22 Movies That Blasted Face in 2020

A very bad year with a number of very good movies

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Like many people—most of them, I’d assume—I miss quite a lot of things this year. Two in particular: My mom and movie theaters.

They’re still here, but the pandemic has rendered them inaccessible. It feels like we are divided by something like the Shimmer from Annihilation. I reference them in the same breath for the simple reason that, without my mom, I likely would not have developed my passion for film.

When I was young, she nurtured my affection for them, taking me to unusual foreign or animated features at the Century in Chicago. She enrolled me in classes for children at Facets Multi-Media on Fullerton Avenue, culminating eventually in my selection as one of a few middle schoolers sent from the United States to participate as a judge in an international children’s film festival in Giffoni Valle Piana, a small town in Italy.

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Mom also encouraged me to pursue an interest in screenwriting when I was in high school, pushing me to apply for a summer class at the faraway University of Southern California; I was accepted but left after just a few days, unable to withstand the emotional weight of distance as my dad’s final days ticked away. He was sick with brain cancer—my mom, typically resolute as a working woman and Midwestern Catholic, decided she could shoulder the burden at home alone if it meant an opportunity for me, I suppose. (My older brother didn’t live too far away, either.)

Eventually, the dross of life accumulated and I strayed from any professional ambitions in moviemaking. Still, as I reflect on the specific opportunities Mom found for me, and the work she put into making all of it actually happen… well, I’m left with quite a lot of gratitude, not just for her specific actions, but for her planting a creative seed within me that still grows and bears fruit today. Movies connected me to my wife: Our first date (not counting a disastrous pasta rendezvous that we will ignore henceforth, thank you) was to see Synecdoche, New York at the Landmark Sunshine on Houston (R.I.P.), a movie that hollows out your soul, I think in a way that makes room for someone else.

So, anyway, what I’m trying to say is that movies are very important to me. Even as someone who ostensibly thinks about technology for a living, I have to admit that 4K streaming on our fancy LG television doesn’t really measure up to the experience of sitting in a shit-velvety chair with a bunch of strangers—even annoying ones—to watch a projection. It just doesn’t.

But still, yes, it is something. I’m glad that we’ve been able to watch so many movies at home this year, a privilege that I don’t take for granted. We are safe, comfortable, and warm with a few bucks to spare on movies.

I hope the same for you if, like us, you are isolated at home this holiday. And for that reason, I decided I’d compile 22 of my favorite movies from 2020*, just in case you’re looking for something fresh to watch. (Live a little: There’s a lot of interest beyond the Netflix queue.) Because it would take me approximately seven years to write my own description for each, I’ll include a link and a little quote from Wikipedia to get you started… and also just add that my favorite is Feels Good Man, a documentary with such a nuanced and delightful understanding of the extremely bizarre nature of our online communications that I hope anyone who has ever typed so much as a single word onto a social media platform takes the time to watch it.

(These aren’t in any order. Enjoy! Happy viewing!)

*Wide release dates

The Invisible Man

“The Invisible Man is a 2020 Australian-American science fiction psychological horror film written and directed by Leigh Whannell, loosely based on the novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. It follows a woman who believes she is being stalked and gaslit by her abusive and wealthy boyfriend even after his apparent suicide, and ultimately deduces that he has acquired the ability to become invisible. The film stars Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.”

The Assistant

“The film takes place over the course of a single day in the life of Jane, a junior assistant who has been working at a film production company in New York City for five weeks. Jane arrives well before dawn and performs various menial administrative tasks. Her job’s long hours and demanding tasks keep her busy and incredibly stressed. During a phone call with her mother, Jane learns that she forgot to call her father on his birthday.

“As Jane’s day progresses, it becomes clear that her boss has been having sex in his office with many younger women and facilitating a culture of sexual harassment at the company.”

Birds of Prey

“… a 2020 American superhero film based on the DC Comics team the Birds of Prey. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, it is the eighth installment in the DC Extended Universe and a follow-up to Suicide Squad (2016). It was directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, and it stars Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, and Ewan McGregor. The film follows Harley Quinn, after breaking up with the Joker, joining forces with Helena Bertinelli, Dinah Lance, and Renee Montoya to save Cassandra Cain from Gotham City crime lord Roman Sionis, forming the Birds of Prey altogether.”

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Swallow

“…independent psychological body horror film written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis and starring Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, and Denis O’Hare. Its plot follows a young woman who, emotionally stifled in her marriage and domestic life, develops an impulse to consume inedible objects.”

First Cow

The Wikipedia entry for this movie is awful, but maybe a snippet from the plot synopsis will be enough to get you started: “In the present day, a woman is walking with her dog when she comes across a skull buried in the ground. She digs up two skeletons, side by side.

“In 1820, Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz is a quiet chef traveling with a group of loud and aggressive fur trappers in the Oregon Territory, who harass Cookie for not bringing them enough food while scavenging. One night, he comes across King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a Russian man. Cookie allows Lu to hide in his tent for the night and watches him escape across the river the next day.”

Bad Education

“Set in the Long Island village of Roslyn in the early 2000s, the film tells the story of school district superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone (Jackman) and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Janney), who steal millions of dollars from the same public school district that they seek to make the best in the country. The screenwriter, Makowsky, briefly met Tassone as a child before the scandal broke and attended Roslyn High School in the late 2000s.”

