“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I doubt there’s a human on earth who couldn’t relate to this timeless line from John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” during this most shattering and transformative of years. Any plans we may have had for 2020 came to a roaring halt once the COVID-19 pandemic caused the world as we previously knew it to shut down. Theaters were closed, studio releases were delayed indefinitely and streaming services became our primary form of entertainment while under lockdown. Over the past ten months, I’ve been working from my apartment, and have valued the outdoors like never before. Projects that were placed on the back burner have started moving forward in exciting ways, while virtual film classes and discussions emerged as my favored method of keeping cinematic discourse alive and well.
The lack of critics screenings in Chicago coupled with a shift in my priorities both professionally and personally have resulted in me seeing fewer films this year than usual. However, I still found time to view enough essential titles to fill up a Top 20 list, many of which can already be enjoyed from the safety of your home…
20. The Trial of the Chicago 7
With the daily news headlines consistently proving scarier than any Stephen King novel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to revisiting the classics, particularly those that helped shape my worldview. I couldn’t watch writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s pleasingly old-fashioned yet eerily timely take on the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests without being reminded of the courtroom dramas helmed by Stanley Kramer. It is a star-studded actor’s showcase brimming with splendid dialogue and show-stopping outbursts, particularly from Frank Langella, who channels the petulant spirit of his signature Nixon role as Judge Julius Hoffman. I would love to see him garner an Oscar nomination.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is now streaming on Netflix.
19. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Whereas Sacha Baron Cohen revealed new depths to his screen persona as Abbie Hoffman (in the aforementioned Sorkin picture), he proved funnier than ever in Jason Woliner’s sequel to the 2006 hit comedy. His absurdist character of Borat impeccably embodies the alternative facts fueled by willful ignorance that have characterized the Trump Administration, which made the film’s release on the eve of Joe Biden’s election victory all the sweeter. Apart from its alarming portrait of American idiocy, the picture has a surprising amount of heart, which is largely thanks to Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova’s fearless portrayal of Borat’s daughter. Her candid camera encounter with Rudy Giuliani has already achieved well-deserved infamy.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is now streaming on Prime Video.
18. The Twentieth Century
In Matthew Rankin’s captivatingly surreal debut feature, the less admirable and frequently glossed-over aspects of Canadian identity are lampooned with dazzling ingenuity. Though the film is ostensibly about the early years of William Lyon Mackenzie King that preceded his three non-consecutive terms as Canada’s prime minister, it is less of a biopic than a daydream had by a bored high school student in history class, as his thoughts heedlessly shift toward far more diverting memories of Monty Python. Each frame of this picture is an absurdist marvel, with its expressionist sets, ill-fated puppets and ejaculating cactuses, while some of the satire is so scathing, your laughs may become lodged in your throat.
“The Twentieth Century” is available for rental on Prime Video.
17. The Wolf House
The visual landscape of Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s stop-motion masterwork is unlike any I’ve experienced, and though everything about it is aggressively repellant, it still managed to hold me in a constant state of gobsmacked awe. What makes the fairy tale imagery so spellbinding is its deliberate artifice, reflecting the mental entrapment administered by a wolf-like cult leader modeled after German fugitive Paul Schäfer, founder of Colonia Dignidad (“Dignity Colony”). Cociña and León brilliantly portray the ever-evolving nature of dreams, continuously switching up the look of their world and the perspective from which we view it, thereby magnifying the falsity of the truth it preaches.
“The Wolf House” is available for rental on Prime Video.
16. Crip Camp
Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, this profoundly moving documentary recounts the incredible true story of activists with disabilities and their fight to make the world more accessible for millions of citizens (like my mother with Multiple Sclerosis). This is the sort of movement that deserves to be included in every history textbook. Co-directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham never take a patronizing approach to the subject matter, allowing the humanity of their subjects to drive the narrative. Sex activist Denise Sherer Jacobson is refreshingly frank when opening up about her personal life, busting one taboo after another with her humorous insights. I could listen to her all day.
“Crip Camp” is now streaming on Netflix.
Though it received a vicious backlash from conservative trolls, most of whom had only seen a misleading poster, the debut feature of French director Maïmouna Doucouré is not at all the vile work of exploitation its detractors have claimed. Doucouré’s film directly targets the exploitative forces in society that cause young people, particularly in repressed cultures, to degrade themselves as a form of faux empowerment. 14-year-old Fathia Youssouf delivers one of the year’s best performances as Amy, the misguided heroine, whose “levitation” in the poetic final shot is unforgettable. This picture is difficult to watch for all the right reasons, and will inspire rewarding discussions amongst those who bother to give it a chance.
“Cuties” is now streaming on Netflix.
14. Red, White & Blue
After rightfully criticizing the “Star Wars” franchise for failing to give his character—and Black characters in general—a fully realized storyline while opting for cheap fan service in “The Rise of Skywalker,” John Boyega receives the finest showcase of his career to date in this viscerally effective drama from master filmmaker Steve McQueen. It is one of five films that comprise McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, which is based on real events that occurred in London’s West Indian community from the late 60s through the early 80s, though their relevance in the wake of present day police brutality is unmistakable. Boyega plays a man who decides to join the force in order to change the system from the inside. And yes, there is a Jedi reference.
“Red, White & Blue” is now streaming on Prime Video.
13. Sound of Metal
A silver lining to this horrific year has been the ample time it has provided those of us fortunate enough to have homes with the opportunity for reflection. The moment we stop fighting the inconvenience of our live-saving restrictions—such as masks—is when true enlightenment can be achieved, and that is precisely what drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed, in a career-best performance) learns in Darius Marder’s first narrative directorial feature when he starts to lose his hearing. The Oscar-worthy sound design takes us directly inside his head, as everyday noses are rendered an incoherent cacophony by his cochlear implants. It all builds to a final moment so simple and perfect, I can’t stop thinking about it.
“Sound of Metal” is now streaming on Prime Video.
12. Athlete A
It’s only fitting that the Olympics were cancelled this year, considering the abhorrent legacy of abuse administered and covered up by USA Gymnastics. This vital documentary from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk—who previously helmed the equally disquieting Netflix release “Audrie & Daisy”—covers the staggering scope of the scandal, the courageous women who broke their silence and the tireless journalists who opened the floodgates on these crimes. The tapes testimonies made by Rachael Denhollander, Maggie Nichols and the several other hundreds of sister survivors who brought their abuser to justice have redefined what it means to be a champion, and this film does justice to their unbreakable spirit.
“Athlete A” is now streaming on Netflix.
11. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Even though Oscar predictions don’t mean very much this year, I am already a firm believer that Chadwick Boseman will become the first posthumous Best Actor winner since Peter Finch in “Network,” and deservedly so. Though George C. Wolfe’s superb adaptation of the August Wilson play is named after the real-life blues singer portrayed by Viola Davis, Boseman’s horn player is the clear star, and like Finch, he has a scene where he rages against injustice while screaming into the void. Yet in this case, his words are utterly devastating, in light of the fact that filming wrapped just a year prior to his untimely death at age 43. This is a performance that will be remembered long after most of 2020 has faded from our memories.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will premiere December 18th on Netflix.
Stay tuned for #10-1 in Part II of this list.