Moviegoing has been thinking of ending things for a century now. The 1918-19 influenza pandemic, met with inadequate and piecemeal federal response, provoked many silent film industry players to pronounce the relatively new commercial medium a goner. Yet it survived long enough to attend its own dress-rehearsal funeral in 2020.
Probable causes of possible death: Netflix, AT&T, Wall Street’s relentless cheerleading for the great streaming migration – and a pandemic still at large, met once again with an inadequate and piecemeal federal response.
It has been a dire year of loss and suffering for arts, culture, entertainment and the very sociability of our lives.
I wrote a few COVID-19 obituaries, along with so many other Tribune colleagues. My columnist wife ended up hospitalized in the fall, after testing positive. She’s doing well now. Getting to this point meant dealing with the kind of suspense none of us needed.
This was the year every other columnist and critic in existence weighed in on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Live theater, which is likely to come roaring back in a year or two in a way that seems deeply unlikely for traditional moviegoing, seemed far away yet so close, thanks to “Hamilton,” “American Utopia,” and films such as Radha Blank’s shrewd and pungent artist’s-struggle comedy “The Forty-Year-Old Version.”
The best new TV I saw included “I May Destroy You” (HBO); “How To with John Wilson” (HBO); and, well … is Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology “Small Axe” (Amazon) a series of films, or a broadly defined limited series? Parsing these distinctions in 2020 seems frivolous. I put two of the “Small Axe” films in my Top 10 for movies. And that’s that.
No worsts this year (well, “Holidate,” but other than that … things were harsh enough. The vaccine’s en route. The masks remain essential. See you in 2021.
Runners-up, 11-20, in alphabetical order:
“Beanpole”; “Driveways”; “Earth”; “The Forty-Year-Old Version”; “Hamilton”; “The Nest”; “The Personal History of David Copperfield”; “Red, White and Blue” (”Small Axe”); “76 Days”; “Shirley.”
10. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” directed by Eliza Hittman. Sidney Flanigan excels as a rural Pennsylvania teenager whose pregnancy leads to a risky trip to New York City with her cousin. The girls’ lives have been spent assessing their limited options; Hittman handles the potential melodrama with documentary honesty and a quiet sense of truth. Streaming on various platforms.
9. “The Vast of Night”
“The Vast of Night,” directed by Andrew Patterson. In 1950s New Mexico, two high school kids catch the sound of something alien, and it’s up to them to locate the story behind the frequency. I’d see this affectionate, slow-burn riff on various UFO and science-fiction notions again just for the fabulous extended-take opening, which involved hand-held filming, go-cart filming, green-screen digital effects and a lot of nerve. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
“Mangrove,” directed by Steve McQueen. The first in McQueen’s quintet of “Small Axe” films about late 20th Century Black and immigrant London is part community mosaic, part courtroom drama, and a far stronger fact-based drama than, say, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Streaming on Amazon Prime.
7. “The Assistant”
“The Assistant,” directed by Kitty Green. The #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein scandals inspired this remarkable directorial feature debut. We never see the toxic source of the fear, loathing and thwarted careers; Green’s story fixes on a low-level assistant in a film distribution company (Julia Garner, unerrring in every averted glance and interior struggle) and her realization that her workplace is killing her, softly. Streaming on various platforms.
6. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by George C. Wolfe. Radically compressed and thrillingly acted screen version of August Wilson’s breakthrough play, set in 1927 Chicago and starring a riveting Viola Davis as blues giant Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, locking horns with one of her sidemen, played by Chadwick Boseman in his farewell triumph. Lacerating Black history from a poet who, like Boseman, died tragically early. Streaming on Netflix.
5. “City So Real”
“City So Real,” directed by Steve James. When 2020 happened, documentary filmmaker James went back into a project he thought he’d finished. He kept filming through the spring and summer, and added a crucial new chapter to his epic portrait of recent Chicago mayoral politics and eternal Chicago divisions. As a very different portrait of humanity titled it: This is us. Streaming on National Geographic Channel, Hulu, Sling and YouTube.
“Nomadland,” directed by Chloe Zhao. In the aftermath of a recent recession, a recently widowed woman (Frances McDormand, who optioned the source material and hired Zhao) hits the road in a modified RV, looking for her next life. Zhao made “The Rider,” my favorite film of 2018. This one’s nearly as great – a poem of working-class longing, on the edge of darkness.
3. “American Utopia”
Filmed during its Broadway engagement at the Hudson Theatre, the same theater where Steve Allen introduced “Tonight” to Eisenhower’s America, this David Byrne box of wonders offers pure pleasure to a very different land. Talking Heads fans tend to fall apart when the elegantly conceived and flawlessly filmed concert gets around to “This Must Be the Place.” The first song (“Here”) gets right to where we are now, with its lyric: “Here’s the connection/To the opposite side.” If only we knew where “here” is. Streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime, premium subscription.
2. “First Cow”
“First Cow,” directed by Kelly Reichardt. The American entrepreneurial spirit collides with the viciousness of the early 19th Century Oregon Territory frontier in Reichardt’s moving tale of friendship built on deep-fried “oily cakes,” a taste sensation that turns into a matter of life and death. Streaming on various platforms.
1. “Lovers Rock”
“Lovers Rock,” directed by Steve McQueen, part of the “Small Axe” collection. After this miserable, minimal-contact year, McQueen’s rhapsody of love – barely an hour, and 2020\u2032s most rewatchable small-scale masterwork – couldn’t be more welcome. In 1980, an all-night West London house party becomes fraught with sexual danger as well as romantic possibility for characters played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland pulled from their own house party memories of the time. The result proves how little narrative a narrative needs if everything else has the moves, on or off the dance floor. Streaming on Amazon.