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Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 20

2020-Movies at the Streaming Cross Roads

(011621) When 2020 started, the routine of going to a theater, purchasing a bag of popcorn, and losing yourself in a movie for a couple hours was still mundane. Over the last few years, streaming services like Netflix and money-burning companies like MoviePass have pulled at the threads of the traditional theatrical distribution model, testing the limits of consumer behavior, but the business never felt like it might completely unravel. Even as comic book blockbusters grew in power and smaller titles shifted to VOD releases, the big screen retained its mythic appeal. That's where the movies played.

Not any more. The ongoing pandemic has closed theaters across the globe, upended the release plans for the studios of all sizes, and potentially transformed viewing habits for years to come. Where did that chaos leave the committed moviegoer? With plenty of movies to watch. Whether you were arranging a socially-distanced screening of the latest Christopher Nolan adventure, journeying to a drive-in to catch an old favorite, or simply scheduling your own programming block in quarantine, film still had a role to play in helping people get through this difficult year. These are the best movies of 2020.

And now, the 2020 TOP 10 Countdown...

Director: Spike Lee

Exploding with historical references, directorial flourishes, and flashes of combat action, Spike Lee's war epic Da 5 Bloods is a movie that embraces the inherent messiness of its subject matter. At first, the story sounds simple enough: four elderly Black veterans regroup and travel to Vietnam to recover the remains of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and search for a shipment of gold they buried in the jungle decades ago. But Lee, pushing the movie in sharply funny and emotionally fraught directions depending on the demands of the scenes, refuses to approach the Treasure of Sierra Madre-like set-up in a straight-forward manner. Instead, the movie pings between the MAGA-hat speckled present and the bullet-ridden past, using his older actors in the flashbacks as their younger selves to underline the strangeness of time's passage. While some of the detours might test your patience, particularly once the men discover the gold and start arguing over what to do with it, the powerful ending, which becomes a moving showcase for the great Delroy Lindo, makes this a long journey worth embarking on.

Where to watch it: Stream via Netflix

Director: Tomm Moore and Ross Stweart

While major animated releases from studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks manage to dominate the box office and command critical conversation, some of the finest examples of the medium have been produced by Cartoon Saloon over the last decade. They’ve churned out magnificent efforts such as “Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells,” and “The Breadwinner,” invested in the art of challenging audiences with unusual tales of resilience and wonder, digging into extremes of fantasy and reality to inspire their stories. The artistry and integrity of this company is astounding, and for 2020, they offer “Wolfwalkers,” once again crafting a story that welcomes hearty emotion and real suspense for family audiences, also delivering a visual feast of 2D animation that supplies some of the most striking imagery of the film year. “Wolfwalkers” is stunning and sincere, preserving Cartoon Saloon’s position as the most exciting animation studio working today. “Wolfwalkers” has a political element to the screenplay, highlighting the oppression of England as it moves into the open world of Ireland, but the writing (credited to Will Collins) remains attentive to character, exploring the new world order through the eyes of Robyn, a free spirit sent to live behind bars with her father, with a falcon, Merlyn, her closest friend. “Wolfwalkers” is a gorgeous film, but it’s also playful when necessary, and tension is earned throughout. Voicework is simply wonderful, with the cast infusing their roles with subtle feelings and fears. The feature is another triumph for Cartoon Saloon, who remain confident that a little sophistication and lot of Irish soul is the key to their brand of animation, gifting the audience something different and quite special.

