Hello, readers! Congratulations! Many Netflix shows, Zoom meetings, and loaves of bread later, you have made it through 2020, and I am so proud of you. Turning on the news at any point last year was harrowing, but it’s important to remember the positives as well: the essential workers and everyday heroes, the reformation of our education systems, vaccines, volunteers, the increase of empathy, Australia’s fires were put out, the election ended, and the “Fireside Chat”-like press conferences from Governor Cuomo on the strength of New York. Also, 2020 was the year Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first international feature to do so.
Hunkering down at home due to the pandemic, I made the most out of my streaming services and caught up on some great movies released over the course of the year. Here are my top ten favorites. (Also, I didn’t realize it until making this list, but there is a recurring theme of social justice and political change in most of these films; unintentional, but a fitting theme for 2020.)
10. If Anything Happens, I Love You
As a student and soon-to-be teacher, it’s hard for me to separate my personal feelings from this film. But the way this movie emotionally resonated with me is also why it landed at my number 10. Co-executive produced by Laura Dern, and earning 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, this animated short film portrays a couple living in the aftermath of a school shooting at their daughter’s school. In a mere twelve minutes, the simple black and white animation powerfully depicts their grief and leaves you with a lump in your throat. As an educator, I hope this film’s message starts more conversations on the importance of eradicating school violence in the U.S.
9. His House
Fans of mythology and thrillers will love this one. This is a fantastically creepy story, with haunting special effects of the house’s creatures. His House centers around a South Sudanese couple seeking refuge in the U.K., after escaping their civil war-torn country and surviving a tragic boat accident. Their English caseworker, played by Matt Smith, provides the pair with a run-down house (that he repeatedly notes is larger than other homes provided) and expects them to assimilate to their new surroundings, or be sent back. Something in the walls begins to torment the husband, Bol. The spirit is also visible to his wife, Rial, but is more friendly towards her. She explains the “sea witch” intends to hold Bol accountable for his past misdeeds during their escape. Rial is also grieving the loss of a loved one and doesn’t feel as ready as Bol to leave her Sudanese culture behind. This is a story on refugeeism, cultural assimilation, and repentance.
If I had rewatched this movie, it would probably rank higher on my list. I recommend seeing this film in a dark, silent room. Trapped in my house during the height of COVID-19, I watched it on a small tv, with my dad loudly making dinner in the other room, and then chomping on salad next to me during the quiet scenes. If you were able to see John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place in a theater, remember being able to hear a pin drop? That is the ideal movie-watching environment for His House. Or at least save your crunchy salads for another film.
(On the flip side of watching this in such a casual setting, at one point I walked past the tv during a gory jumpscare, and it knocked me backward.)
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an honest, thought-provoking film. This independent drama tells the story of Autumn, a pregnant teenager traveling with her supportive cousin from Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion. The workplace sexual harassment shown as casual, everyday experiences for the young girls’ will make your toes curl, and fill you with disgust. This film accurately depicts how unglamorous and difficult this process is for Autumn. Before seeking a safe healthcare provider, there’s a raw scene that sticks out in my mind where she attempts to end the pregnancy herself in different unsafe ways out of desperation. Remarkably, the actress playing Autumn, Sidney Flanigan, had never even considered acting before this movie. She hopes Never Rarely Sometimes Always will shed light on the obstacles young women in the U.S. face accessing safe, legal abortions.
7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
This movie isn’t actually called Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but that’s more succinct than Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Like the title, this movie is ridiculous. With makeup disguises, costumes, and a fake ignorant personality, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat is a master of deceiving politicians, celebrities, and the everyday person into revealing their beliefs. Whatever fake sexist, racist, or chauvinist personality Borat puts out into the world, he attracts real Americans who support those views. Maria Bakalova plays Tutar, Borat’s caged teenage daughter in need of a husband. She keeps up with Cohen’s antics, offers a sweet father-daughter dynamic to the story, and even takes the spotlight away from Borat in some hilarious scenes (it’s hard not to feel some second-hand embarrassment watching that blood moon dance). Combining the comedy of Cohen and Bakalova, with random people reacting to odd situations, and the kindnesses brought out of strangers, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is one unique mockumentary to watch.
