Cultjer Staff Picks: Our Favorite Films of 2020
An ode to silver linings...
Happy 2021 Cultjer Readers!
The team here at Cultjer would like to wish you all a happy and healthy start to the new year!
Before we officially kick 2020 to the curb, we felt it would only be prudent to acknowledge one of the few redeeming qualities of a year no one saw coming - the films that made us happy.
While many of us were lucky to see a handful of theatrical releases before the world unexpectedly went dark, the reality is, most the films and performances that made us happy were viewed from the comfort of our own homes. Which, like it or not, may not be a complete shift from previous years.
Films like Onward, Hamilton, and Soul were all made available for Disney+ subscribers. We saw the digital releases of tentpoles including The Invisible Man, The New Mutants, The Way Back, Mulan, Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman 1984. While many of these films did not disappoint, the films and performances that managed to find a way into our hearts and onto our list of favorites ultimately came from the smaller, less anticipated films of 2020 including - Sound of Metal, First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, Gretel & Hansel, Mank, Palm Springs and The Assistant.
As we look ahead to what should be a fantastic 2021 year in film, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude for sticking around and supporting our work! You are the reason why Cultjer exists and will continue to exist as we head into yet another year filled with uncertainty. But regardless of outlook, I find a bit of joy knowing that sites like Cultjer afford us the opportunity to come together as writers, consumers, and film fans to share our passion for the arts.
In the words of the great Roger Ebert,
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.
Team Cultjer - Rik, Jackson, Delali, Zach, and Greg
Enjoy and we look forward to hearing from you in 2021!
FILMS WE DID NOT GET AROUND TO SEEING IN 2020
The Kid Detective, Pinocchio, Fantasy Island, Capone, The Hunt
I guess I have seen everything I could possibly or wanted to have seen given the circumstances of the year.
Although there didn't seem too much to miss this year, the biggest one must be Wonder Woman. Did I miss much?
2020 was a weird year so I didn’t get around to seeing films like Birds of Prey, Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, On the Rocks, and Greyhound.
Every year I glance at this category and shamefully think to myself – how in god’s name did I not carve enough time out of my day to watch ___ despite having had time to watch ___? Eventually I will prioritize these films: Bill & Ted Face the Music, Bad Boys 4 Life, First Cow, Color Out of Space, The Assistant
FAVORITE FIRST-TIME VIEWS!
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Matrix Trilogy, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Coming to America, The Hangover
Thanks to Mank, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. I was also humbled by my first viewing of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Absolutely stunning.
For a movie year as terrible as 2020 there actually weren't that many old films I watched. Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995), which felt like a solid yet dated classic. Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), which was surprisingly improvisational and a fun watch, though I wouldn't put it up there with some of his later works. But the best pre-2019 movie was Girl (2018), a heart-wrenching Cannes favorite about trans girl struggling to become a ballet dancer.
Parasite, X-Men, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Jaws, The Blob (1958), Knives Out, and Shazam!.
I Think We’re Alone Now (2018): Reed Morano's meditative indie-drama is a tale of two films whereby the first and second acts do just enough to keep you hooked before the film unexpectedly pivots into an entirely different sub genre. I mean, I was satisfied with the film’s conclusion but I haven’t really thought about this film ever since. Recommended for a cold or rainy afternoon.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019): Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s kindhearted gem would likely make my 2020 top three list had this film released a week later in early January 2020. Nonetheless I have nothing but glowing things to say about it. Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf are excellent. And after Bad Times at El Royale, Knives Out, and High Note, I can no longer deny that I have a giant crush on Dakota Johnson. Also, Thomas Haden Church moonlights as a retired professional wrestler – "The Saltwater Redneck". This film is perfect from start to finish.
