I’d like to start this list off with some honorable mentions:
- The Small Axe series: McQueen is one of my favorite filmmakers working today and this series further confirms that, but I chose to leave individual entries off my list to cover as much ground as possible.
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A late contender that just missed the top ten.
- Concrete Cowboy: One of two films I saw at the virtual Middleburg Film Festival, but won’t be released until next year. Don’t let it pass you by when it finally comes out.
- “Dirty Money: Vol. 1”: My favorite short film of the year, courtesy of the up and coming Bahamondes brothers.
#10 – Be Water
(Bao Nguyen, US)
A phenomenal documentary ported over to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, this follows the life and career of the legendary Bruce Lee. It reconciles Lee’s legendary wisdom with his abundance of pride that made him notoriously difficult to work with. But he was a man dedicated to positive representation for himself and people that looked like him, and he demanded craft that would measure up to what he wanted to see. It’s not just a well-collected set of interviews though, as there’s a montage involving Muhammad Ali that was breathtaking, among other stellar moments of editing.
[Streaming on ESPN]
#9 – Premature
(Rashaad Ernesto Green, US)
A subversive teen romance I caught early this year that has stuck with me ever since. Rashad Ernesto Green’s loose take on the genre paints a realistic and uncompromising portrait of Black youth. Zora Howard gives a transformative performance from youthful naivety to an early and swift arrival at adulthood. Vignette-like scenes in recording studios and restaurants offer heavy commentary on the Black community, but the film never loses focus on the relationship at its center.
[Streaming on Hulu]
(Antonio Campos, US)
A repulsive and sickening drama that I could never take my eyes off of. This Appalachian epic grabs you from the moment Donald Ray Pollock’s cold narration sets the scene. It’s an expansive narrative of cruelty and suffering, but one with heart and care for all of the innocence left in Knockemstiff. An abundance of actors are giving their best work in career defining and trajectory defying performances. While most of it made my stomach crawl, a simple exchange at a gas station decades in the making was one of the most heartwarming scenes of the year.
[Streaming on Netflix]
#7 – One Night in Miami…
(Regina King, US)
A festival darling that’ll hit Prime Video in January, I’m only putting it here because it’s expecting a short run in theaters this Christmas. Regina King’s directorial debut is a powerhouse of acting and pacing, following the night after Muhammad Ali bested Sonny Liston. He, Malcolm X, actor and running back Jim Brown, and soul singer Sam Cooke all met in a motel room to discuss their futures. It’s a showcase of the performances of these men and a snapshot of a particular moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Ideologies clash, but bonds are deepened. It’s a rousing character drama and one you won’t want to miss.
[Coming soon to Prime Video]
#6 – Tenet
All recent bad press aside, Nolan is back and it feels so good. I saw this at a drive-in after months without a true big screen experience, and seeing a movie this unabashedly large felt like a momentous occasion. The intricate plotting might distract you from the fact that it’s an excuse to have a lot of huge practical effects, but the best thing about Tenet is how it finds ways to constantly get bigger and bigger. It’s a simple concept of time manipulation explored in an expansive narrative with tons of unforgettable sequences of all shapes and sizes.
[Available to rent on VOD]
#5 – Selah and the Spades
(Tayarisha Poe, US)
A coming of age film for the modern era, a perfect blend of Heathers and Euphoria. Warring factions in an esteemed prep school collide when the drug running Spades begin to falter in their operation, and new girl Paloma becomes important in the internal conflict that ensues. Tayarisha Poe’s film feels like a fantasy, and one that can make the potential cancellation of a prom truly feel like the end of the world for its characters without coming off as immature.
[Streaming on Prime Video]
#4 – Les Miserables
(Ladj Ly, France)
In a time where police brutality is a worthy hot button topic in America, Ladj Ly’s film reminds us that this is not a problem unique to the states. Make no mistake, Les Miserables is nothing like the Victor Hugo novel, instead following a trio of police officers struggling to maintain control of rival gangs. When an arrest goes bad, the entire neighborhood of Montfermeil is thrown into turmoil. The film has a lot on its mind and no time to air it out, forcing the viewer to decide for themselves whose side they’re really on. It’s a tense thrill ride, one unlike any we have had this year.
[Streaming on Prime Video]
#3 – The Invisible Man
(Leigh Whannell, US)
Leigh Whannell proves himself to be one of the most promising genre filmmakers working today. With a spectacular sense of visual style and kinetic energy, the filmmaking is just as good as Upgrade and the writing this time around even better. I wrote in my original view that “it’s a bold movie with bold ideas, and a remake of a classic science fiction film film is the best place to insert brave and modern ideas,” and I stand by that. Elisabeth Moss’s performance as the scared stiff Cecilia is magnificent, as is the rest of the film.
[Streaming on HBO Max]
#2 – Da 5 Bloods
(Spike Lee, US)
A film sadly made even more emotional by the passing of Chadwick Boseman only a few months after its release on Netflix, Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s best in years. If BlacKkKlansman was a return to form then this is Lee bringing out the big guns, throwing away any commitment to the typical tropes of war film in favor of a realistic journey into the past and present of four Vietnam veterans and one of their sons. Featuring multiple candidates for scene and performance of the year, it’s an unforgettable trip.
[Streaming on Netflix]
#1 – She Dies Tomorrow
(Amy Seimetz, US)
This pandemic has made us do some crazy things. At least, it’s made us think about doing some crazy things. At one point I was in quarantine away from where I usually live and found it a blessing to be able to walk around in the backyard without a mask on for a few minutes, just to get some fresh air that I couldn’t find in the city. On these walks I often thought about what it would be like once all of this is over, a romantic idea I hadn’t held since almost April. It’s made me appreciate what I have and thus strive to protect it.
There’s a different kind of pandemic in She Dies Tomorrow. It doesn’t cripple the body or make it weak to other invasions, but it transforms the mind. We follow a woman who believes that tonight will be her last on earth, and the audience discovers that this idea spreads like a virus from person to person. As it does we see many portrayals of depression and grief at its lowest form, inspiring final feats of grandeur or revealing emotional and hurtful secrets. Amy Seimetz crafts a fantastic mediation on life at its most pessimistic and a feast for the eyes thanks to creative visual storytelling, a drama suited for 2020 and many years to come.
[Streaming on Hulu]
Best of 2020 amy seimetz antonio campos bahamondes brothers bao nguyen be water blackkklansman bruce lee chadwick boseman christopher nolan concrete cowboy da 5 bloods donald ray pollock elisabeth moss euphoria heathers ladj ly leigh whannell les miserables ma raineys black bottom one night in miami premature rashaad ernesto green regina king selah and the spades she dies tomorrow small axe spike lee steve mcqueen tayarisha poe tenet the devil all the time the invisible man upgrade zora howard