Reviews Roundtables

Roundtable: Our Favorite Films of 2020 (so far)

To mark the occasion of our very weird year managing to stumble across the halfway mark, Chris and I got together for a virtual chat (socially distanced to the max) to take stock of our favorite movies of 2020.

How are we holding up in this never-ending quarantine? 

Josh: I feel like I’m doing mostly OK, but despite what should be a massive amount of free time I still haven’t gotten into a rhythm of watching movies at home and have seen so much less this year than I otherwise would have (especially having skipped the spring movie marathon of the Seattle International Film Festival). There’s something magical about the dark, distraction-free environment of a theater, with its prescribed showtimes that I just haven’t been able to replicate at home. Blackout curtains, noise cancelling headphones, and a home popcorn popper have helped, but it’s still not the same!

Chris: Quarantine has been really hard for me! I started out really motivated to watch a lot of movies and write a lot of reviews and conduct a lot of interviews, but my brain has basically turned into mush since around mid-May and now when I watch movies, it feels like it’s really unusual when it was part of my regular routine just a few weeks ago.

Josh: On the other hand This Time has been good for me in terms of learning how to watch television again. I’ve been slowly chipping away at a bunch of really good “prestige” shows (Devs, The Great, Dave, Dark, The Plot Against America, Better Call Saul have been highly-recommendable recent standouts) — plus a steady diet of reality television (exceptional seasons of Top Chef and Survivor) and sports documentaries (the phenomenal psychodrama of The Last Dance and Lance) but it takes a bit more for me to queue up a film to watch from my couch.

Chris: The movie I most wanted to see over the past few months was Shirley but I still haven’t made time for it. I think what ended up happening with me was that I was trying to substitute social media for human connections after I was already pulling back from Twitter and it only made things worse when weeks turned into months. I ended up taking up a very offline hobby to stay away from the Internet. 

Josh: Yeah, I wish I had the discipline. Between the pandemic, the protests, and the ensuing politics, I somehow feel like anything more than an episode of television between panicked social media refreshes is too much. Much of the time I take intermissions or break up movies across days, which is hardly ideal. I understand that this is Not Healthy, but living blocks away from the occupation formerly known as CHOP, keeping an eye on Twitter to find out whether the booms in the distance were fireworks or flash-bangs didn’t feel entirely irrational.

Our Top Twelve of 2020

Josh: With all that aside, we did manage to see some good things in strange times. We each chose six movies — and managed not to overlap — so let’s take turns with a countdown from good to best.

Chris (CB): I’ll start the list with Blow the Man Down [review] which is, to my shame, one of three Amazon exclusive on this list, but it is also a good movie! It’s a feminist noir about two sisters who get caught up in a scenario where a lottery winner ends up dead and they have to carry out their business while holding up appearances in their small town. Delicious and compelling, this never-boring movie comes highly recommended from me.

Josh (JB): my list also starts dark and feminine with The Assistant, Kitty Green’s #MeToo drama that hovers on the periphery of an abusive studio executive’s dark gravitational field, indicting awful behavior by implication rather than direct depiction. We never see him or his misdeeds, but instead spend a day in the close company of Julia Garner at his office’s antechamber, coordinating his schedule, taking verbal abuse, making a futile stand, and exposing us to the vast enterprise of sad strivers who look away for the sake of their own success. [available on various VoD platforms.]

The Gentlemen [reviewed] is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me. Guy Ritchie’s latest is a return to form after some well-paying (I presume) Hollywood hackwork like putting Will Smith in Aladdin. Ritchie’s latest is about an American in London (Matthew McConaughey) looking to divest from his lucrative pot business (before legalization) and having to deal with an assortment of lowlifes and scumbags. Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant are as good as ever in this delicious caper. –CB [VoD]

Emma. Into each generation comes a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 comedy of manners about the misadventures of one Ms. Wodehouse: the handsome, clever, and rich matchmaker of Regency-era England. Anya Taylor-Joy leads a shimmering young cast through mistakes, misunderstandings, and self-discovery; it doesn’t exactly re-invent anything but is nevertheless a confectionery delight for fans new and old. –JB [VoD]

The Traitor is another large-scale mafia movie; this one concerns a former mafioso who testifies against his former colleagues. I wrote of it at the time of its release, “The visual style is particularly impressive, looking and feeling like it would be a movie straight out of the mid-1980’s, and the acting is impeccable, particularly from Pierfrancesco Favino.” –CB [VoD]

Shirley is less a biopic than a lucid emotional portrait. Elisabeth Moss channels the esteemed horror writer Shirley Jackson in the throes of an agoraphobic depression, overmedicated, and on the precipice of her next novel. Visually inventive and dreamlike, a stretch of claustrophobic months in a Bennington cottage play out as a series of psychological games and provocations among Shirley, her alternately controlling and caretaking husband Stanley, and a pair of young houseguests who become pawns in their matrimonial power games that fall somewhere between hazing and seduction. –JB [Hulu, VoD]

