Ah 2020. The year that saw movie theaters close for half the year (and in some states, the majority of the year), production studios shut down for months and product being shipped off to On-Demand and streaming services. Because of that, this year marks the first year that a movie premiering on a streaming service has made my list of Best and Worst movies of the year.
Despite everything that happened over this past year, I was still able to see 39 films in theaters (down from the normal 115-130 movies I normally see). I also saw 15 movies on Disney+, Hulu and Netflix to bring my grand total to 54, 20 of which earned a grade of A- or above. Believe me when I say that there were a lot of stinkers out there this year, but there were also a lot of bright spots as well, and some movies that did make my top 10, like the box office itself, probably wouldn’t have made the list had the insanity that was 2020 not come to pass. With that said, here are my picks for the Best and the Worst of 2020.
You may also listen to the breakdown on my new podcast!
Top 10 Best
#10 — Tenet
It’s amazing that Tenet squeaked into my top ten list by the skin of it’s overly-complicated plot. I can tell you with confidence that the film would not have cracked the top ten had theaters not been shut down and every other movie originally slated for 2020 was released on schedule. But it’s been a weird year, and I don’t know if it’s because Christopher Nolan used time inversion or not, but he did just enough to give Tenet a fighting chance. Plenty of good performances kept Nolan’s mind-bending plot moving at a nice clip despite needing a doctorate in physics to understand 10% of it. Attempting to decipher what’s happening is actually half the fun, even as it settles into a systematic process. Clever action sequences and plenty of interesting twists cover the other half of the two-and-half hour film. I can’t say Tenet is one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, as he does seem to get lost in his own cleverness at times, but it is good enough to stand as a worthy popcorn movie that doesn’t kowtow to the lowest common denominator.
#9 — The Hunt
The Hunt got a lot of press months before it was released as the political right attacked it for going too far in the depiction of rich (supposedly conservative) tycoons kidnapping poor and minority (supposedly liberal) players to be hunted in the giant backyard of the game’s conspirator. The idea of hunting humans for sport isn’t new — The Most Dangerous Game being the original source — but the current political atmosphere elevated the film into something much more uncompromising. However, no matter how angry anyone may get over how one side is depicted, The Hunt doesn’t care. The film isn’t afraid to make fun of and utterly tear down all sides of the political spectrum, hitting both hypocritical factions with as many shots as the other. That’s where the fun comes in. Once you get past the excessive gore and political rhetoric, The Hunt turns its predecessor into something that makes no sense but still captures your attention with plenty of shocking moments in one wild, insane ride.
#8 — Black Beauty
Disney+ hasn’t delivered a ton of new content since starting their service in November 2019, but it is a bit of a marvel (pun intended) that the first full year Disney+ is in operation, three new entries premiering exclusively on their service made both the top ten best and five worst films of the year. All three films were meant to be theatrical releases that ended up on the streaming service only because of COVID-19. But where Artemis Fowl never found its voice (see review below), Black Beauty was one of the films that did everything right. From the remarkable cinematography to the beautiful bond between Mackenzie Foy’s lonely orphan and the horse that basically saves her life, Beauty understands the material better then any previous adaptation that has come before. Kate Winslet does a nice job narrating the film by way of the stallion, but it’s to the filmmaker’s credit for getting such raw emotion from the horse, giving it life that no CGI could ever give an animal. In the end, Beauty presents a wonderful story of how friendships, no matter the type, can help one overcome grief and pain to find new life.
#7 — I Still Believe
Sappy stories revolving around a couple who meet and fall in love only to be crushed by a terminal illness are far from rare. In fact, at least one or two of these types of film find their way into cineplexes every year. From my experience, most of them tend to find just the right balance between uplifting joy and gloomy sorrow. I Still Believe definitely falls into that category as it carries its based on real events love story between Christian singer Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) and his first wife (Britt Robertson) with unequivocal tenderness. Watching these two come together and hold strong for one another despite the odds is both heartbreaking and tender all at the same time. The film may feel a little bit rushed at times, but Apa and Robertson rise above the blemishes to create a chemistry that carries the film into the heavens.