American Utopia

“…a 2020 American concert film directed and produced by Spike Lee, from a screenplay by David Byrne. The film is a live recording of a Broadway performance of a modified version of the album American Utopia, including several songs and contributions from throughout Byrne’s career. Byrne performs alongside 11 musicians, all performing with wireless or portable equipment.”

The King of Staten Island

“…2020 American comedy-drama film directed by Judd Apatow, from a screenplay by Apatow, Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirus. It stars Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, and Steve Buscemi, and follows a young man who must get his life together after his mother starts dating a new man who, like his deceased father, is a firefighter… The film has been called a ‘semi-biographical’ take on the life of Davidson, who lost his firefighter father during the September 11 attacks and has had his own battles with mental illness.”

On the Rocks

“…a 2020 American comedy-drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. It follows a father and daughter (Bill Murray and Rashida Jones) as they tail her suspicious husband (Marlon Wayans).”

Crip Camp

A documentary: “Crip Camp starts in 1971 at Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York described as a ‘loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities.’ Starring Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann, the film focuses on those campers who turned themselves into activists for the disability rights movement and follows their fight for accessibility legislation.”

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Sputnik

“…a 2020 Russian science-fiction horror film directed by Egor Abramenko in his feature directorial debut. It stars Oksana Akinshina as a young doctor who is recruited by the military to assess a cosmonaut who survived a mysterious space accident and returned to Earth with a dangerous organism living inside him.”

The Old Guard

“…a 2020 American superhero film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka, based on his comic book of the same name. The film stars Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and follows a team of immortal mercenaries on a revenge mission.”

Boys State

“…a 2020 American documentary film, directed, and produced by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. It follows a thousand teenage boys attending Boys/Girls State in Texas, coming to build a representative government from the ground up.”

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Actually, this one is beyond Wikipedia. Some thoughts from A.O. Scott’s review in the Times: “We know what we’re feeling, but we don’t know why. As far as we can guess, we are in the head of a woman named Lucy (Jessie Buckley), who is taking a car trip with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons). ‘You can’t fake a thought,’ Lucy muses to herself, and one of her thoughts is summed up in the movie’s title. She and Jake haven’t been dating that long, and she doesn’t see much of a future for them. Does Jake somehow know what she’s thinking? He startles her from time to time by seeming to read her mind, which seems to keep changing.

“…An annotated version of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ might be nice to have, though it might also undermine the sense of knowingness that is both one of the film’s minor pleasures and one of its major provocations.”

Shirley

“…a 2020 American biographical drama film, directed by Josephine Decker, from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, based upon the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, which formed a ‘largely fictional story’ around novelist Shirley Jackson’s real life… Shirley is obsessed by the story of a young woman who recently disappeared from Bennington’s campus and wants to tell her story as a novel.”

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Tesla

This one also defies easy description despite being a biopic. From Bilge Ebiri in Vulture: “I knew Tesla would be no ordinary biopic when it opened on Ethan Hawke’s Nikola Tesla roller-skating to Wojciech Kilar’s score to Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, while a voice-over informed us that, after learning that the sparks generated by stroking his cat were the same thing as lightning in the sky, a 7-year-old Tesla had wondered, ‘Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?’”

Nomadland

“…a 2020 American drama film directed by Chloé Zhao, who also wrote, edited, and co-produced. The film is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, and stars Frances McDormand as a woman who leaves her small town to travel around the American Midwest.”

Coded Bias

No Wikipedia entry. From Devika Girish in the Times: “This cleareyed documentary explores how machine-learning algorithms can perpetuate society’s existing class-, race- and gender-based inequities.”

(A little plug for my publication: Read OneZero’s interview with director Shalini Kantayya here.)

The Truth

“…drama film, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It stars Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier, Clémentine Grenier, Manon Clavel, Alain Libolt, Christian Crahay and Roger Van Hool. It is Kore-eda’s first film set outside Japan and not in his native language.

“…Fabienne Dangeville is a very famous French actress, giving an interview about work on her upcoming book. Her daughter, screenwriter Lumir, son-in-law actor Hank and granddaughter Charlotte arrive. Lumir is surprised that the book has already been printed, as she expected to read it first, before being published. Fabienne tells her that she sent her the manuscript before having the book printed.

“… Lumir confronts Fabienne about some lines in the book which depict her relationship with her mother as a fairy tale story… Later, Luc, Fabienne’s manager tells Lumir that Fabienne is doing her current film because it stars Manon Lenoir, the next big actress who reminds everyone of Sarah. It’s called Memories of My Mother.”

Feels Good Man

“…American documentary film about the Internet meme Pepe the Frog. Marking the directorial debut of Arthur Jones, the film stars artist Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe. The film follows Furie as he struggles to reclaim control of Pepe from members of the alt-right who have co-opted the image for their own purposes.”

Mank

“…American biographical drama film about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the script for Citizen Kane (1941). Directed by David Fincher, based on a screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher.”

Sound of Metal

“American drama film directed and co-written by Darius Marder and starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric. It tells the story of a drummer who begins to lose his hearing.”

This story has been updated to include Mank and Sound of Metal, bringing the number of movies from 20 at the original publication date to 22.

Written by

Editor in Chief, OneZero Team at Medium

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