In an unconventional year for cinema, it’s only fitting that an unconventional story like Chloé Zhao’s (“The Rider”) “Nomadland” would be a top Oscar contender. The film chronicles a year in the life of Fran (Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri”), a modern nomad. Fran lost her home in a company town when the mining operation stopped and packed what little of her life she could into her new home: a van named Vanguard.
“Nomadland” is beautiful: Stunning American landscapes punctuate Fran’s journey as she treks and traipses across the country from one temporary job to the next. In many respects, “Nomadland” is a love letter to the American landscape’s beauty and the spirit of individualism. Though she makes many friends, Fran retires to her van each night alone; her saga and routine are her own.
“Nomadland” sits at the top of the Film Beat’s Best of 2020 list for its quiet grandeur, for McDormand’s tacit and moving performance and for its unique narrative devices. Yet, in spite of these victories, “Nomadland” is not without its faults.
The lack of any overt political remarks was refreshing, but the absence was conspicuous. Telling any story of dispossessed and marginalized Americans, particularly white Americans, without addressing the political elephants in the room feels reckless. Perhaps the laconic treatment of the sociopolitical facets of nomadism was intentional, in the interest of cinematic beauty. The “Nomadland” viewer must take this into account and do their own interrogation of the social and economic systems on display.
That said, no “best” film is flawless, and “Nomadland” is our 2020 favorite. The film’s subtlety is magnificent, and McDormand’s performance leaves an indelible impression. When the woes and troubles of everyday life bog you down, turn to “Nomadland” for its natural splendor and ambitious narrative.
— Ross London, Daily Arts Writer
2. “Sound of Metal”
“Sound of Metal” terrified and inspired me. It follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”), a drummer who begins to lose his hearing. Throughout the story, sound cuts in and out, giving the audience the ability to hear what Ruben doesn’t.
The film opens with Ruben and his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) performing in their band and immediately follows with their morning routine. We hear the blinds open and close. The whir of the blender as he makes smoothies for his breakfast. The coffee dripping from the machine into the pot. All of these little sounds are purposeful, helping create the world that Ruben lives in. And then, as he and his band set up for their next show, he loses his hearing.
The sound of the conversation cuts out, replaced by a clogged and distorted ringing. We see Ruben go through the same morning routine, but devoid of all sound. And from that moment, we are on Ruben’s journey as he navigates a world that is completely unfamiliar to him. The film’s sound design allows you to hear through Ruben’s ears, which makes it so that you’re a part of his journey.
The premise of “Sound of Metal” was enough to elicit strong emotions from me. I studied music and sang in chorus all throughout high school, and I always wondered what it would be like for a musician to lose their hearing. Something that must already be so isolating would be all the more frightening if your passion in life is based on what you hear. “Sound of Metal” tackles this loss head-on, while also serving as a story of acceptance.
What I liked most about this movie, though, was that in the end, sound isn’t the solution. By the end of the movie, I felt that my entire perspective on silence had changed. Communication and art are things that can always be shared, and that gave me hope.
— Judy Lawrence, Daily Arts Writer
3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Following 16-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, in her debut role) on a journey from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion and to avoid violating her state’s parental consent laws, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” starts off deceptively quiet. With muted colors and minimal dialogue, the viewer feels like a stranger to Autumn — like Autumn doesn’t want us to know her. We sympathize with her, we watch her closely through the camera’s long, lingering gaze, but we don’t quite “get” her; she won’t let us, or anyone else for that matter, in.
That is, until we reach the film’s crescendo, when Autumn is asked by a Planned Parenthood representative to answer a series of questions, each with one of the following responses — never, rarely, sometimes, always. We, along with the representative, finally discover her truth, mainly because Autumn has no other choice but to reveal it.
Though painful, Autumn’s revelations and the emotions they inspire in the viewer call us to consider an experience that is far too often stigmatized, but this time through the lens of empathy, not instant judgment. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” makes the political personal at a time when it could not be more important.
— Elise Godfryd, Managing Arts Editor
“Soul” begins with Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx (“Baby Driver”), conducting with a grimace as his middle school band class bleats out the Duke Ellington song “Things Ain’t The Way They Used To Be.” In a sense, that’s true for Pixar’s newest film: From its first Black lead to its genre-blending, metaphysical journey into the afterlife, the movie “Soul” is transcendental.
