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Dec 28 2020
Boy Culture's 20 Best Movies Of 2020 Comments (0)

Sound-of-metal-riz-ahmed-hearing-deaf-movies-best-2020-drummer-boycultureBoy in the band (Image via Amazon)

This has been a strange year for film, with few flicks spending so much as a week in a proper cinema. If you were wondering whether this exploding of the traditional rollout might lead to more arthouse films being just as strongly considered for year-end acclaim as Hollywood star vehicles, my own list wound up reflecting both.

Here, in reverse order, are my Top 20 films of 2020:

Forty-year-old-version-netflix-boycultureShe's gotta have art. (Image via Netflix)

(20) The Forty-Year-Old Version  Playwright Radha Blank wrote, directed and stars in this charming mid-life crisis movie about a woman who's sick of being overlooked, and who is at first perplexed herself about her true artistic voice. The fictionalized Radha is bold, funny, horny and temperamental, plus a true artist, willing to try anything — including a stint as a rapper named RadhaMUSPrime. The Forty-Year-old Version is one of the year's most offbeat and original stories, uplifting and uproarious, even as it performs metaphorical messy battlefield surgery to help explain why Black women are exploited in the arts and pitted against each other. (Netflix)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Netflix

Mason-circus-of-books-boycultureThe year's least annoying Karen (Image via Netflix)

(19) Circus of Books  One of the year's most unabashedly delightful docs, Circus of Books is about the straight Jewish couple, Karen and Barry Mason, who ran L.A.'s notorious and indispensable Circus of Books gay-porn bookstore. Seeing what it was like to be a part of a family whose business was helping gay men get off — and yet whose parents were far from sexual libertines — is a riot from beginning to end, and yet the director, their daughter Rachel Mason, also allows the audience to ponder her religious mom's fractured nature. Funny, sexy and uniquely American, Circus of Books chronicles the death of a small business, the rapid transformation of an entire industry and the history of an unconventional family. It is also a quirky entry into the wealth of films about the Jewish experience. Ryan Murphy stepped in to make this little film-fest film fly, proving he does do some things right. Turning! (Netflix)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Netflix

Sorry-we-missed-you-boycultureThe gig economy is up. (Image via eONe)

(18) Sorry We Missed You  Fabled director Ken Loach (who directed the classic Kes and the two Palme d'Or winners The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake) offers a timely and intense look at the daily tragedies for members of the working class, including the constant struggle to avoid the very real threat of abject poverty. The octogenarian has always been known for his championing of social justice, and how better to communicate it than via this unadorned portrait of delivery driver Ricky (Kris Hitchen), his home-care nurse wife Abbie (award-worthy newcomer Debbie Honeywood) and their disaffected son (Rhys Stone)? Family storytelling at its finest, Sorry We Missed You is also a brutal critique of the status quo. (Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming at Kino Now & on home video

Boyculture-news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1Precious cargo (Image via Universal)

(17) News of the World  I'm not predisposed to westerns — or to mainstream prestige Tom Hanks starrers — but this almost-too-beautiful, spare western by Paul Greengrass had me suckered in from the beginning. Hanks employs all of his understated charm as a journeyman news reader in the days following the Civil War, a man eaten away by loneliness for his far-away wife. He feels morally obligated to return an orphaned child (Helena Zengel) to her kin after she is rescued from yearslong captivity by the Kiowa, sensing that she needs new, better memories and a chance at as normal a life as 1800s America can afford. Hanks and Zengel make movie magic along their arduous journey, which is peppered with gunslinging, a run-in with a pedophile villain, a runaway horse and an intelligent attempt to make sense of just how deeply the war sabotaged the American experiment. (Universal)

AVAILABILITY: In theaters now & coming to Netflix in 2021

Minari-boycultureGrowing pains (Image via A24)

(16) Minari  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's handling of Minari, Lee Isaac Chung's drama about a family of South Korean immigrants, has stirred controversy; the dialogue in the American-directed, American-made film is largely in Korean, so it has been relegated to the Best Foreign Language Film category, rather than Best Motion Picture: Drama, at  the 2021 Golden Globes. Hopefully, the outcry will bring more attention to the movie, which lovingly portrays the desperate push by Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) to emerge from the gritty, monotonous world of sexing chickens via a self-run farm specializing in Korean-friendly goods in Arkansas. Their American Dreams are divergent, though, and their young son is experiencing the worst of the growing pains. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Monica's eccentric mother, Soon-ja, played, in an Oscar-worthy performance, by Youn Yuh-jung. It's a universal story with unexpected touches that would play in any language. (A24)

