In the world of cinema, just like everything else these days, we have all had to embrace change. What used to be an experience going to the theaters has been put on hold for what feels like an eternity. Viewing film via streaming service has become the new normal and our living rooms, the new theaters, our kitchens, the concession stands. Although location changes the viewing experience, it does not mean that we still don’t get to indulge in something special.
Personally, there were a plethora of films that I may not have sought out had I continued to patronize theaters week after week, seeking out the next blockbuster hit. It was an opportunity to see some great films that I wasn’t necessarily looking for. Don’t get me wrong, my top 10 is still flushed with warm, feel-good films. Who doesn’t want to feel uplifted through the year we’ve had to traverse? Simultaneously, I have appreciated films that sought to explore something deeper and help us navigate this tumultuous time. As we say here at Spinning the Reel; Let’s dive on in.
10. Run – Aneesh Chaganty
Following the success of Searching, Aneesh Chaganty is back with another testament to his ability to craft immersive cinema. Run was my first experience of Chaganty's filmmaking and I only want more. The plot is simple, wheelchair bound teenager, Chloe (Kiera Allen), anxiously awaits her college admission letter, all the while her mother, Carol (Sarah Paulson), has other plans for her daughter. When Chloe starts to take notice of her change in medication, the tension ratchets up and Run becomes a full fledged thriller. In a way, this is a film of confinement, confinement to Chloe’s wheelchair, to her home. It’s that use of space that really grabs a hold. Getting twisted up in the plot as it unravels doesn’t really matter. The film is innovative and delivers those moments that push you to the edge of your seat. Kiera Allen, in her film debut, and Sarah Paulson deliver stellar performances. Run is a fun, refreshing film that caught me by surprise.
Run is available to stream on Hulu
9. System Crasher – Nora Fingscheidt
One of the biggest changes I pursued in my film viewing for 2020 was to seek out more foreign movies. International cinema is something I had never taken much time for, and thus not developed an appreciation for. System Crasher centers around 9-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel), an orphaned girl who has fallen through the cracks of the foster system time and time again. This is a challenging movie to sit through due to its repetitive nature. Benni is consistently a little monster and the chaos she brings to herself and others can be frustrating. Though rooting for Benni can be a draining experience, both physically and emotionally, her story is told with such care. Helena Zengel’s lead performance has a lot to do with this. She is a force of nature and it’s impossible to look away any time she’s on screen. Watching System Crasher is a thought-provoking experience, at times heart-wrenching and pity inducing, at others happy and hopeful. We see that no one is to blame for Benni’s circumstances. All I can say is that this movie was impactful for me and a great example of something I may have missed before.
System Crasher is available to stream on Netflix
8. Shithouse – Cooper Raiff
Sometimes, there are moments in film so relatable that you just find yourself thinking: “That is so true.” Shithouse, a lo-fi, low budget, and seemingly simple film delivers many such moments. Lonely college freshman Alex (Cooper Raiff) has been closing himself off since he arrived at school. As he navigates his new world away from home, struggling with growing up, he finds himself at a party where he connects with and falls for his DA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula). College is a formative period in a young person’s life and it is so rare to see it articulated in such a genuine way onscreen. Shithouse is authentic and honest, the rare film that clearly comes from a place of understanding. What a delight to see a new artist -- this is Cooper Raiff’s directorial debut -- express that we don’t need to shrink our personalities to become who we think we ought to be. Real growth can come by just embracing who we already are. Truthfully, I think this film is just a rare combination of heartfelt, laughable, and relatable. There is a lot to enjoy and feel with this one.
Shithouse is available to rent or purchase on most platforms
7. Boys State – Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine
Like foreign cinema, documentaries were another subsect of film I wanted to consume more of in 2020. On the surface Boys State isn’t something I wouldn’t expect to enjoy, politics has never been my thing. I’ve never been one to want to talk about it, never been engaged by it, and never wanted to be involved with it. However, in this documentary film there is something intriguing to unfold and discuss. The film follows an unusual political experiment. 1,000 17-year-old boys join together to build a representative government. At its core, Boys State is a showcase of politics as nothing but a game to be won. Perhaps the film is summed up best by a late quote: “Ben is a great politician, but being a great politician is not a compliment either.” Boys State really has me staring in the face of a failed US political system. Had this sort of experiment been conducted back in my high school days, I would have enjoyed this. Sometimes appreciation for something is tough to come by before you experience it. Over the course of Boys State, these boys come to figure the process out. For that reason, I find Boys State hopeful.
Boys State is available on Apple TV+
6. Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee
Some say that timing is everything. In a year plagued by social injustice, this Spike Lee film warrants praise for not only portraying the trauma of war, but the trauma of those removed from history. Da 5 Bloods is a character study of 4 Black Vietnam veterans who are outraged over their lost commander, lost gold, and lost place in society. The movie is filled by Spike Lee’s iconic filmmaking as he intertwines historical records with his own narrative. Da 5 Bloods is a story carried quite passionately by actors like Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman. It’s a tale of friendship that is gut wrenching, funny, and packs a punch with regard to contemporary issues facing America. Spike Lee could never have specifically predicted what we would be facing in 2020, but again, the nature of his filmmaking helped shine light on the ongoing situation.