The Vast of the Night is unlike anything I’ve previously seen. Set in New Mexico in the late 1950’s, not far from Roswell or Area 51, when a radio DJ and a switchboard operator find a secret frequency they don’t recognize. They’re not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens. –CB [PrimeVideo]

Da 5 Bloods finds four veterans of an all-Black squadron reuniting in present-day Hoh Chi Minh City to fulfill promises made to their messiah-like leader who wasn’t fortunate enough to escape the battlefield they shared during “The American War”. A buddy comedy, a heist flick, and a reckoning with history, Spike Lee’s latest is a great success, in large part due to the instantly credible chemistry of his four leads in establishing decades of friendships with a few ornery notes. Delroy Lindo, in particular, turned in one of the year’s best performances as a MAGA fan whose jittery unspooling culminates in a searing direct-to-camera indictment and a tender reckoning with long-internalized guilt. Spike Lee spotlights the lives of these Black men, how they mattered to each other and the world, while imbuing the ample pleasures and thrills of the film with deep connective tissue to the past, our current moment, and the days ahead. –JB [Netflix]

Selah and the Spades was such an unexpectedly great movie for me. Tayarisha Poe’s high school dramedy is probably my favorite high school movie since Clueless (my generation’s best Emma adaptation). I reviewed it a few months ago and wrote then that it “isn’t a perfect movie but it has so much style that its faults are easy to ignore. And remember it when Tayarisha Poe and Lovie Simone move onto bigger things in their impossibly bright futures.” –CB [PrimeVideo]

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s compact chronicle of a rural teen’s journey to terminate an unintended pregnancy, features a captivating debut from Sidney Flanigan. As she and her cousin travel from their small town into the heart of New York City, the practicalities (and impracticalities) of obtaining much-needed care are exposed while also chipping away at her reserve, reveal surprising depths with few words. Spotlighting perils and professionalism along with absurd obstacles, the film is an enraging reminder that reproductive resources are rare, unequally-distributed, and under constant attack. –JB [VoD]

For me, Bacurau [review] was my favorite movie I’ve seen so far this year partially because I don’t think I’ve seen a sci-fi western based in rural Brazil before, but also because it felt like a high-brow genre movie that reflected the illegitimacy of the Brazilian government. One thing I’ve learned from hanging out with Tony is that genre movies rarely exist inside of a vacuum and Bacurau is no exception. The movie is about a Brazilian village that the government decides to remove, first from the map, and then later, existence. I found it such a unique and gripping movie. –CB [VoD]

[Josh: I’m so glad you picked that one. It frees me to cheat with my top pick!]

First Cow was out in Seattle for maybe a day, but I saw it under the wire and am calling it the best film of the first half of this strange year. Happily, A24 is releasing it on VOD later this week so I’m hoping that more people will be able to flock to see Kelly Reichardt’s story of an unlikely friendship on Pacific Northwest frontier of the early nineteenth century. The rare meditative thriller, it captures the region at the early uncertain interface of native people and the natural world as drifters, immigrants, and wealthy settlers began carving up this quiet corner of the country. Entrepreneurial spirit, colonialism, and a high-stakes caper to deliver a clafouti: it’s the summer smash we didn’t know we needed!  –JB [A24]

Before we call it a wrap … will we ever see movies in theaters again? 

Josh: It really seems questionable, doesn’t it? The industry needs lots of theaters to be open in a lot of places and the amorphous nature of this pandemic makes that especially tricksy (especially since major movie market California is in the midst of a surge).

Chris: I really hope so, but I’m also pretty pessimistic. When the Trolls World Tour box office numbers started to come in, amid AMC’s very public financial struggles, it probably meant that we’re not going back to the way things were any time soon. That goes doubly after it was announced that drive-in theaters scheduled to screen (the decent!) The King of Staten Island would actually not be doing so.

Josh: Yet, Tenet keeps holding on to the dream of a theatrical opening, delay after delay, and the fall film festivals are planning to forge ahead in some form. I wouldn’t say that I’m optimistic, but I haven’t entirely written it off. I still have my passes, lodging, and flights for Telluride. Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, Labor Day has been my tenuous mental landmark for when I’ve dared to imagine seeing something on a big screen again. As the virus gets worse and worse, and Labor Day gets closer and closer, though, I’m constantly recalibrating my anticipation of heading to the mountains for the big Show. 

Chris: I do hope we can see movies in theaters soon, once it’s safe, because it’s one of the things I miss the most.

Josh: Indeed. And as much as I liked everything on our list, I really hope that some of them have been dislodged by new movies seen in cinemas by the time we come back to take stock of the year as a whole.

Header image posters via IMP Awards;