Ryan’s 10 Favorite Films of 2020

There isn’t much to say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said. It was a crazy year, filled with highs and far too many lows, as it was for so many people. I suppose I should start off this list by saying that I didn’t get a chance to see every film I wanted to. There were times this past year when the simple thought of sitting down and watching a movie was daunting, and the thought of writing about said movie was even more exhausting. So, for that reason, there were a lot of films that passed by unwatched. Films that would have undoubtedly wound up on this list. Films like The Sound of Metal, Minari, Nomadland, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Black Bear and Pixar’s Soul. These are just a handful of films that, even though I personally haven’t (but wish I had) seen, should be watched by all, because they offer a personal or diverse perspective. I wanted to mention them, because even though I was too lazy or emotionally drained to give them a chance, doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Film is my favourite medium because it can entertain, provoke thoughts or ideas, make us feel unalone, make us cry, make us laugh, or in those rare cases, all of the above. I promise to do better next year, but since I literally have to post this in a few hours, let’s delve right into my Top 10 Favourite Movies of 2020! 

Lili Reinhart as Grace Town in Richard Tanne’s Chemical Hearts.

Chemical Hearts / Dir. Richard Tanne

Okay, not a great start, but hear me out. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an absolute sucker for the “high-school love story” genre. The Spectacular Now (2013) and Five Feet Apart (2019) rank among my all-time favourite movies, so when I heard Amazon Studios was releasing a teenage heart-throb starring Lili Reinhart (Riverdale, Hustlers) and Austin Abrams (Euphoria), I was honestly pretty excited. And I realize that these types of movies are typically written exactly the same, can glorify toxic behaviour, and set unrealistic expectations for young people but dammit, I don’t care. Sometimes turning our brains off and sobbing uncontrollably for 90+ minutes is what we all need, and the truth is that Chemical Hearts isn’t a bad choice. It follows aspiring writer Henry Page (Abrams) and new girl Grace Town (Reinhart) as they form an unlikely romance that is threatened to be torn apart by Grace’s unresolved trauma over her boyfriend’s death. Amidst some cringey dialogue, Chemical Hearts has some genuinely powerful moments, solid performances from Abrams and Reinhart, and a contemporary soundtrack (Take Care by Beach House is among the most noteworthy). Chemical Hearts just has an overall vibe to it that I can’t explain, but it made me feel something that movies seldom ever do. 

Diane Lane as Margaret Blackledge and Kevin Costner as George Blackledge in Thomas Bezucha’s Let Him Go.

Let Him Go / Dir. Thomas Bezucha

When I wrote my full review for Let Him Go a few months back (you can read it here), I predicted that it would inevitably wind up on my Top 10 list. Well, here we are. I’ll keep this short, since I’ve already talked about it at length. Let Him Go is a dramatic revenge thriller starring Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as George and Margaret Blackledge. Years after the death of their son, their daughter-in-law marries into a dangerous off-grid family, taking George and Margaret’s grandson, the only memory they have left of their late son, with her. What starts as a slow burning quest for family, turns into a bloody and suspenseful thrillride with a surprising amount of character depth by the third act. This is easily one of Costner and Lane’s best performances, and Leslie Manville is also commendable as the menacing and ruthless villain. There’s not much more I can say about this one, but I recommend it to anyone looking for an intense and character-driven western. 

Pete Davidson as Scott in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island.

The King of Staten Island / Dir. Judd Apatow

I’ve always been a massive Judd Apatow fan. Something about the way he approaches comedy with a depressive point of view has always spoken to me (I should probably see someone about that). This is 40 (2012) and Funny People (2009) are two of my favourite movies, even though some people criticize Apatow for his self-indulgent runtimes, and The King of Staten Island is no exception; it’s long, which results in a messy plot that lacks substance at times. But it’s also an intimate and heartfelt portrait of Pete Davidson’s life, and a love letter to his dad, who died as a fireman during the 9/11 attacks. Davidson, Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), Bill Burr (F is for Family), and Maude Apatow (Euphoria) are a great and hilarious ensemble; I was particularly excited to see Bill Burr in his first live-action leading role, as he’s been a comedian I’ve followed for some time now, and even got the chance to see live once (not relevant to this review, I just like bringing it up as often as I can). At the end of the day, The King of Staten Island is far from Apatow’s best work, but serves as a delightful stepping stone for Pete Davidson. 

Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man.

The Invisible Man / Dir. Leigh Whannell

Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man is a film that feels like it’s from 2019, because it’s the only one on this list that I actually saw in theatres. Remember theatres? Growing up in a horror household, Universal’s Classic Monsters were a staple, and I remember the Invisible Man always being my favourite character. Whether it was H.G. Wells’ classic novel, or Claude Rains portrayal in the 1933 adaptation, I always found the Invisible Man to be the sleekest monster, simply because he was the only one that wasn’t a monster. The 2020 The Invisible Man follows Cecilia Kass, played by Elisabeth Moss, as she is tormented by her abusive ex-boyfriend, who has invented a technology that renders him invisible. It’s a twisted departure from the original story, and works well as an intensely effective psychological thriller. I haven’t seen Elisabeth Moss in many things (I’ve been meaning to start The Handmaid’s Tale for some time now), but if her performance is even half of what it is in this, then I may need to start it ASAP. Moss gives a heart wrenching performance as Cecelia, a victim of abuse who is trying to rebuild her life, only for it to be torn apart by an invisible figure that no one believes is there. It also has one of the most jaw-dropping moments I saw all year. All in all, I’ve seen The Invisible Man on two occasions, both of which were in theatres. It was a great experience, but I’m not sure how effective this film would be were I to watch it at home, on the small screen. Perhaps I’ll give it a third watch someday soon! 

Molly Gordon as Maya and Rachel Sennott as Danielle in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby.

Shiva Baby / Dir. Emma Seligman

Easily the most random and surprising film on this list, Shiva Baby isn’t something I was expecting to see this year, but luckily got the chance to catch a viewing of it during Inside Out in October. What I got was a hilariously awkward and chaotic drama about Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young woman who runs into her sugar daddy while attending a Jewish Shiva with her family. Shiva Baby has all the recognizable tropes of a coming-of-age, but is more so a story about how we can still lack direction even after we’ve come-of-age, which is exactly the reason Shiva Baby ended up on this list. Too often do we see films about young people coming into their own, but rarely do we see films about where to go next. I’m 22, and have been living in the “real world” for some time now, but still I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing with my life. Sometimes all we can do is take it day by day. On top of that, Shiva Baby is just a roller-coaster ride of a film, constantly throwing metaphorical curve balls at our main character Danielle, who approaches everything with wit and a perfect sense of dry humor. I haven’t seen much of Rachel Sennott or director Emma Seligman, but you can tell when something is the start of a very long and successful career. There’s a lot more I could say about Shiva Baby, from the horror-like score to Danielle’s chemistry with Maya (Molly Gordon, Booksmart), but for now, I’ll leave it at this: Go watch it! 

Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone in Cory Finley’s Bad Education.

Bad Education / Dir. Cory Finley 

I still remember seeing Thoroughbreds (2017) for the first time at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and being thoroughly impressed by Cory Finley’s directorial style (sorry for the pun, I’ll try harder next time). It was the perfect blend of dark humour and action, wrapped together tightly in a coming-of-age drama. For Cory Finley’s follow-up, we have Bad Education, which depicts the true story of an embezzlement scheme that swept a Long Island school board in the early 2000’s. The film stars Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman), Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Geraldine Viswanathan (The Broken Hearts Gallery). I went into this movie not knowing that it was based on a true story (or really anything about it, for that matter) and I’m thankful for that. I got to watch the whole story unfold, just like the characters in the movie do. And let me tell you, there are more than a few twists and turns along the way. As per Finley’s style, Bad Education is rife with subtle humour, and we’re given nearly unrecognizable performances from Jackman and Janney.

Cristin Milioti as Sarah and Andy Samberg as Nyles in Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs.