AVAILABILITY: Out now, coming February 21 to more theaters

KajillionaireThe bend is near. (GIF via Focus Features)

(15) Kajillionaire  One of 2020's trippiest is Miranda July's Kajillionaire, about a family of off-the-gridders who squat, plot, calculate and steal their way through life on the fringes of society. Reminiscent of 2018's Shoplifters, the film stars Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio Dyne (don't even ask how she got the name), the painfully socially maladjusted daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger). Old Dolio is a girl who never had hugs, let alone birthday parties, growing up, and who is only just beginning to question the conspiracy theories her parents have solemnly preached her whole life. Things lurch toward a showdown when the family initially accepts a newcomer, bubbly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their midst. Melanie is eager to be a part of something rebellious ... but this? However you do the math, this movie is money. (Focus Features)

AVAILABILITY: Coming to theaters January 25

Small-axe-boycultureA lesson in great filmmaking (Image via Amazon Prime)

(14) Small Axe  Steve McQueen's series Small Axe won top honors from the L.A. Film Critics in spite of being five separate films of varying lengths. I've decided to include it as one film here, too, though I think the effectiveness varies from episode to episode. The anthology explores the world of West Indian immigrants in London through the '60s and '70s, launching with Mangrove, which documents the real-life harassment London police rained on a Black-owned restaurant for many years. Shaun Parkes plays the establishment's defiant owner, with Malachi Kurby and Letitia Wright as passionate outside activists who eventually become embroiled in the Mangrove's plight, all the while pushing for justice on a larger scale. It's a gripping story that inspires rage at the system, and is immediately followed by Lovers Rock, a music-drenched romantic sequence that offers a more escapist, nostalgic snapshot. It is drenched in Black joy, and has been singled out as the finest of the bunch. Though it was not my favorite, newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn emerges a star, the film deserves every award for hair and costumes, and there is an undeniable poetry to it. Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, one of the first Black members of the London Metropolitan Police, and Alex Wheatle stars Sheyi Cole as the famed novelist in the story of his arrest and unfair imprisonment following the 1981 Brixton Uprising; these two films make for compelling companion pieces, and continue to series' excellence. Finally, there is my favorite, Education, which fictionalizes the real-life policy of London councils of the '70s to shuttle many Black children out of schools and into non-educational facilities, where they would learn nothing, leaving them unequipped for life as adults. Sharlyne White is outstanding as a mother almost too busy surviving to realize her son is having his chances ripped away out from under her. The sum is transcendent, even if you may not find each part equally compelling. For that reason, I personally think Small Axe works best watched in a binge. (Amazon)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Boyculture-A counter-culture Meatballs (Image via Netflix)

(13) Crip Camp  I saw this documentary months ago, but it sticks with me. Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, the film — produced by the Obamas — makes use of footage shot in 1971 at Camp Jened, a New York state summer camp designed as a sort of hippie-run camp for children with disabilities, a revolutionary concept in an era when people with disabilities could count on few concessions from a world that simultaneously shunned and disadvantaged them. Watching the campers grow into advocates after discovering their self-worth (and sexualities) is a joy. This documentary is both informative and undeniably entertaining, a truly powerful, and empowering, film. (Netflix)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Netflix

Borat-period-cotillion-boycultureIn some ways, it's a period piece. (Image via Amazon Prime)

(12) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm  Sacha Baron Cohen pulled off the impossible with this comedy, teaming up with director Jason Woliner to turn a sequel to his 2006 mockumentary classic Borat into something simultaneously funnier and more culturally resonant. Woliner and Cohen somehow took the goofball premise of a clueless cultural ambassador from Kazakhstan's painfully funny interactions with unsuspecting Americans and, during an unforeseen pandemic, crafted it into a sharp documenting of American anti-Semitism, complacency, idiocy and — in smaller doses — compassion. Best of all, they provided 24-year-old Bulgarian ingénue Maria Bakalova with enough space to turn in a star-making performance as Borat's daughter and sidekick, Tutar Sagdiyev. The duo's appearance at a debutante ball alone makes this an instant comedy classic. By far my favorite Rudy Giuliani movie. (Amazon)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Saoirse-Ronan-Kate-Winslet-Ammonite-boyculture-2_2020_11_17_12_44_34A little girl culture (Image via Lionsgate)

