Here are the best movies I saw last year.
A few were officially released in December, 2019, but since they didn’t play in St. Louis until January, I count them as 2020 movies. Some of them never played in theaters, or only had short runs there. Others were produced by and for streaming services. None of that mattered during the pandemic, where the overwhelming majority of us were smart enough to stay home and consume content on our own screens.
I’ll have more of my 2020 favorites for you tomorrow, followed by the Worst Movies Of 2020 on Wednesday, then the Best Documentaries Of 2020 on Thursday.
These are the movies that impressed me most in the last twelve months, regardless of platform. My capsule reviews are below, but you can read my full reviews by clicking on the title of each movie.
#1) “The Invisible Man“ How do you convince the world someone is stalking you when nobody can see the stalker — including you? That’s the dilemma for Cecilia, who finds herself being attacked by some invisible force. “The Invisible Man” wouldn’t work if it weren’t for some very good visual effects and a bunch of talented stunt people. And it wouldn’t be nearly as good without Elisabeth Moss, who gives a dazzling lead performance as she — like Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2” — has to convince the authorities that her life is at risk because of a monster they can’t comprehend. Streaming on HBO Max and video on demand.
#2) “1917” During World War I, two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a message to stop an attack on German troops who have seemingly retreated, but have really set a trap and are ready to ambush the Englishmen, possibly killing as many as 1,600 of them. The movie then follows the two men as they traverse the French countryside on foot, through trenches and across muddy fields. As they do so, the camera stays with them, seemingly in one long take. The result is nothing less than stunning. It’s as if we’re embedded with these two young protagonists as witnesses to the near-impossibility of their mission and the realities of war they encounter. Streaming on Showtime and video on demand.
#3) “Da 5 Bloods” Spike Lee’s latest is the story of a group of Vietnam War veterans (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, and Clarke Peters) who return to find the remains of their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and bring him back home — along with a cache of gold they left behind during a firefight. Lee’s brilliance as a filmmaker is on display, and Delroy Lindo gives a tour-de-force performance as one of the vets suffering from PTSD. Streaming on Netflix.
#4) “Unpregnant” After a night of passion with her boyfriend, seventeen-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) finds herself pregnant with a fetus she has no intention of keeping. Unfortunately, she lives in Columbia, Missouri, where a minor can’t get an abortion without parental consent, which is not going to happen because her mother and father are, in her words, “Jesus freaks.” A Google search reveals that the closest clinic in which she can have the procedure done is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a fifteen-hour drive away — and Veronica doesn’t have a car. So she turns to her childhood friend Bailey, and the two are off on a funny, heartwarming road trip. Streaming on HBO Max.
#5) “Greed” If I may paraphrase Gordon Gekko, “Greed” is very, very good. Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed” is a satire about the super-rich — in particular, a billionaire fashion mogul (Steve Coogan) who’s throwing himself an over-the-top, Roman-themed party on a beach on a Greek isle (never mind the ancient civilizations crossover!). The movie also takes shots at reality TV, the exploitation of the clothing business, and the megalomania of people who have more money than sense. Oh, it’s damned funny, too. Streaming on Starz and video on demand.
#6) “The Old Guard“ This movie not only has two female stars (Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne), but was helmed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood (in the first action-adventure she’s directed), who handles both the quiet and explosive moments with aplomb. Charlize Theron plays the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who have killed the bad and saved the good for many centuries. They have been injured and killed multiple times, but each time their wounds healed and they returned to the living, ready to take on the next challenge. Yet after taking so many lives for so long, Andy’s become weary of the job because no matter how many times she fights for right, there’s always more wrong to take on, and there’s very little reward in knowing your battles will never end. Streaming on Netflix.
#7) “Driveways“ This is a sweet, but sad, story that marks the final film performance by the great Brian Dennehy, who died in April at 81. He plays a lonely widower named Del, the next-door neighbor to a woman named April, who died before the movie’s story began. Her sister, Cathy, a single mom struggling to get by on her salary as a medical transcriptionist, drives across the country with her eight-year-old son Cody to clean out April’s house and get it ready to be sold. Lucas Jaye really shines as Cody in one of the most naturally charming performances I’ve seen by a child actor in quite a while. Streaming on Showtime, Kanopy, and video on demand.
#8) “The Trip To Greece” Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back for the fourth in their series of improvised buddy comedies. While some movie series run their courses after just a few chapters (e.g. “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight”), the “Trip” formula still holds up because there’s no real plot that holds the films together – it’s just one exotic locale after another with good food and two close friends joking around. If you like spending time with them, you’ll enjoy this voyage. This makes two movies in my 2020 top ten from Coogan and writer/director Michael Winterbottom. Streaming on Hulu and video on demand.
#9) “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” Sacha Baron Cohen returns as the Kazakhstan journalist making another trip to explore America, this time bringing along his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova, in a breakout performance), who he will offer as a gift for Vice President Mike Pence. Along the way, she gets lessons in etiquette from southern debutantes, he spends several days with redneck Trump extremists, and there’s the now-infamous encounter with Rudy Giuliani. Not only is this kind of filmmaking brave as hell, it also yields some truly funny outcomes. Streaming on Prime Video.
#10) “Just Mercy” Anchored by two powerful actors, “Just Mercy” stars Michael B. Jordan as civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death after being railroaded by a racist sheriff and corrupt system in 1980s Alabama for the murder of a white woman. It was one of Stevenson’s first cases, and the launching pad for his Equal Rights Initiative. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who also made the underrated “Short Term 12,” “Just Mercy” is a solid legal drama. Streaming on HBO Max and video on demand.
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