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix
5. Soul – Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
I have and always will be a self-proclaimed Disney boy. Pixar has always delivered on their efforts to create warm, charming, humorous films. Their movies examine how we might interpret complex subjects and reflect them back onto our own lives. Soul is no exception and provided exactly the introspection needed in such a dire year. The film centers on Joe Gardner (Jaimi Foxx), a music teacher seeking his big break in the jazz world. Just as he gets his opportunity, he dies and finds himself a mentor to an unborn soul, #22 (Tina Fey). She seems to be missing that final spark that would give cause for her existence. In seeking 22’s purpose, Joe begins to contemplate his own life. It has not gone as he intended, it’s mundane and ordinary, but he comes to understand that life is simply worth living. The complexity and layers this film has to offer make it the most mature Pixar endeavor to date. I am still constantly reconsidering it. All I can say is that we shouldn’t get so caught up in the moment, the work or the thought that you haven’t yet amounted to what you thought you’d be in life. Living is a process, one that lasts a lifetime and one that you must simply enjoy.
Soul is available to stream on Disney+
4. Mangrove – Steve McQueen
It is impossible to talk about Steve McQueen’s Mangrove without mentioning the entirety of his Small Axe series. Each film is quite special and cuts deep into an underrepresented culture. Every aspect, from the camera work to the writing, the moments of silence to the music all represent the lives and struggles faced by the West Indian communities of Britain. The anthology is an impressive feat, but nowhere is McQueen’s direction put on display better than in this courtroom drama. After arrests are made at a protest over persistent police harassment at the Mangrove restaurant, Frank (Shaun Parkes) and 8 other individuals stand trial at the Old Bailey courthouse in West London. For those unaware, this trial really happened. I think that authenticity is what drives home the innate frustration I felt watching it. But it also shows the beauty of Black West Indian culture. Never was I more moved than when everyone was dancing outside the Mangrove restaurant, embracing their shared identity. All in all, fear, rage, frustration, helplessness and hope are all feelings elicited by this roller coaster of a film. A tragic showcase that even in victory, we can do better, we must do better.
Mangrove and entirety of Small Axe anthology is available on Amazon Prime
3. Sound of Metal – Darius Marder
Often we don’t appreciate what we have until it's gone. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer, is made to come to terms with this idea himself in Sound of Metal. This drama takes us through his life as he suddenly loses his hearing. He’s into a new battle of addiction as he learns to cope with what his life will be. Riz Ahmed puts on the performance of a lifetime. Through his actions, facial expressions, and embrace of silence, we feel for his character. In some ways, it's poetic to the year we have just endured. One in which we have all had to adapt to changing circumstances just as Ruben must. Ruben, a former drug addict, now faces a new type of addiction: to his own hearing. If he gets it back, perhaps his life can fall back into place. Maybe he can return to the way things used to be. We watch him tackle his grief and get an equal balance of joy and heartache in the process. Life takes unexpected turns and it is not always the easiest to manage. If we sit down, take a breath, and enjoy a moment of silence, we might find contentment in life under these new set of conditions. I was quite moved by Sound of Metal.
Sound of Metal is available to stream on Amazon Prime
2. Palm Springs – Max Barbakow
In a year plagued by doom and gloom, it was nice to find a good laugh. To release some endorphins from laughter is a good feeling. I like to laugh, and I make myself laugh more than I would like to admit. Palm Springs gives me that same feeling of enjoyment in so many ways. It’s premise is a riff on the formula pioneered by Groundhog Day. Two strangers, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), become stuck in a time loop together, living the same day over and over. The pair have electrifying chemistry and, personally, I find Andy Samberg to be quite a talented comedian. All the jokes land, and it is quite marvelous to see something refresh a storytelling concept we have seen before. Palm Springs shows us how to enjoy the monotony in life. The type of life we all seem to have been living during this pandemic. The relatability is why this joyous, heartfelt, charming film finds a way to lift spirits.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu
1.Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
There are times when describing your feelings for a film becomes difficult. Films that wrap you up in the emotions it creates. That wordless wonder is one of my favorite parts of film, to connect and be moved on such a level without rhyme or reason. Wolfwalkers was that film for me this year. Cartoon Saloons latest effort in their Irish folklore explores ideas of friendship and belonging. The story of two young girls, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh (Eva Whitaker), who have the magical ability to transform into wolves, Wolfwalkers depicts dynamic themes with incredible beauty and detail in gorgeous hand drawn style animation. Art of this medium has been underappreciated for some time and I‘m glad that it pairs up with the type of story that delivers something emotionally resonant for me. Earlier I said I love Pixar because their films are always warm, charming, and humorous. Wolfwalkers found a way to elicit those same feelings. From these stunning visuals to an inspiring story, this film delivers on it all and deserves all the praise for being something enjoyable for anyone who watches it.
Wolkwalkers is available to stream on AppleTV+
There you have it, my top 10 films of 2020. My own experience for films has come a long way this year, and my appreciation for this year’s top films reflects that change. My relationship to film continues to be a journey and as we say goodbye to 2020 I am truly excited for the future growth in what I personally enjoy with films.
As we embark onto 2021, I just want to take a moment to appreciate everyone for listening to the podcast or reading anything we do at STR. It’s something my cousin Evan and I started to just have fun talking about movies and has evolved over this year into an unexpected outlet for our own personal growth and connection. Hopefully along the way we have been able provide something meaningful to you and can continue to deliver that. I can only say thanks for any and all support.