I love watching movies, and while there’s still time this year (hoping, in fact, to add Tenet to my year’s list this week), I’ve mostly closed the book on this year’s cinema consumption. Due to COVID, I’ve watched virtually nothing outside of my home, so the list skews to older films but thanks to services such as Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Tubi, Disney+, and several others I’ve still managed to hit some current titles.
I’m active on letterboxd (here – stop by and say Hi!) and for this list I’ve isolated the films I saw this calendar year and gave the austere 5/5 stars. Then I removed films I’d already seen, which dropped the list down quite a bit. So, to not have a short list, I then added the 4.5/5 as well. Obviously, film appreciation is as much preference as it is anything, but here are the best films I watched for the first time this year.
We like top 10 lists at The Buzz – so I’ll do that with 5 honorable mentions.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Tom Cruise, John C Reilly, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina
A complicated and fascinating film featuring one of the most intense and bizarre performances by Tom Cruise is his storied career.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Directed by Milos Forman
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif
A classic film that proved to be well deserving of its reputation. Jack is fabulous and so much is packed into so small a sense of “place” in this film.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Natascha McElhone
I don’t know why I missed this movie for so many years. It checks off so many boxes with it’s late-90s action, star-studded cast, and delightfully convoluted plot.
The Natural (1984)
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley
I love baseball nearly as much as my children. Redford is a true movie star and shines at the center of this story. Is it sappy? Yes. Is it melodramatic? Yes. But its my kind of comfort film.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Kyes
Carpenter’s genius was evident from the start as this, his sophomore effort, was his true breakout film. The tension between the characters was palpable and the anonymity of the cast kept me guessing their fate more than I might have normally. A master-class in small budget film-making by one of the greats.
10. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya, Jack Shearer
Yes, I know. How could I have gone so long without seeing this!? And even so, while I knew many of the specifics about the ultimate twist, the execution was still breathtaking. A manic energy, fed by the performances of Del Toro and Baldwin in particular, gave the film a kind of buzz. It felt to me like it belongs in a collection with L.A. Confidential, True Romance, and Point Break. The star of Kevin Spacey has deservedly fallen far, but he has always been an absolute top-shelf artisan.
9. Joker (2019)
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Zazie Beetz, Glenn Fleshler
Probably my most-anticipated film of the early year due to my undying affections for great acting. Joaquin Phoenix is simply an astounding thespian and one of the truly great emotive actors of this generation. The story of Joker was not quite as developed as I might have hoped and the direction of the character wasn’t to my specific desires either. In fact, I wrote a review of the film (which will be released on The Buzz probably early next year) in which I dive into these gripes a little. However, Phoenix’s performance is gigantic and he covered many sins.
8. Warrior (2011)
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn
I’d watch Tom Hardy fold laundry, so I was watching through parts of his filmography this year. I had zero expectations for Warrior and I was completely blown away. The interplay between Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte was some of the best relational acting I saw in 2020. If Hardy announced tomorrow he was quitting acting and joining UFC, this film made me a believer he’d be at the top of his class in no time. If you like MMA, like good acting, have brothers, or have a pulse – you should watch this film.
7. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Jean Reno
Currently my “best film of 2020” Spike’s latest joint was quite interesting. Lindo was inspired, giving his all to a conflicting and compelling portrait of a modern broken man. Chadwick’s role has aged in a poignant way as the one who didn’t grow old. The film went off the rails a couple times, but still spoke with a clear voice. Spike’s talent behind the camera has stood the test of time and I’m excited to see what’s next.
6. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones, Rebecca Hall
I’m a sucker for pseudo-historical event dramas. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware it’s not history. But the drama we can draw out of real people, doing real things is one of the reasons I studied history in my collegiate life and continue to have a deep appreciation for it. Sheen and Langella developed a synergy which was really an intense awkwardness that made the script feel as natural as possible. Peter Morgan is no Aaron Sorkin, but the screenplay had that same “look at how smart these people are” feel which I actually kind of like. Ron Howard is a criminally underappreciated director, this fantastic film is probably just outside his top 5.
5. Malcolm X (1992)
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington, Delroy Lindo, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Albert Hall, Theresa Randle, Al Freeman Jr
In preparation for Da 5 Bloods I watched Spike’s greatest achievement. Malcolm was a fascinating and complicated man and while Spike had a transparent agenda (in my opinion) I feel he treated his subject with respect and did the narrative justice. Denzel is a supreme talent, dominating any role, and from what I’ve gathered needed every ounce of that gravity to capture who Malcolm was. Another example of pseudo-history, I’d encourage anyone that views it to allow the film to be a launching pad into a study of the man and the world he was a part of.
4. JoJo Rabbit (2019)
Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant
As you can see, I typically catch up on the prior year’s Academy Award winners after the fact. Taika’s period piece was a delightful experience. I’m very wary of child-actors but the two at the center of this story were fabulous. Scarlett proved yet again she’s not simply a “pretty-face kicking people” type-cast actress and has significant range. Taika has solidified his place in the “must-watch” category for directing. Not many films on this list made me as happy as this one.
3. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal
JoJo made me happy, Fruitvale had the opposite effect. When researching for my Director Title Belt I looked at Ryan Coogler’s career and became aware of this, his first feature, and set out to watch it. It’s hardly history, but the details are not supposed to be historical fact, they are supposed to shed light on the humanity of Jordan’s character. And they do so beautifully. Michael B’s cheery, potential-laden personality plays sickeningly against the ominous feel of the film as it marches towards the injustice of reality. Watch it.
2. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II, Alex Sharp, JC MacKenzie, Ben Shenkman
I know, I said Da 5 Bloods was my top 2020 film, and it is. But, I enjoyed watching The Trial more. A film built for a nerd like me, Sorkin’s pseudo-historic analysis of the protests outside of the DNC in 1968 has a LOADED cast, “look at this smart guy” writing, and some pitch-perfect performances from Keaton, Langella, Rylance, and more. My only real complaint is it hard to see Cohen looking up to Redmayne – the age differential was confusing to me – but otherwise, I was deep into this experience. SBC steals the show, and with a cursory look at the historical events Sorkin was lightly referencing, Abbie Hoffman is the most interesting player of the bunch. Netflix has churned out some really generic, assembly line crap this year, but every once in a while their billions are used for some good – and I appreciate them for it.
1. 1917 (2019)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Billy Postlethwaite, Mark Strong, Daniel Mays
All due respect to Parasite, and I did enjoy it, 1917 was the best film of 2019. Stunning visuals combined with an almost point-of-view experience of World War I made this the most visceral and engaging film I’ve seen in some time. MacKay and Chapman were brilliant as vulnerable, scared, yet determined and ultimately lucky avatars for every fighting man from the “War to End All Wars.”