjoy, that entertain me, that stay with me, and after much thought, and many repeated viewings, I just can’t say exactly why.  This is one of those.  As a matter of fact, I feel like watching it again right now. 

I’ll see you all again someday at the movies.

Honorable Mentions:

One Night in Miami…

The Father

Let Him Go

Da 5 Bloods