(11) Ammonite  Francis Lee's 2017 film God's Own Country was often held up as a less glamorized alternative to that year's Call Me by Your Name. Lee continues to dazzle with his deft handling of queer love — and lust — in Ammonite, a romantic drama starring Kate Winslet as British paleontologist Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, who becomes her lover after the two are thrust together by Murchison's inattentive husband (James McArdle). The film looks remote, gray and cold, but its protagonists are a surface-scratch away from quite the opposite. Much is left unsaid, even if their first union is one of the most explicit lesbian love scenes to date. Winslet has her Oscar, and this is a reminder why. Achingly beautiful. Let's count ourselves lucky that James Corden didn't snag the lead, and even luckier that Fiona Shaw is on hand as Elizabeth Philpot, an old flame who still flickers brightly, if distantly. (Lionsgate)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Boyculture-First-Cow-1-1600x900-c-defaultMilking it for all it was worth (Image via A24)

(10) First Cow  Kelly Reichardt's minimalist slice of Americana was one of the year's slowest-moving revelations for me. It opens with a modern woman (Reichardt veteran Alia Shawkat) unearthing a pair of intertwined skeletons, and unfolds as the story of an itinerant cook, Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), and his unlikely cohort, a Chinese man fleeing a murder rap, who team up to make and sell scrumptious biscuits, the likes of which the locals have never tasted. The only hitch is the milk must be stolen by night from the only nearby cow, who happens to belong to Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the richest man for many miles around. It's a risky game in a time (the 1820s) when theft usually resulted in frontier justice, and the micro story is maximally exciting thanks to Reichardt's leisurely, perceptive gaze. (Image via A24)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming on Amazon Prime

Dick-johnson-boycultureBetter off dad (Image via Netflix)

(9) Dick Johnson Is Dead  Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, upon learning her smart, successful, psychiatrist dad is in the early stages of dementia, a disease that had already claimed her mother, made a bold decision: She invited him to stage his own death in a series of ways for a film, documenting the entire process as a coping mechanism, and as a larger exploration of mortality. The affable Dick Johnson readily agreed, and the result is a baffling mix of pathos and humor so infused with positive intentions it never becomes morbid. Mr. Johnson is an instantly iconic character — and he's simply being himself. Heaven on earth, and a likely Oscar contender.

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Netflix

Vast-night-boycultureThe truth is out there. (GIF via Amazon Prime)

(8) The Vast of Night  I loved this movie, all the more so for knowing it was made on a micro budget. Director Andrew Patterson mines note-perfect earnest performances from Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as '50s teens drawn into a small-town mystery with the potential for universal impact — could aliens be about to swarm their small town? To what end? And have they been there before? The film truly blasts off with the first of two skillfully delivered monologues, both of which take you by the hand and escort you deep into existential dread — thank Bruce Davis (voice) and Gail Cronauer for those. This one would have Orson Welles panicking. (Amazon)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Never-boyculture-r-rarely-sometimes-always_copyHard choices (Image via Focus Features)

(7) Never Rarely Sometimes Always  Eliza Hittman wowed me with 2015's Beach Rats, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which tags along as a Pennsylvania teen and her supportive cousin make the trek to NYC for a late-term abortion, is filmmaking of another level, a work of maturity and character-driven complexity that requires no sensational twists and turns to remain suspenseful and engrossing. Starring Sidney Flanigan, the film is also a well-deserved warning against ever being very trusting of, well, men. It feels like you're watching a documentary and, sadly, in some ways, you are. (Focus Features)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now at Amazon Prime & elsewhere

Painter-thief-boycultureStriking oil (Image via Neon)

(6) The Painter and the Thief  My favorite doc of the year is this story of Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova, whose two most important photo-realist canvasses are brazenly heisted from a gallery, an act caught on video. Instead of despairing, she becomes obsessed with trying to contact the men who are arrested for the crime, becoming intoxicated with longtime junkie and thief Bertil, who tells her he was so high at the time of the theft he has no idea what became of her work. She invites him to her home, where she ... begins painting him. Their budding friendship is scary, inspiring and impossible not to find absorbing, even as the film teases us by looping back with new information every so often, keeping us guessing as to whether we will ever learn the fate of her paintings. It is amazing how much these two people go through together, how great an impact they have on each other. We should all thank director Benjamin Ree for preserving this one-of-a-kind interaction. (Neon)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

NomadlandFargo west ... (GIF via Searchlight)

(5) Nomadland  There are movie trends in every year, and spare films set in the American West seem to be having their moment. Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me, The Rider) wrote, directed, edited and produced the best of them, Nomadland, an expansive, lyrical excursion starring Frances McDormand — the perfect, the only possible actor — as a woman who has abandoned her conventional, if unsuccessful, life to wander the country. Thanks to the last major recession, Fern's van is her home, and whatever she needs she has to make or barter for, with only meager, seasonal income from Amazon as a supplement. McDormand is already one of our most lauded actors, but she gives such a timeless, astonishing performance, it's hard to imagine her not being a serious contender for yet another Oscar. A sincere, soulful meditation on solitude, and community. (Searchlight Pictures)