I won’t “spoil” the Rudy Giuliani interview for those who haven’t seen the film, and have managed to avoid the news discussions over his actions. But for those who are aware of the controversy surrounding him, in my opinion, whether or not he did that one particular action shouldn’t be the main concern. The entire interview between Tutar and Guliani (Bakalova is a 24-year-old actress playing a 15-year-old aspiring journalist) is uncomfortable as a whole. The interview is gross whether or not the one action was true. But, watch it for yourself, and form your own opinion.
6. The Social Dilemma
Some movies this year changed my everyday perspective. Granted, information on the dangers of social media usage lowering your mental health, invading your privacy, being programmed to be addicting, and being irresponsibly used for cyberbullying isn’t totally news. But even going into the documentary previously knowing the basics of its effects, after I watched this film (and also seeing “Snowden” for the first time, the 2013 dramatization of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing), it was enough to motivate me to limit my social media usage even further, turn off my phone more often, and stick a cover over my webcam. In this film, former CEOs and early designers of the largest tech companies explain social media algorithms, and how they track all of your scrolls and taps. The apps are designed to maximize the amount of time you spend using them, which also maximizes the number of advertisements they show you. To educate yourself on the intended and unintended consequences of infinitely scrolling through social media, or the monumental effect of Facebook on politics and government, check out this documentary on Netflix.
5. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin is the director and screenwriter behind this courtroom drama, based on the real-life trial of seven men involved in an uprising at Chicago's 1968 Democratic National Convention after a clash with police officers leads to violence at an originally peaceful countercultural protest. The casting in this movie is perfect. Eddie Redmayne plays Tom, one of the protest’s leaders, and a defendant. Tom acts very civilly, and more restrained than the other defendants, particularly compared to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman (if you’re not familiar with Hoffman, he was the Vietnam War protestor in Forrest Gump wearing an American flag shirt at the Washington Monument). Cohen is known for his political activist roles, such as his Borat character in movie #7 of this list. Alongside Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s witty comebacks to the ignorant comments and actions of their judge (who issued 175 contempt of court citations throughout the 5-month trial) are some of the movie’s best moments. The star-studded cast also includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, and Alex Sharp.
4. The Invisible Man
Elizabeth Moss is just phenomenal. Alongside her film and tv roles in The Handmaid’s Tale (my favorite), Shirley, Mad Men, Her Smell, and Us, her acting in The Invisible Man as Cecilia Kass, the ex-girlfriend of a psychotic scientist, deserves recognition as one of her best performances. The movie is vaguely inspired by the original 1933 science fiction movie The Invisible Man with Claude Rains (which still rocks by the way, and stars a 23-year-old Gloria Stuart, the old Rose in Titanic). But aside from a crazed scientist discovering a way to turn himself invisible, that is where the movies’ similarity ends. Despite the multitude of invisible man films made since 1933, The Invisible Man takes a new, modernized approach to the story, intertwining the #MeToo movement. Cecilia is a gaslighted ex-girlfriend, fighting off her abusive, controlling ex. This is a story on domestic violence and describes how real women in abusive relationships fear sounding “crazy” for speaking up for themselves. Known as “social thrillers,” some films not only have suspenseful thriller movie elements, but also serve as an important, critical commentary on society (as seen in In the Heat of the Night, Rosemary’s Baby, Get Out (check out the alternate ending’s plot twist), The Purge: Election Year, and Parasite). In my opinion, this movie’s take on the #MeToo movement categorizes it as an intriguing social thriller. Additionally, the special effects providing the illusion of invisibility are really creative and well-done. Moss’s acting skills combined with the special effects are reminiscent of how little the audience sees the actual shark in Jaws; you don't need to see something in order to know it’s there.
3. Sound of Metal
I did my first podcast with Story Screen’s Hot Takes on this movie! Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben, an unstable drummer who loses his hearing from performing in concerts. As a former addict, angered and volatile from the loss, he admits himself into a rehabilitation facility run by the Deaf community in order to stabilize himself and learn how to communicate with other Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. Ruben controls his addiction, learns sign language, and is taught the importance of not viewing Deafness as a disability. Ruben is played by the talented Riz Ahmed. Paul Raci plays Joe, the Deaf man running the rehab facility. Raci is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), meaning he is a hearing person raised by Deaf parents, so his sign language is fluent. Sound of Metal deserves an Oscar for Best Sound; the editing and special effects are incredible. The movie mimics for hearing audiences what different environments sound like for individuals with tinnitus, some residual hearing, and a cochlear implant. As someone who studies Deaf culture and is intermediately proficient in ASL, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. The film is enjoyable for both Deaf and hearing audiences and is in tune with the Deaf community’s value of preserving their minority culture.