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Director: Kitty Green
The systemic culture of indifference and cruelty that often forms around a powerful serial abuser gets put under the microscope in this studiously observed New York office drama, which draws inspiration from the behavior of Harvey Weinstein while intentionally blurring some of the details. We never learn the name of the tyrannical boss in the story and the exact nature of his crimes are never fully revealed; instead, Julia Garner's assistant Jane, a Northwestern grad fresh off a handful of internships, provides our entryway into the narrative. The movie tracks her duties, tasks, and indignities over the course of a single day: She makes copies, coordinates air travel, picks up lunch orders, answers phone calls, and cleans suspicious stains off the couch. At one point, a young woman from Idaho appears at the reception desk, claims to have been flown in to start as a new assistant, and gets whisked away to a room in an expensive hotel. Jane raises the issue with an HR rep, played with smarmy menace by Succession's Matthew Macfadyen, but her concerns are quickly battered away and turned against her. Rejecting cheap catharsis and dramatic twists, The Assistant builds its claustrophobic world through a steady accumulation of information. While some of the writing can feel too imprecise and opaque by design, Garner, who consistently steals scenes on Netflix's Ozark, invests every hushed phone call and carefully worded email with real trepidation. She locates the terror in the drudgery of the work.

Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube


Director: Eliza Hittman
The Port Authority bus terminal provides the backdrop for a good deal of the drama and the waiting in Eliza Hittman's powerful portrait of a teenager traveling from Pennsylvania to New York to have an abortion, a procedure she can't receive in her home state. Quiet and watchful, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) observes the world around her from benches, bus seats, and doctor's office chairs, dragging an enormous suitcase through the drab interiors of various midtown locations. She doesn't tell her parents about her pregnancy or her trip. She's joined by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who wants to be a supportive friend and sounding board. Still, the two don't talk much. The movie's most striking image shows the two holding hands in a moment of shared vulnerability, like their bond transcends language. As a filmmaker, Hittman is most interested in behavior and gesture, approaching her story with the type of careful rigor that allows for poetic moments to emerge in unexpected places. It's a style that's especially suited to the challenging emotional terrain of the material.

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube

Director: George C. Wolfe
Acting doesn’t come much bolder and more blistering than in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play about a 1927 Chicago recording session by real-life blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her backing band, comprised of trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turner) and trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Courtesy of Ma’s demanding diva imperiousness and Levee’s cock-of-the-walk arrogance, the session becomes a powder keg whose fuses are related to African-American oppression, ambition and music-industry exploitation. Wolfe keeps the material spry and sensual (as well as explosive) by keeping his roving camera trained on his stars, who swing for the fences with ferocious gusto. Davis has rarely been better as the take-no-shit Ma, staring down anyone who might question her authority – including her manager (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio’s owner (Jonny Coyne) – with a glare that would fell an angel. In his final screen performance, Boseman matches his co-headliner’s intensity, his Levee so full of vibrant, self-destructive fury, desire and life that it’s a tragedy the performance stands as the late actor’s swan song.

Where to watch: Netflix

Director: Steve McQueen
One of five features included in 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” compilation, Mangrove dramatizes the real-life story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black British West Indians from Notting Hill who were charged with inciting a riot after they marched in protest against police harassment and brutality – all of it centered around Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) The Mangrove restaurant. As with Lover’s Rock (another entry in the filmmaker’s quintet), McQueen imparts a genuine sense of his immigrant milieu. At the same time, he reveals the ways in which the white status quo – embodied by villainous PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) – sought to destroy it. At its midway point, McQueen’s film becomes a straightforward courtroom drama about the fight against prejudice and for justice. No matter its conventionality, however, Parkes’ heartfelt performance as Crichlow, a man who wanted to realize a dream and came to understand that he’d created a vital hub for his community, is so enraged and aggrieved that, alongside Letitia Wright’s turn as Altheia Jones, it invigorates this legal affair.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime


Director: Spike Lee
Lee’s movie of David Byrne’s American Utopia is a glorious thing. It takes Byrne’s stage show – a gently political jukebox musical that reshuffles four decades of the ex-Talking Heads frontman’s music into a new narrative about despair and compassion in today’s America – and amplifies it into cinema through clever camera placement and sharp, rhythmic cutting. And just when you find yourself thinking, “this is all very proficient, but I wonder what drew Spike Lee to this,” Lee shows you exactly what that was, and it lands like a haymaker. In a year where people somehow became even more divided, here’s a movie that literally begs us to remember who we are to one another.

