If films premiered on streaming services, were they really films – or television shows?
That’s a question that lurked during the coronavirus pandemic. Created for the big screen, they certainly had all the trappings of films. But in 2020, many went directly to television, made big bucks for their studios and still hit the DVD market. That suggested there could be a future shift.
No theaters? Unthinkable. Part of the joy of films is seeing them with others. But a new model emerged. In addition to theatrical play, films could appear on streaming services and be sold in stores.
Thanks to 2020’s experiments, Amazon Studios, Netflix, HBO max, Disney+ and Apple TV+ loomed as titans of the future.
Airing many of the best films, they offered reassurance there’s always a home for excellence. They also encouraged storytelling that comforted in times that were anything but.
In order, here are the best films of 2020:
2. Sound of Metal
5. Trial of the Chicago 7
6. Boys State
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
9. First Cow
1. NOMADLAND – Able to play unpretentious people better than anyone, Frances McDormand introduced us to folks who travel around the country seeking adventure. They don’t like staying too long in one place and, often, they don’t embrace long-term relationships. Written, edited, produced and directed by Chloe Zhao, the drama gave house-bound viewers a chance to see the world outside – the vast world outside. Stopping in a host of places (including Nebraska and South Dakota), McDormand’s Fern made the nomadic life instantly attractive -- despite flat tires, menial labor and solitude. She soared as our tour guide and gave us a good look at a world we never knew existed.
2. SOUND OF METAL – Riz Ahmed can play anything – from con man to heavy metal drummer. As we learned in Darius Marder’s drama, he could convey so much with his eyes and a rare smile. Fearing his career is over, Ahmed’s Ruben investigated what life would be without sound, then made decisions that could affect everything he does. To give audiences a sense of the isolation, Marder played with sound, muffling it to approximate what Ruben hears. The film worked on so many levels (and introduced us to a Paul Raci we never knew) it could stand as a metaphor for the year.
3. MINARI – How does a Korean-American family fit into Arkansas, particularly with a profane grandmother in tow? Lee Isaac Chung showed us in this heartwarming and heartbreaking drama that gave Steven Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn the kind of roles that make stars. Like last year’s “Parasite,” “Minari” introduced us to stories that might never have gotten told if someone hadn’t been willing to take a chance on new talent. (Thank you, Brad Pitt.) It’s a memorable slice of life that reminded us of the value of family and hard work.
4. HAMILTON – Even though it was a filmed version of a stage play, “Hamilton” was so powerful, so necessary, so prophetic, it had to be on this year’s list. Giving theater-starved audiences a shot at seeing what they love, the expansive show suggested a new revenue stream for theaters and a great way for theatergoers to get the best seats in the house. Written by (and starring) Lin-Manuel Miranda, it also offered an appreciation for history and stories that build a nation. Leslie Odom Jr. wasn’t just the Burr in Alexander Hamilton’s life. He was the force that pushed him to greater heights. If this qualifies for Oscar consideration, “Hamilton” should populate all of the acting categories. It was just that good.
5. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 – Working from reams of transcripts, writer/director Aaron Sorkin also made history come to life with his account of the trial of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters. He made the late 1960s pop, giving great lines to actors like Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella and Yahya Abdul-Mateen. Together, they found as much life in a courtroom as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (which, by the way, Sorkin adapted for the stage).
6. BOYS STATE – Documentaries don’t usually figure into most Top 10 lists, but this year there were plenty to consider. While “Dick Johnson is Dead” was a more inventive entry, “Boys State” was such a telling look at politics in America it couldn’t be ignored. Directed and produced by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, it followed delegates as they gathered to learn the political process through mock campaigns and elections. Mirroring politics today, it offered insight into why people vote the way they do and why they fear stepping out of their comfort zone. One candidate, Steven Garza, did just that and became a force for change in others.
7. SOUL – What does the afterlife look like? Director Pete Docter tossed that out to animators and they came back with glowing blue blobs, geometric shapes and a world of possibilities. Working through a middle school band teacher, they discussed where we started and where we’re headed. More adult than most Pixar films, “Soul” also had heart and artistic integrity.
8. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – In his 10-play cycle about the Black experience, August Wilson created characters that popped on stage. On film, they were even more powerful. Denzel Washington soared with “Fences.” Chadwick Boseman got the same opportunity as a brash trumpet player trying to advise 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey. Coupled with Viola Davis (who won an Oscar opposite Washington in “Fences”), he created a memorable give-and-take that defined a career that ended too quickly.
9. FIRST COW – A Chinese immigrant and a chef became business partners and friends in a simple drama set in the 19th century. Seeing opportunity in the form of a cow (the only cow to make it to Oregon), the two stole milk, made popular baked goods and dreamed of a better life. In director Kelly Reichardt’s hands, the simple story became a metaphor for much more and a testament to the power of friendship.
10. MANK – Film fans got a chance to see what fueled Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” Focusing not on the director but on the writer, David Fincher showed how films are often influenced by the writer’s experience. Shot in stunning black and white, “Mank” pulled writer Herman J. Mankiewicz out of the credits and into the heart of the action. Gary Oldman played Mank with great vigor, suggesting many classics could be fodder for even more drama.
ALSO WORTH NOTING: “One Night in Miami,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “Palm Springs,” “The King of Staten Island,” “The Life Ahead” and “Pieces of a Woman.”