This film changed the way I look at movies and tv shows. Everyone needs to see this documentary. Produced and narrated by filmmakers, actors, and other leaders of the entertainment industry who are transgender, this documentary teaches the importance of transgender representation in cinema. Since 80% of Americans do not personally know someone who is transgender, the media is a central source of information on what transgender people are like, and how others should treat them.
When a movie character finds out their romantic partner is transgender, does it reinforce the way people should react to trans people in real life? With repulsion? Humor? When a man is “tricked” into falling for a trans woman and realizes she is trans, he dramatically vomits everywhere (The Crying Game, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Naked Gun, Family Guy, and The Hangover Part II). Sometimes just a trans person’s entrance into a room is met with laughter as if their existence is a joke. Even if the character is not transgender, it still affects how trans people view themselves, and how others are trained by society to react to their appearance (as seen on The Flip Wilson Show, The Jeffersons, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Risky Business, and How I Met Your Mother).
Activist and actress Laverne Cox (the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award) recalls how for the longest time, whenever she walked onto a subway, people around her would suddenly burst into laughter. She believes that is a trained reaction due to how transgender characters are reacted to in movies and television shows by their peers.
Transgender characters are also commonly depicted as being murdered, or slowly dying in a hospital due to their hormones (NYPD Blue, Cold Case, Grey’s Anatomy, Code Black, and CSI: NY). Or they’re a psychotic killer (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Murder!).
Looking for something new to watch that includes positive representations of transgender characters? Check out Pose, A Fantastic Woman, Orange is the New Black, Paris is Burning, and The OA. For something child-friendly, filmmaker Lily Wachowski loves the 1957 Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?”. Historian Susan Stryker mentions it was the only positive transfeminine representation she saw on television as a child in the 60s.
Before revealing my number one pick, here are my other top picks for 2020, and some films I wasn’t as keen on for people to try to convince me otherwise.
Other Top Picks: A Secret Love, Crip Camp, Uncle Frank, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Wolfwalkers, Yes God Yes
Movies I Was Surprised to Dislike: Soul, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Tenet, Hamilton
1. Palm Springs
Groundhog’s Day, but better.
I went into this romantic comedy thinking it would be so cheesy, full of wedding clichés, that I would probably turn it off after ten minutes. Why watch a Groundhog’s Day type plot during a pandemic, when every day at home already feels the same (hence the coining of the term “Blursday”)?
But holy cow. This movie beat all the odds set against it. Cristin Millioti and Andy Samberg are hilarious, the writing is phenomenal, and the soundtrack rocks (particularly Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” during the finale). Palm Springs is the perfect comedic relief I needed to make it through 2020.
In this fresher, feel-good variation of a Groundhog’s Day or Russian Doll time-loop, Sarah and Nyles are infinitely reliving Sarah’s sister’s wedding day. The cast is awesome, including J.K. Simmons as a mysterious former acquaintance (it’s difficult to describe his lead role without spoilers), Camilla Mendes as Tala (the bride), and Peter Gallagher as Sarah and Tala’s father. Nyles and Sarah have different outlooks on the time-loop. Nyles feels that if every day is the same, then time is meaningless, and nearly everything else is meaningless. Over time, he sleeps with everyone at the wedding party, tries to kill himself repeatedly (there’s a running joke that if you want to “die” to restart the day, do it right, or you spend the rest of the day in ICU), and he enjoys shocking people to amuse himself. Meanwhile, Sarah wants “tomorrow to be tomorrow,” embracing the circumstances and makes the most of the extra time to the best of her ability.
In general, my favorite movies tend to be movies with a little bit of everything. In 2019, my top pick was Parasite. Parasite has suspense, horror, comedy, drama, and satire. Palm Springs is the perfect mixture of comedic relief, science fiction, romance, action, and the hopeful messages I needed to survive 2020. Will Palm Springs win Best Picture at the 2021 Academy Awards? I doubt it will even be nominated. But did it fill me with joy every time I watched it during one of the darkest years? Absolutely. For making me smile in 2020, and continuing my hope for a better tomorrow when every dreary day felt the same in quarantine, thank you, Palm Springs.
A Beacon resident since 2001, Sophia is pursuing a Master’s degree in Education at SUNY New Paltz.