With photorealistic animation dimensions that veer away from anything resembling the Uncanny Valley, “Soul” follows in the perfectly-aligned footsteps of the Pixar films before it, balancing cartoon hijinks with resounding emotion. The film’s visual language is deeply unconventional, carrying a surreal abstractness reminiscent of David Lynch and Pablo Picasso. And the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and music by Jon Batiste is, as always, stellar.
While Pixar is no stranger to difficult topics, from coping with death to growing up, “Soul” has a startling frankness and is more humanist than anything the studio has done before. Instead of toys, robots or anthropomorphized emotions, the story is mostly rooted in its adult lead. The characteristically adorable supernatural beings and “what if …” worldbuilding, while fun, don’t pull focus from Joe’s age-old struggle to fulfill his soul’s passion.
“Soul” invites viewers to consider questions that philosophers throughout history have tried to answer and even reevaluate their own lives in the process. When the credits rolled, my family, no strangers to Pixar, were left silent.
Let me tell you, that’s quite a feat.
— Andrew Warrick, Daily Arts Writer
5. “Palm Springs”
The summer of 2020 will always be memorable — mostly because, for many of us, it was entirely unmemorable. The pandemic kept us inside for months straight, sluggishly consuming media in an attempt to pass the time.
Enter: “Palm Springs,” a “Groundhog Day”-esque film about two people who find themselves trapped in an infinite time loop together. During a summer where every day felt the same as the day before, “Palm Springs” was deeply evocative of quarantine’s monotony. Yet, at the same time, it effectively provides a sense of escapism.
Andy Samberg (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Cristin Milioti (“How I Met Your Mother”) are a delightful pair, both equally charming and compelling, and they navigate the film’s amusing conversations and emotional moments with ease. The dynamic pace is quick but gratifying — like a perfectly-paced roller coaster that leaves you smiling when you get off.
What was most important to me was that its timing was perfect. Woven within a deliberately crafted plot, a strong ensemble cast and picture-perfect summer aesthetics were a spark of hope and joy in a year that hadn’t seen a lot of either.
Maybe this is a lot to ascribe to a film that is barely 90 minutes, but I don’t think so. In a time where it felt like everything was falling apart, I’ll always be grateful to “Palm Springs” for bringing me a moment of happiness and peace in a summer of chaos.
— Kari Anderson, Senior Arts Editor
David Fincher is drawn to tragedy like a moth to light. He wrinkles his nose at happy, tidy endings. It’s one of the many reasons that his films harbor a sense of winding, pummelling inevitability; failure is one of the most believable qualities a person can have.
In “Mank,” the pummelling never stops. Our careen through Herman Mankiewicz’s (Gary Oldman, “The Darkest Hour”) turbulent ’40s, though draped in black-and-white gauziness and whip-snap snark, feels as exhilarating as it is predetermined.
“Mank” takes the doldrums-as-medicine approach and strips it down to the bone, laying it bare for uninterrupted wallowing. This is not even to call it a depressing movie — it might have even given us one of the happiest Fincher endings of his career. But there’s something utterly fulfilling about watching Mankiewicz’s gradual, timeline-hopping detachment from the creative and political ecosystem of Hollywood.
It’s hard to recommend “Mank” enough — as a Fincher film, as a fresh take on traditional biopic formulas, as a smart talkie and as a showcase of actor Tom Burke’s (“The Crown”) ability to burn up the screen with only a handful of minutes of screentime. What are you waiting for?
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Arts Writer
I have so much to say about “Emma.” An adaptation of the 1813 novel of the same name, it perfectly matches author Jane Austen’s humor, irony and wit and was one of the highlights of 2020 for me.
Writer Fran Lebowitz said, “I think Jane Austen is popular because of the enormous extent to which she is misunderstood.” We love the lovey-dovey stuff. We love watching Matthew Macfadyen clench his hand or Paul Rudd read “Nietzsche” (believe it or not, “Clueless” is actually a modern interpretation of “Emma”), wishing we’d be swept off our feet by someone like them.
There’s nothing really wrong with loving romance, but there is something wrong with taking Austen’s romance at face value.
This film is so great because it matches the political nuance of the source text. It doesn’t end with the profession of love, but with the promise that Emma will still retain her independent economic status after her marriage — because the very reason Emma is allowed to live the life she does is because of her wealth. It’s never just about getting the hot guy, but getting the one who lets you have your own bank account.