When things seemed helplessly bleak in 2020, when we couldn’t gather in movie theaters or Broadway venues or anywhere else that offers collective catharsis, David Byrne gave us a concert film that felt ripped from the marrow of our unrest. In a show comprising greatest hits from his Talking Heads days and his solo catalog, Byrne stresses that the only way forward is together. “Utopia” is both a protest piece and a big-hearted ode to the better days that lie ahead. We’re on a road to nowhere, but no one needs to travel alone.

Where to watch: HBO Max

Director: Kirsten Johnson
Watching Kirsten Johnson's kind-hearted dad, Richard "Dick" Johnson, get crushed by an air conditioning unit, struck by a car, and knocked in the head by a construction beam provides a startling thrill. These strange little experiments, staged by his filmmaker daughter and carried out by seasoned stunt professionals, form the structural backbone for this tender documentary, a work of memoir sprinkled with touches of the surreal. Instead of just making a portrait of her father, a cheery psychiatrist from Washington, Johnson constructs a film that attempts to confront a universal fear by delving into matters of process. Death, terrifying and unconquerable, becomes an art project. Like with an episode of Nathan for You or, sure, even Jackass, there's a delicate tonal line being walked: Why does Dick agree to go along with these elaborate stunts? The simple answer—he loves his daughter—becomes increasingly clear as Dick Johnson Is Dead unfolds.

Where to watch: Stream via Netflix


Director: Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt's evocative and wise tale of frontier life, begins with the discovery of two skeletons in the woods. An unnamed young woman (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) and her dog—echoing the human-and-canine pair at the center of Reichardt's 2008 road story Wendy and Lucy—come upon the bones in the modern day Pacific Northwest. Then we flash back to a time when the Oregon territory was far less developed, an era of perilous opportunity and rampant exploitation, and meet Cookie (John Magaro), a bashful and unassuming cook for a team of unruly fur trappers. Eventually, he befriends the wandering King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be fleeing some Russians. The two stumble on an opportunity to make some money: A wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) brings the first cow to the region, and Cookie and King-Lu decide to steal the cow's milk at night and use it to bake sweet honey biscuits, which they sell at the local market. The story has an allegorical quality, gently pulling at classic American notions of hope, ambition, and deception. Reichardt, who chronicled a similar historical period in 2010's neo-Western Meek's Cutoff and an equally rich male friendship in 2006's buddy comedy Old Joy, has a gentle human touch that never veers into sentimentality. On a literal and metaphoric level, she knows where the bodies are buried.

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.

Director: Steve McQueen
In a year defined by keeping one’s distance, there might not be a more enviable film on this list than Lovers Rock, which is primarily set at a sensuous reggae house party in 1980s London. In the second entry of his Small Axe anthology, Steve McQueen eschews most traditional characterization in favor of pure carnal spectacle, observing as bodies grind the night away to sexy grooves and soulful vocals. Shabier Kirchner’s gauzy digital cinematography captures every bead of sweat on the faces of the partygoers, all hypnotized by the music and intoxicated by their passion. Although Lovers Rock features a lovely romance at its center between two strangers who attend the soiree (Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), McQueen’s focus remains squarely on the event as microcosm for the Black British community. He never lets you forget that the house party is an act of rebellion, an insurrectionary gesture by a marginalized and oppressed people simply trying to live free in their country. McQueen abandons any sort of narrative thread and in lieu throws us into the midst of sumptuous and sensational night of good company, good food, and good music. The night follows a group of first and second generation young Brits of West Indian descent. Some find love. Some find companionship. Some find comfort and adoration after a frightening scare. Some find an escape from the muddy world outside the safety of the walls. This is a community of people that share the good times and the bad times together. However, at the heart of this film is a complete adoration for the community that McQueen holds so dearly. Lovers Rock is a masterful depiction of life as part of the West Indies community in England. A life that despite centuries of plays, TV, film, and other forms of entertainment in England, is nearly invisible. Through his Small Axe anthology series, McQueen is offering more than just a window into the lives of people who call the U.K. their home; he is putting us in their shoes to experience the highs and lows. With Lovers Rock, he gives nothing but that glorious high.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime.

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"Never Rarely, Sometimes Always


"Cinema Retrospective-2020"