WASSY'S FAVORITE FILMS OF 2020 It was a strange year, indeed. And for someone who experiences 90% of his movies in theaters, watching online was a bit like eating leftovers in the restaurant kitchen or more like having take-out rather than a sumptuous course in the dining room. Nonetheless, here you go. I do not presume these as the Best, just my Favorites.
1 (tied) – MANGROVE, Directed by Steve McQueen, co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons Steve McQueen made a five-film anthology based on stories of West Indies immigrants to London in the 1970’s and 80’s. They are revelatory. None more than the first in the series, Mangrove. Easily one of the most taut and realistic courtroom dramas I’ve seen. It is based on the Mangrove Restaurant in London and the trial of the “Mangrove nine” in 1971. Acting, writing and design are superb.
1(tied) – DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (documentary), Written and Directed by Kirstin Johnson. If you tell me a film is a love letter to someone’s dad then I’m halfway asleep already. But this film is easily the most inventive documentary I’ve ever seen and that is saying a lot, given we live in a world inhabited by Errol Morris. Facing the death of a love one, can you laugh about it? Check it out.
1 (tied) – MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (documentary), Written and Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. This is the greatest film about a human’s relationship to a wild creature (apologies to Jane Goodall) I’ve seen. It is a year spent by filmmaker Craig Foster and his redemptive story of his love by (and from?) an octopus.
2 – THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (documentary), Directed by Benjamin Ree The Painter and the Thief uses the unlikely bond between a criminal and his victim as the canvas for a compelling portrait of compassion and forgiveness. This may be the best story of the year.
3 – THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin Aaron Sorkin has a genius for telling complex stories infused with rich, dense, believable dialogue. This is the story of Abbie Hoffman and friends, starring Sasha Baron Cohen. And if you think SBC can only do comedy, check this out. You might not recognize him if you didn’t already know.
4 – SOUND OF METAL, Directed by Darius Marder I ain’t a metal music fan, but man this story is engrossing and does something no other movie I know does. It takes you into the experience of someone who loses his hearing and helps you hear as a deaf person does. Riz Ahmed as metal band drummer Ruben, is fantastic and is complemented perfectly by Olivia Cooke as his band mate and girlfriend Lou. One of the great endings in a film I’ve seen.
5 – NEVER, RARELY, SOMETIMES, ALWAYS, Written and Directed by Eliza Hittman This movie may be the best at conveying teenage angst and isolation as any I can think of. Starring Talla Ryder and supported by Sidney Flanigan, it seems they are not acting, just being teenage girls, afraid and courageous, communicating more by looks and body language than in words. This film tosses all cliché about teenage pregnancy out the door. It is more like a quiet invitation into a real life drama that a lot of teenage girls experience.
6 - CRIP CAMP (documentary), Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham The story of a groundbreaking summer camp that galvanizes a group of teens with disabilities in the fight for their civil rights. Winner (and well deserved) of the Sundance Audience Award. Could be an Oscar winner (though Dick Johnson and Octopus Teacher are just as deserving).
8 – MANK, Written and Directed by David Fincher This is a brilliant film, made exquisitely in black and white, starring Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz and the story of his writing of Citizen Kane.
9 – THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD-VERSION, Written, Directed and Starring Radha Blank. It takes a lot for me to like a comedy, not sure why. But this is a great one. Thoughtful, original, full of heart. Don’t miss it.
10 – CREEM: AMERICA’S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL MAGAZINE, (documentary), Directed by Scott Crawford. You can’t really consider or understand the history of Rock n’ Roll without considering Creem Magazine. If you want to know why, see this. Made with the guidance of a few of its founding members, the film’s style matches the subject matter: brash, raw and original.
11 - ZAPPA, (documentary), Directed by Alex Winter Maybe you gotta drink the Kool-Aid to appreciate Frank Zappa, but as with the Creem movie, you can’t really understand Rock n’ Roll fully without understanding Zappa and how he brought circus and the “theater of the absurd” into music. As well, it tells the story of Zappa, the composer, a role often overlooked
12 – REBUILDING PARADISE, (documentary), Directed by Ron Howard This is an incredible film about the tragic wildfire that hit Paradise, California and the efforts to rebuild the town. Full of first person video footage. A story of perseverance and hope.