The Vietnam War (2017 Series): Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s haunting ten-part, 18-hour documentary series is some of the most fascinating content I’ve experienced in my lifetime. In fact, if it wasn't a series, it would land in my top 3 of 2020. Sure there are plenty of documentaries and studio films (Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Born on the 4th of July to name a few) that attempt to take you inside one of the most divisive wars (conflicts) in U.S. History. But none of them told a holistic story from a 360 view - be it the war’s start to finish, the combatants on both sides, along with immersive never before seen footage. Episode three captures the horrors and heroics of the Battle of La Drang – a battle you’ve likely never heard of nor will ever learn about in history books. Yet with every episode, you come away educated and at times devastated. The end credits of episode three was accompanied by The Byrds Turn! Turn! Turn! Brought me to tears.
The Game Changers (2019): Curious about going on plant-based diet? Netflix’s original documentary dispels the myths from the facts of eating plant-based diet for athletes. No spoilers here but one of MANY takeaways worth noting is that men who consume plant-based protein (i.e. plant-based protein burritos vs. animal-based protein burritos) will experience harder and longer nighttime erections than men who consume animal-based protein. Pretty damning discovery.
Valley Girl (1983): Okay, I’m not sure what took me so long to watch Martha Coolidge’s 1983 classic but I thoroughly enjoyed this 80's trip. Nic Cage and Deborah Foreman's chemistry cannot be denied.
2020 FILM(S) 'THEY WEREN'T FEELING' BUT WE LOVED!
Fatman, Seberg, SCOOB!, The Secret: Dare to Dream, Infidel
Extraction deserved more love. It was the best pure white-knuckled action film I saw.
Vivarium - I guess this is one of those you either hate it or love it movies. It's definitely one of the most bold and fantastical stories though, with a great performance by Imogen Poots especially.
Here I have to go with The Gentlemen and The Call of the Wild. I feel like the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Harrison Ford in these respective films are being overlooked.
Mulan - Niki Caro’s live-action remake was marked for death the moment Disney greenlit their beloved animated classic. But similarly to 2019’s Aladdin, Mulan brought our storied characters to life, underscored with empowering life lessons and accompanied by gorgeous set design, thrilling action, and an ALL Asian cast! A feat that should be celebrated in an era of films that have brought us, what, ONE (The Farewell) American feature length film written and directed by women, and featuring an all Asian cast? Not all film experiences are binary.
Valley Girl (2020) – See 2020 Honorable Mentions
2020 FILM(S) 'WE WEREN'T FEELING' BUT THEY LOVED
Palm Springs, First Cow, The Invisible Man, The King of Staten Island, Eurovision, Da 5 Bloods, Kajillionaire, Boys State
Palm Springs is overrated.
Tenet - I feel like "I'm getting too old for this shit.."Also, while enjoying most of the 20 years seeing Sacha Baron Cohen tricking people into doing and saying dumb stuff, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm felt like a lazy cash in.
Critics are lucky this year because this year due to the lack of a cinema experience, I didn’t take too many chances on films. Therefore, I don’t have a film that I wasn’t feeling but they loved. If 2020 ends a week later, I’m sure I would’ve had something!
The Outpost – I am a sucker for American war films but I’m not sure I watched the same film that currently sits at 92% Rotten Tomatoes. The Outpost is based on a true story about a doomed outpost manned by American troops during the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the entire experience felt like a faux re-creation of very tragic turn of events. That said, there are solid performances from Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry Jones (#crucifictorious 4 ever)
Haunting of Bly Manor (series) – Mike Flanagan’s follow up to “Hill House” frustratingly lost me more than it had me. But in the end, I’m glad I saw this one through. The final episode delivered the goods leaving my heart full but broken. Shoutout to those final shots accompanied by 90’s Sheryl Crow “I Shall Believe”.
2020 PERFORMANCE(S) DESERVING MORE LOVE
Brian Dennehy (Driveways), Gillian Jacobs (I Used to Go Here), Catherine Deneuve (The Truth), Nnamdi Asomguha (Sylvie's Love)
It feels like a long time ago but Orion Lee in First Cow and Julie Garner in The Assistant rare to standouts.