#6 — Wonder Woman 1984
I’ve seen a lot of headlines in regards to Wonder Woman 1984 getting hit hard with negative reviews. On some level, I can understand where these reviews are coming from. The story is a bit underwhelming, some of the action sequences are a little long in the tooth at times, and you don’t have to dig too far to find plot holes this side of the surface of the moon. However, I have to wonder if some of the negativity comes from those who chose — or were forced — to watch the film on the small screen. There have been reports that the quality of HBO Max’s streaming capabilities was nowhere near ready to handle the magnitude of a film that showcases the same set pieces we have all become accustomed to on the big screen. Having been fortunate enough to see the film in the theater as it was always intended, I have to say I found the sequel to be better than the original Wonder Woman. It was a little more light and breezy than the first film, and though I agree that the way Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is reintroduced could have been done in a different way, I liked the device used to make it happen. The filmmakers gave the film just the right amount of comedy and heart and pushed Diana to become the hero she was always meant to be to defeat the menace attempting to destroy the world.
#5 — Emma.
The reason I believe Emma. works is because of its stellar cast; everyone involved understand the material to the core of their being. Based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, Anya Taylor-Joy is a marvel as the title character and plays off everyone involved with great aplomb. Bill Nighy also shines bright as the beleaguered father whose wit is incredibly dry but fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast. Together, along with a tight script that focuses on the discrepancies and the partnerships that can be made between different classes of people when given the chance to flourish, give the film a light, breezy ambiance that makes Emma. one of the easiest films to fall in love with during such a tumultuous year.
#4 — Fantasy Island
A lot of people may think I’m crazy for including Fantasy Island in my top 10, but let’s face it — I like the campiness the film lays bare for all to see! For my money, the film is a reasonably-made horror film, despite the final twist completely negating one of the main character’s story arc. Each of the vacationers who travel to the island to explore their most desired fantasies is fun to watch and the backstories that are conveyed as they enter those fantasies coalesce nicely into all of the others, all leading to an oddly killer, if not convoluted, finale that hammers home the overall revenge fantasy that is in play over the course of the movie. Even the smaller plots seem to fit snugly into the overall framework without alienating anyone from the enjoying the film for what it is. By the time the film gets to its final callback to the original series, I was ready to return to the island for some more oddly-horrific fun.
#3 — The Invisible Man
Leigh Whannell has already solidified himself as an extraordinary screenwriter, and with this umpteenth adaptation of The Invisible Man, it’s clear he is on his way to becoming a prolific and inventive director if he keeps up with this type of production. What makes this version of this story better than most others is Whannell’s conscious choice to focus his attention on the plight of the title character’s victim as opposed to the character himself. By doing so, he’s allowed a lot more freedom to create some spine-chilling suspense sequences that all but refuse to rely on jump scares to get a cheap but ultimately empty thrill. When he does choose to give us the inevitable jump scare, it’s always earned. From the opening ten-minute sequence that bucks most horror movie cliches to the shocking moments sprinkled throughout, it’s clear this is not your everyday horror story.
#2 — Soul
Pixar does it again! As with most Pixar films, judging by the previews alone, Soul looked like it might have its moments among a sea of slow moving parts; a film that would look visually astonishing and sound incredibly authentic, but somehow stray from becoming Pixar royalty. And like with most Pixar films, I was happily surprised by how poignant the film ended up being. Soul definitely leans much more adult than a lot of other Pixar films, but it has just enough for the kids to keep their attention and laugh along with the rest of us. What’s most surprising for me is how the plot unfolds, which was never wholly touched upon in the trailers. We all know that Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) falls down a manhole cover within the first ten minutes, kicking his soul toward heaven and starting the film along its way. What we didn’t know was the journey this character would take as he becomes a mentor to Twenty-Two (Tina Fey), a soul who has been around a very long time because she despises the idea of being human. It’s the story and the connection between these two characters that deepens the strength of the film and enhances the soul of what Pixar has always relied on the most — bringing pure characters to life through excellent storytelling.