13. AMERICAN UTOPIA, Directed by Spike Lee It’s been 35 years since Stop Making Sense, came out, easily the 2nd best concert film of all time (The Last Waltz will always be #1). David Byrne has done it again here. And Spike Lee was the right guy to film it. Wonderful!
14 – MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, Directed by George Wolfe Based on August Wilson’s play, the film echoes a similar stage style, and plays out mainly in two rooms. But the show here is to see Viola Davis as a brusin’ Ma Rainey and of course the tragic and last outing of Chadwick Boseman.
15 – ALICE, Directed by Josephine Mackerras I loved this film. Why wouldn’t you with lead actress Emilie Piponnier taking a run as a housewife turned high end escort. This one has profound feminist messages and a great ending.
16 – BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIE FILM, Directed by Jason Wollnar There is no greater high-wire, holy fool, wise man than Sasha Baron Cohen. It is astonishing that after all his fame, he still bamboozles people into taking him seriously and allowing themselves to be filmed and made the fool. This film has some incredible moments, outlandish and very telling of our culture. I would have rated it higher, but it was just a little too sexually sick for my taste.
17 – THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, series, written and Directed by Scott Frank My fist pick of a new series. Who could imagine you could make a captivating seven-episode film about chess? Anna Taylor-Joy is the main reason. She captivates the screen every moment she is on it.
18 – WATCHMEN, series created by Damon Lindelof Regina King plays a kick-ass super hero in this amazingly unique nine-episode sci-fi series about race and bigotry based on a DC Comic character. Get ready for a big dose of violence but it is a fascinating, pandemic-time-passing watch.
19 – OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE, (documentary), Directed by Ric Burns The writer and doctor Oliver Sacks, wrote some groundbreaking books, one of which was Awakenings, later made into a film starring Robin Williams. A month after receiving a fatal diagnosis in January 2015, Oliver Sacks sat down for a series of filmed interviews in his apartment in New York City. He talked about his life and work, his abiding sense of wonder at the natural world, and the place of human beings within it. A wonderful film
20 – TIME (documentary), Directed by Garrett Bradley Time is an immersive, engrossing film that chronicles one woman's unyielding quest to free her husband from a nightmarish prison sentence. A lot of a documentary’s story has to do with the style in which it is told. A core of the film is black and white home video footage of Fox Rich's life as she records videos for her husband in prison. It brings home the cost on children and frustration with a system designed to subjugate and disempower black Americans.
21 – GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND (documentary), Directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni I always kinda liked Gordon Lightfoot, but when I watched this I like him a lot more, learning how essential and influential of a singer he was.
22 – SAINT FRANCES, Directed by Alex Thompson Starring Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the screenplay. This is a delightful and heartfelt little story of a nanny and a little boy.
23 – JIMMY CARTER: ROCK N’ ROLL PRESIDENT, (documentary), Directed by Mary Wharton This is just fun and kind of fascinating, how Jimmy Carter rode the shirttails of Rock n’ Roll into the White House and stayed hip while there.
24 – THE MIDNIGHT SKY, Directed by George Clooney George’s latest is a real good sci-fi film. Worth seeing even if the space crew was a bit too kumbaya for me.
25 – FIRST COW, Directed by Kelly Reichardt A very low-key, underplayed little film about the hardscrabble early nineteenth century way of life of trappers in the Oregon territory.
Haven’t seen but probably would make the list: Nomadland, Beanpole, One Night in Miami, The Assistant Best throwbacks I saw: Series: BIGGEST LITTLE LIES - Worth all its awards. Nicole Kidman, Reese Wiherspoon, Shalene Woodly, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Strep, come on! Film. GET ON UP - Nostalgia for Chadwick Boseman should lead you to this 2014 film, a life force energy biopic romp of singer James Brown. ￼ ￼ ￼