I think the cast of Tenet deserves a lot of props for playing a long with whatever was going on there. Honestly though, there don't seem to be that many performances being forgotten. Maybe Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man, though the script was pretty bad. She was great in Shirley as well and deserves a real Oscar-bait role for sure. Also, Sally Hawkins for her incredibly intricate performance in Eternal Beauty.
John David Washington in Tenet and Tom Hanks in News of the World.
Cast of The Devil All The Time – It’s crazy to think this film released just four months ago. And yet, the more that time goes by the more I think about this film, its story, and the cast of compelling and bizarre characters portrayed by my favorite 2020 ensemble not named Hamilton. Everyone does their fair share of heavy lifting here, including Robert Pattinson’s “Preston Teagarden” – the most perverse, southern gothic version of Edward Cullen (but long before Carlisle transformed him) we never asked for but subconsciously wanted in the most fucked up way imaginable.
Andrea Riseborough/Christopher Abbott (Possessor) – I have yet to see a film where Andrea Riseborough turns in a mediocre performance, and Brandon Cronenberg's mind-blowing sci-fi thriller is no exception. Her Possessor co-star Christopher Abbott also deserves equal praise, if not more, for playing two characters - the mark of Andrea Riseborough's "Tasya Vos" - a corporate assassin - who must infiltrate the mind/body of Abbott's character in order to take out Abbott's onscreen future daddy in-law and giant corporate asshole, played by Sean Bean.
Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man) – Elisabeth Moss continues to carve out a nice career marked by great film/tv choices and backed by stellar acting. Leigh Whannel’s chilling adaptation made my honorable mentions and with it, Ms. Moss deserves much love for carrying this film.
FAVORITE 2020 MUSICAL SOUNDTRACK(S) OR SCORE(S)
The High Note, Let Them All Talk, The Secret Garden, TENET, Unhinged, Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe, Yellow Rose, Then Came You
Loved the percussion on Mank’s score
Has to be Hamilton, which was a great joy to see, even if it wasn't in the theater. And for anyone interested I can recommend National Theatre Live, which has been streaming in theaters (pre-Covid) and at home recently with great productions like Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch.
Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross on Soul.
Hamilton soundtrack remains undefeated. After all these years I’m still in awe of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius soundtrack and musical.
Ludwig Goransson – TENET: Mr. Goransson’s album captures every scene with precision. Listen to FOILS. Don't try to understand it, feel it.
Rob (Robin Coudert) – Gretel & Hansel: Rob’s haunting synth is a large part of what makes Oz Perkins 2020 grim fairy tale such a memorable experience. The talented French musician has made a nice career for himself having scored a number of French films, including 2013’s MANIAC remake.
Valley Girl Cast - Valley Girl (2020): See 2020 Honorable Mentions
THEY BETTER WIN AN OSCAR OR WE RIOT (FILMS/PERFORMANCES)
Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy)
We need to restart the Delroy Lindo hype train so the Academy doesn’t play the fool and ensure there is no reason to tap into the nastiness of 2020.
I haven't seen Nomadland, but Frances McDormand deserves any Oscar she's able to get in my book. Also, I'm surprised to see Riz Ahmed listed, but it's good to see his performance in Sound of Metal getting the attention.
This is incredibly weird to say considering I haven’t seen the films he was in for this year, but I believe Chadwick Boseman better win the Oscar this year and I can’t wait to watch his performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods. If Boseman doesn’t win I think Tom Hanks should lock this thing up for his heroic portrayal in News of the World.
Soul or Onward for Best Animated Picture and Soul for Best Score.
Unfortunately, this list will not include performances from consensus favorites - Carey Mulligan, Viola Davis, Francis McDormand, Julia Garner, Steven Yeun, or Chadwick Boseman – as I have yet to see many of the performances from the critically acclaimed films garnering 2021 awards buzz (see – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Nomadland, Minari, Promising Young Woman, Mank or Trial of the Chicago 7).
