At the end of the last year there was a meme that went around it was pointed that “2021” was pronounced “twenty-twenty won.” As this year ends, it’s worth reflecting on whether that is true, at least in terms of cinema as 2020 was a terrible year for the medium and some might say that it wounded the theatrical experience fatally. And in some ways I think that’s true: the mid-budget drama geared towards high brow adults is likely going away from theatrical exhibition and will find a more permanent transition to the streaming services directly and in the form of TV series instead of one-off films. However, Spider-Man: No Way Home has proven that there will always be a place for movie theaters.
It also should be noted that I didn’t do a top ten list last year, because there weren’t ten films that were released in the year 2020 that I liked enough to put on said list. I’m grateful that this year proved to be better.
10. Street Gang: How We Got Sesame Street
I was lucky enough to take a chance on seeing this film in the theater. It’s a brilliant documentary that chronicles the brilliant story of how the beloved children’s show got its start and how it evolved. There are no big twists in this doc, it’s pretty straight forward. But it is told very movingly.
9. Spider-Man: No Way Home
I had a great time with this movie, but it was just a tad too busy for me. I did love the characters from the previous franchises, particularly one of the surprise appearances, who stole all the scenes they were in. (I will leave this vague in order to avoid spoilers)
In a recent podcast it was remarked that Emma Thompson is up there with Meryl Streep in her acting ability, and I think this film makes a convincing case for that as she plays a genuine psychopath here. In the category of “Disney-Villain-origin stories,” this one is the best. If it were to be included in the “live-action remake” category, it would still be the best. Bravo to Disney for allowing this filmmaking team to take a risk.
Kenneth Branagh has a pretty mixed track record when it comes to his non-Shakespeare adaptations. Belfast is certainly his best of the last 20 years or so and definitely the best shot of all his films. The acting is amazing, as is its script. I didn’t care for the music (I was so sad that he didn’t ask Patrick Doyle to do it), but I suppose there are arguments as to why he chose to do it the way he did.
6. Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya has the best score of the year, with James Newton Howard just hitting it out of the park. And the animation is just so beautiful and its story and message were very touching and relevant. It was a bit too kiddy in parts, yet rose above that when it counted.
5. Free Guy
The script for Free Guy is really sharp, with a fantastic conclusion. This is a movie that benefits from rewatching it to the point that it skipped up two places on this list as a result. Besides Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds, this film’s cameos and supporting cast are among the many reasons that this film works as well as it does.
4. Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
After being disappointed by Black Widow, I had feared that Kevin Feige had started to be spread too thin and couldn’t give the right amount of love to his films as he was with the TV series. And although I feel like 2/4 of the MCU features this year were kind of a bust, Shang-Chi was a return to form. It’s a genuinely great origin story with the best action scenes of any MCU film to date.
This is yet another film that rewards repeat viewing (subtitles are requisite), mostly because Lin Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are so fast that I wasn’t able to catch/appreciate them in the theater. It’s a small story that never reaches the Moana standard, but it gets close and has more fun in its musical numbers.
2. West Side Story
I’m one of the few who actually found that the original film adaptation of the musical aged decently well (brown-face aside). Yet, Spielberg created more or less a masterpiece here that will be remembered and lauded for years to come that has eclipsed its predecessor. Spielberg’s storytelling mastery is on full display here.
Watching Dune in the IMAX for the first time was almost a religious experience for me. Denis Villanue has created a singular cinematic encounter that was almost totally immersive thanks in large part to his sound mixers and composer (this is Hans Zimmer’s best score since Interstellar). I felt everything that he wanted me to feel. I consider it to be the best film of the last 3 years, or since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.