Palm Springs / Dir. Max Barbakow

Palm Springs came out at the perfect time for me; I had just recently finished How I Met Your Mother for the first time, so my obsession with Cristin Milioti was still fresh. (Still pissed about that finale, but whatever). And having been a fan of Andy Samberg from his music and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it seemed as though these two would make the perfect duo. And they do! Milioti and Samberg have undeniable chemistry in Palm Springs, which follows two strangers at a Palm Springs wedding who get caught in a cosmic time loop. This movie might have fallen flat had it gone the way of Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, and shown our characters both waking up in the time loop on Day 1. Palm Springs benefits from showing us two different perspectives; Sarah (Milioti), who is new to the time loop and desperately wants to get home, and pessimistic Nyles (Samberg), who has been in the loop for so long that he no longer cares about existence. It’s a fresh take on a familiar gimmick, and while touching on a few thought-provoking topics, also gives it’s two charismatic actors more room to do what they do best: Have fun! Also, it’s worth noting that the setting in this movie is so aesthetically pleasing. The colours blend together nicely, making Palm Springs the movie equivalent of a HappyLight. 

Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back.

The Way Back / Dir. Gavin O’Connor

The Way Back is a movie that hits close to home. I’m someone that has dealt with alcohol abuse before, and have watched people close to me suffer from it as well. You can imagine my surprise when I went into The Way Back thinking it was an inspiring story about a basketball team, only to find myself sobbing for the better part of two hours. Not to say that The Way Back isn’t inspiring, but it reminded me of the time I watched Southpaw (2015); all I wanted was a simple boxing movie. Well, replace boxing with basketball and Rachel McAdams dying with alcoholism, and you have The Way Back. Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) stars as Jack Cunningham, a former basketball star who gave up fame for drugs and alcohol, but is called back to his alma mater to coach the new team. First of all, I don’t understand why some people bash Ben Affleck’s acting, because he is nothing short of amazing in this. Affleck has stated that this was an incredibly personal role for him, and you can tell, because he gives it his all. Everything from the score to the cinematography is incredible. There are a few brief moments of annoying camerawork, but they didn’t bother me because in the end, The Way Back is a powerful story about someone who has lost everything, but is trying to find their way back. 

Mads Mikkelsen as Martin in Thomas Vinterbeg’s Another Round.

Another Round / Dir. Thomas Vinterberg

Another Round is one of the last films I watched before finalizing this list, and it immediately skyrocketed to the top. It is also the first film of Thomas Vinterberg’s I’ve seen, but that is soon to change. Another Round follows a group of school teachers, who have lost their passion both in the classroom, and in their marriages and social lives. They decide to test the theory of a Norwegian psychiatrist, that states maintaining a consistent low blood alcohol level will improve their professional and social lives. What starts as a dark dramedy and an interesting look at the way excessive drinking is normalized within Danish culture, quickly escalates as the experiment goes off the rails. Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, and Magnus Millang all give fantastic performances, that are highlighted by Vinterberg’s expert directing; there are so many shots in this film that I still find myself thinking about. As someone who enjoys drinking (maybe a little too much sometimes), I appreciated the way Another Round doesn’t glorify excessive drinking but also doesn’t demoralize it. Alcohol, just like anything else that’s deemed “bad for us”, has both positive and negative effects, and I liked how by the end, our characters still enjoy a beer or two, even after having learned their lesson. This also has one of my favorite endings in a film all year; all I’ll say is that Mads Mikkelsen can dance!

Ben Schwartz and Thomas Middleditch in Ryan Polito’s Middleditch & Schwartz.

Middleditch & Schwartz / Dir. Ryan Polito

“It’s a classic “what the fuck” plotline!”

Right, so not technically a film, but I just couldn’t write a Top 10 list without mentioning one of my absolute favorite comedy specials to come out of the last decade. Not since watching John Mulaney’s New In Town for the very first time, have I experienced such joy from a stage performance. Middleditch & Schwartz is a three-part, completely improvised special performed by Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog). Beginning each episode with an impromptu prompt from an audience member, the two comedians create an entirely on-the-spot universe of wacky characters and scenarios, from a college classroom to a bathroom at JFK Airport. It’s so mesmerizing to watch these two get utterly lost in the insane storylines they come up with. Middleditch & Schwartz is easily my favorite thing to come out 2020, and I will continue to recommend it to people for as long as I continue to rewatch it (which will probably be always)!