But I can vouch for Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods) and Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) as their standout performances could be deemed riot worthy should Academy voters not do their civic duty. I mean, swap out Ahmed's portrayal with A-Listers such as Hanks, DiCaprio, or Oldman and Academy voters would be eating that shit up.
Honorable Mention: Ben Affleck – The Way Back. When life imitates art, art becomes an outlet of beautiful expression. Who's with me?
2020 FAVORITE FILMS - HONORABLE MENTIONS
Dear Santa, The Last Full Measure, SamSam, The Secrets We Keep, Sylvie's Love
Bacarau, Black Bear, Cuties, Possessor
First Cow - Director Kelly Reichardt's latest film is another quietly brilliant experience unlike anything else this year.
Soul - Fun, sweet and thoughtful. One of Pixar's best.
Another Round - Mads Mikkelsen teams up with The Hunt (2012) director Thomas Vinterberg and delivers another highly captivating Danish drama.
Driveways - A quite subtle yet sweet drama about loss and friendship.
Hamilton - One of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Palm Springs - Besides the gimmick, surprisingly fun and original.
Les Misérables - A gripping, raw take on the 2005 Paris riots.
I have two documentary films and one other film for my honorable mentions this year.
Live from the Space Stage: A Halyx Story – Produced by Kevin Perjurer of Defunctland and directed by Matthew Serrano. Live from the Space Stage is one of the most intriguing documentary films of the year about the Disneyland sci-fi band lost to time. It’s a heck of a good story and it’s available for free on YouTube.
40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic – This short film by Sylvester Stallone is a great look at the humble beginnings of the Rocky franchise and a worthy-watch for all Rocky diehards.
New Mutants – It finally got released. What can I say? I was just thrilled to watch the not-planned conclusion to the Fox X-Men universe.
Tenet - In 2020, I finally got the chance to see Christopher Nolan’s eleventh full length feature the way Mr. Nolan had intended…(alone and masked up) in an AMC IMAX theater. And my friends, Nolan's Bond film did not disappoint.
The Lodge – Oof, I loved everything about this winter chiller. It left me feeling icky by the time the end credits rolled and I can't say many films have achieved such a feat. Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, and Lia McHugh are great in this.
Da 5 Bloods – A Spike Lee joint that’s equal parts history lesson and poetic tragedy. I can’t say I’ll be rewatching this one anytime soon but Mr. Lee's narrative journey crafted through the eyes of four Black Vietnam Veterans makes for one unforgettable experience. Ensemble is fantastic, including the late Chadwick Boseman.
Driveways: See Rik Burnsting's comments above.
Valley Girl (2020) - Don't let the words "remake," "musical," or its PG-13 rating scare you off from giving Screenwriter Amy Talkington and Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg's surprising 2020 gem a shot. If you can stomach the fact this is a musical remake and you've got a hankering for feel-good 80's nostalgia, then definitely go seek this one out. There are some pretty great musical renditions including other 80’s classics such as Space Age Love Song, Kids in America, We Got The Beat, Take on Me, and my favorite – Aerobics Mash Up. And of course, Jessica Rothe is awesome - as always.
2020 FAVORITE FILMS
Sound of Metal, Let Them All Talk, Bad Education, Misbehaviour, My Darling Vivian, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, I Used to Go Here, Driveways, The Assistant, Stargirl
For the first time in a while, cinema took a backseat in my life for different reasons. I didn’t do any rigorous rewatches and haven’t thought deeply about most of the films so I’m just going with the films that stayed with me throughout the year with little effort.
(In no particular order)
Mank: Great to see David Fincher making a film again and he has nothing but acid barbs for the golden age of Hollywood in what was a surprisingly sly and witty film.