AVAILABILITY: Coming to theaters February 19

Ma-rainey-chadwick-viola-boycultureA one, a two, a you-know-what-ta-do ... (Image via Netflix)

(4) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  Many are raving about the performances in George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but for my money, the whole damn show is a showstopper. Wolfe masterfully translates a play in cinematic terms, rendering the story a visceral, sticky-sweet image of a momentous imaginary day, a day that turns increasingly dark as the real-life blues queen Ma Rainey (a gutsy Viola Davis) shows up to a recording studio to lay vocals for her white producers and tangles with the self-confidence of a band member (Chadwick Boseman) who is trying for his own slice of Black power. The acting is top-notch, and the denouement heartbreaking. (Netflix)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Netflix

Riz-ahmed-boycultureThe sound of music (GIF via GIPHY)

(3) Sound of Metal  Along with Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Riz Ahmed is the other shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as a lead actor for his multi-faceted performance in Sound of Metal, in which he plays a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. The film is an emotional roller coaster, and its sound design and Ahmed's vulnerability as an actor sensitively address the issue of hearing loss, fearlessly assessing what may also be gained. As important as it is entertaining, Sound of Metal has one of the year's most stunning endings. (Amazon)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming now on Amazon Prime

Bacurau-boycultureNice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to die there. (Image via Kino Lorber)

(2) Bacurau  A so-called Weird Western, Bacurau is one of the year's most shocking, unexpected films, a film that rushes you to places with few signals as to where you'll end up. I had such a hard time grasping what was happening through the rush of confidently etched scenes early on, and even once the lay of the land is grasped, there are more surprises in store. Director Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles have created a modern fable, but one with no fairy tales at the end, one that doubles as a searing commentary on the socio-political forces shaping modern Brazil. As a bonus, this potent film reintroduces the great Sônia Braga and Udo Kier to prominence, each of them rising to the occasion to deliver career-best work in a movie soaked in blood, monitored by drones and informed by betrayal. (Kino Lorber)

AVAILABILITY: Streaming at Kino Now & on home video

Promising-young-woman-boyculture-700x293Why so furious? (Image via Focus Features)

(1) Promising Young Woman  The movie that every man should be shown after he tells a young woman she should smile more, Promising Young Woman is Emerald Fennell's American Psycho, but its psycho has a better head on her shoulders than the men she hunts — and she doesn't seek to disembowel them, at least not literally. Her game is to pretend to be too intoxicated to consent in order to see just how far whatever schmuck preys upon her had planned to go, humiliating them to scare them straight at the very last second. Carey Mulligan, in the performance of the year, is Cassie Thomas, the friend of a girl whose death informs her own life, compelling her to seek justice from every man who falls into her danger-courting trap. Directed with a jolting dose of blackest humor, Promising Young Woman is violently cathartic, exhilarating filmmaking that makes room for such interesting supporting players as Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Adam Brody, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield and Laverne Cox, none of whom distracts from the supernova that is Mulligan. Like Val in Marilyn French's The Women's Room, Cassie lives by the creed: “All men are rapists, and that's all they are.” Promising Young Woman explores whether that statement goes too far. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Some runners-up:

Bad Education, Beanpole, Boys State, Gunda, The King of Staten Island, Palm Springs and Time.

8 movies others loved that for some reason left me cold:

Da 5 Bloods — I found it an incompetent, poorly acted genre caper flick with laughably pretentious touches (all-caps subtitles, Black-history-for-beginners slide show). Just ridiculous.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things — Impenetrable bunk.

The Invisible Man — An okay thriller.

Mank — Beautifully shot with Oscar-caliber turns by Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, it's nonetheless an exercise in esoterica.

Martin Eden — As shallow an adaptation of a classic novel as you'll find, the movie's use of archival footage should be seamless. Instead, it is presented in a showy, smug way. Every touch of this handsome film is light, adding up to a big nothing.

On the Rocks — An affable crisis flick with a nice performance by Bill Murray, but Rashida Jones brings no depth at all to the big screen.

The Prom — Nails-on-chalkboard dreadful and self-congratulatory.

Shirley — A boring meditation on a fascinating woman.

Movies I have not yet watched — but hope to:


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets


Devil All the Time, The


Father, The

French Exit

Her Socialist Smile

His House

Judas and the Black Messiah

Miss Juneteenth

Painted Bird, The

Pieces of a Woman

Saint Maud





Truth, The

Wild Goose Lake, The