Mr. Knightley respects her intellectual independence equally as much as her financial independence. They argue like they’re at a presidential debate with twice as much sexual tension, partly because I think bickering was like second base in the Regency Era. They know each other deeply and love each other despite their flaws.
I always crumble when Mr. Knightley confronts Emma about her cruelty towards Miss Bates, but then I melt when he later says, “You know what I am. If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.”
The film rubs Emma’s bitchiness in your face, then turns and forces you to empathize with her, to remember that it’s just about finding someone who knows what you are and loves you anyway.
— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
8. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
It would be an understatement to say that 2020 was a weird year, for the world and for our country. There are a million puff pieces that go on ad nauseum about this fact, enumerating the many, many calamities, missteps and moments of malfeasance that plagued us, so I won’t do the same.
But it’s this host of iniquities and ill fortunes that give “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” a place in this 2020 cinematic postmortem. Were it 2019 and all the same movies were released, this “Borat” sequel may have not made the list. But in 2020, it was right at home.
The movie itself is a little unstable. It probably has a few of the worst jokes of the year. But it’s Borat — silly, sloppy fun is par for the course. Every uncomfortable moment is followed by gut-busting laughter.
What makes it so at home in 2020 is that it delivers something sorely needed for those that have struggled to remain sane throughout the year — vindication. Yes, those people ARE dumb! Yes, it IS crazy that things work that way! If it’s sometimes too cringy, it’s always cathartic, a bombastic, deliciously acidic 96-minute assurance that yes — you are sane.
Sacha Baron Cohen (“Les Misérables”) is brilliant as always, and Maria Bakalova (“The Father”) shines as Borat’s equally harebrained daughter Tutar.
Rudy Giuliani gets got. A kind old lady delivers a whole other kind of catharsis with a heartwarming speech. And Tom Hanks (“Greyhound”) makes an appearance in what is perhaps the best joke of 2020.
None of that is any panacea. But as a fine tincture of gallows humor and incisive satire, it works.
— Jacob Lusk, Daily Arts Writer
9. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
In past years, it has seemed like film adaptations of well-known plays tend to garner Oscar buzz before they’ve even been released. “Ma Rainey” could be dismissed as the latest in a line of high-profile adaptations of high-profile plays, but thoughtful design and high-level talent help it stand out.
Based on the 1982 August Wilson play of the same name, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” depicts Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, “Fences”), the real-life singer known as the Mother of the Blues, at a fictional recording session in 1920s Chicago. Unlike most adaptations, this film’s approach is more deliberate and doesn’t fall victim to dragging action and slow transitions. Additionally, the issues of race, class, art and exploitation deftly interwoven into Wilson’s script are given new life in the 2020s.
That said, the film’s biggest draws are the actors who bring Wilson’s words to life on screen. Davis, as always, doesn’t disappoint, bringing the same quiet intensity that she brings to all of her roles.
Yet, it’s the late Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) who really shines. Boseman’s portrayal of trumpeter Levee is filled with a charming, restless energy that draws you in, creating the sense of a flawed character who is just as immature as he is endearing.
Watching the film and admiring Boseman’s masterful performance, it feels incredibly fitting to realize that the last performance of this brilliant, well-rounded actor might be his best.
— Kari Anderson, Senior Arts Editor
10. “Birds of Prey”
Even if all of 2020’s intended comic book movies had been released, “Birds of Prey” would probably still be one of my favorites. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, “Suicide Squad”) finally gets her day in the sun, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. A thrilling roller coaster ride from the first minute, “Birds of Prey” is full of bright colors, exciting action and inspiring girl-power.
I’ve always been a sucker for women teaming up in films, and “Birds of Prey” is no different. Every single female in the story, from anti-hero Harley Quinn herself to snubbed cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “Untamed Heart”), puts aside their differences and works together in the name of female empowerment.
What more can you ask for than that? Every single woman is different and beautifully so.
“Birds of Prey” came out before all of the crazy events of 2020, but frankly, it’s something that I go back to even now, amid the uncertainty of my life. Not only is it fun, but it’s strangely hopeful as well.
If Harley Quinn can separate herself from her comic book boyfriend Joker, if all the vastly different characters in the film can find a common side and if Ewan McGregor (“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”) can somewhat convincingly portray a bad guy, then anything is possible.
— Sabriya Imami, Film Beat Editor