Da 5 Bloods: I can still feel the intensity from this fun yet incendiary and poignant joint from Spike Lee that is in conversation with narratives about Afropessimism in a great way.
The Assistant: The horrors of a tedious job are evident. But it’s the experience of being a servant to an absolute monster that leaves the chills.
First Cow: I think I can call myself a Kelly Reichardt stan and she manages to be warm and scathing with such dexterity here and will little fuss. The cow floating down the river somehow would also make my shot of the year list.
Sound of Metal: The 2020 flagbearer of Cinema being a machine of empathy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen story present a disability as something resembling peace and perfection.
The Invisible Man. This was the best film I saw in theatres in 2020 so it gets a massive bump into the space between my honorable mentions and my top films.
1917 - I know, I know, this is technically a 2019 film. But I saw it in 2020, and it was one of the few I was able to catch in a theater. It's by far the most cinematic and impressive film I saw in 2020. One of the only ones where for me, in 2020, everything came together. From direction to performances to story.
My favorite films of the year. It was a weird year. But still had a lot of good. The Gentlemen, The Call of the Wild,Onward, Hamilton, Palm Springs, Tenet, News of the World, Howard, and Soul.
Context matters my friends. My favorite 2020 films would not be complete without including my top 3 films of the past decade!
2019: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Us, Parasite
2018: BlackKklansman, You Were Never Really Here, Mission: Impossible - Fallout
2017: Columbus, A Ghost Story, Get Out, Dunkirk
2016: The Handmaiden, Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water
2015: Spring, Sicario, Mad Max: Fury Road
2014: Whiplash, John Wick, A Most Violent Year
2013: Short Term 12, Stoker, MUD
2012: Magic Mike, The Master, ParaNorman
2011: Take Shelter, The Descendants, Fast Five
2010: The Other Guys, The Social Network, Drive/True Grit
My top three of 2020 are....
1. 1917 - One of the great 21st century technical achievements in film.
2. Sound of Metal - Beautiful film featuring an amazing performance from Riz Ahmed. He's magnetic.
3a. Gretel & Hansel - Oz Perkins third full length film is pretty much how I envisioned Grimm's age-old cannibalistic fairytale playing out on the big screen. It's dark, bleak, and wickedly stylish YA horror.
3b. Possessor - I'm convincing myself Brandon Cronenberg's sci-fi thriller would have still made my top 3 had 2020 not been a complete shit show. Everything about this film worked for me. It's excessive (in all the right ways), thought-provoking, performance-driven (It's time we take Christopher Abbott seriously), and it left me wanting more. I have a feeling this one will age quite well as years go by.
And the rest.....
The Invisible Man, The Vietnam War (Series)
MOST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF 2021
Many films that were supposed to open in 2020! They include No Time to Die, Jungle Cruise, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, Connected, Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick, King Richard, The Little Things, Sing 2
Can’t wait to my lord and saviour Frances McDormand in Nomandland. The Coming 2 America sequel is on my radar and so are the many films we were robbed of in 2020 like Dune, No Time to Die and more.
It's still Dune, and (maybe) still No Time to Die. Besides those, Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch and Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho seem worth waiting for. And lastly, many current Oscar contenders seem to come out in 2021, so I'm looking forward to seeing those whenever we eventually get the chance.
Let’s try this again hope majority of these films come out this time. Well we got the Marvel Studios lineup (Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, Spider-Man 3), Coming 2 America, Raya and the Last Dragon, No Time to Die, Godzilla vs. Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, In the Heights, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Top Gun: Maverick, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, The Beatles: Get Back, Elvis, Mission Impossible – Libra, and the Disney/Pixar animation duo of Luca and Encanto.
Coming 2 America, Ghostbusters Afterlife, No Time to Die, F9, Last Night in Soho, Untitled M. Night Shyamalan, In the Heights, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Candyman, Dune, Halloween Kills, Top Gun: Maverick, Stillwater