#1 — Onward
Pixar does it again! This time with a much more kid-friendly, yet no less adult road-trip movie that will make any grown man cry, especially if they have a son or a brother. The reason Onward rises above Soul on my list is because of its extremely tear-riddled finale. Over the course of the twenty-four hour journey the brothers take to find the stone necessary to complete the spell to bring their dad back for one day, the audience gets to bond alongside these characters to the point that when destiny is finally reached, we feel for each of them. And not because of what actually happens in the those final moments, but because of how the filmmakers present it to us. We are able to fully understand the meaning behind the journey and why it matters so much to everyone involved, and for that, Onward claims the top spot in what was once again, a truly weird year for movies.
Top 5 Worst
#5 — Artemis Fowl
Like any director, producer, star or studio, you can’t make a hundred movies without making at least one that just does not work. And though Disney+ sent several of their theatrical films directly to streaming this year (along with a few made-for-TV films), Artemis Fowl hands down was the worst of the bunch. From its blatantly straight-forward dialogue to the inane character developments, Fowl can’t seem to get out of its own way when it comes to building a coherent lore that anyone might care a modicum about. None of the characters have any chemistry with one another and the relationship between Artemis and his fairy counterpart, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), is arbitrarily created without any sense of real dynamics. I really wanted to like the film, but much like Josh Gad’s talent of digging holes by shoving dirt through his body from one end to the next, the film was completely full of dung.
#4 — Vanguard
I was first introduced to Jackie Chan by way of Chris Tucker in the hysterical buddy-cop comedy, Rush Hour. Even though he had a great following in China, and though many may have known him prior to that with films such as Rumble In the Bronx, I had never seen him in any film that wasn’t American made. Vanguard, thus, is my first foray into Chan’s international work — and it was not a good one. It’s not necessarily Chan’s fault. The filmmaker’s attempt to create a typical Chan film, even though Chan himself is getting up there in age to the point that it takes several edits to complete a stunt, fails on almost every level. The story didn’t help matters, which seemed so confused, I’m not even sure the writers knew where they were going with the story. The decisions by the characters are all inane and the way the filmmakers edit the film together, using the fade to black:Fade In transition way too much, just added to the level of ineptitude this film churns out.
#3 — The Photograph
As of this writing, I can’t remember a thing about The Photograph. Which goes to show you how little effect it had on me as a love story and a film. What I can remember is that there was absolutely no chemistry between anyone on screen. The two leads were so bland, I had a hard time swallowing anything they said or did. Beyond that, I can’t really comment, as again, the film seems to have created a black hole in my mind. Sorry, The Photograph. At least you tried.
#2 — Dolittle
I don’t know how much Robert Downey, Jr. got paid to star in Dolittle, but I hope he’s happy swimming in the cash for this incredible dud. What makes it worse is that this was Downey, Jr.’s first film post-Avengers. Though the trailers looked halfway decent, the film itself is a mess. The motivations from the characters are all convoluted to the degree that they all contradict themselves to the point you can’t even understand why anyone is doing anything besides the script telling them to do so. The voice cast gathered for the festivities is amazing, given the quality of the animals themselves. Unlike Black Beauty, these animals are all created in a computer, and it shows, from their expressions and their movements to their cartoonish appearance. It might not have been as bad had the script been worthwhile, but when your climax relies on a flatulent dragon, there’s no hiding the fact that you have nothing of value. Come on, Robert. We all know you can do better than this tripe.
#1 — Gretel and Hansel
Hansel and Gretel get a tortured update in Gretel and Hansel, a film so dark and confusing, it’s hard to tell how it’s at all connected to the actual fairy tale from which it’s based. I may get slack from those who felt the story and the atmosphere carried the film into near-brilliant territory, but I couldn’t find much to like about this dreary mess. It’s not so much the actors’ fault as it’s everyone behind the scenes who couldn’t seem to capture the gothic essence they intended. Sophia Lillis is a great actress, as evidenced by her turn as Beverly Marsh in the remake of Stephen King’s It. She does her best with the material she’s given in Gretel, and given any other director or a better script, her performance probably would have been a highlight. Instead, her character is so weighed down by bad cinematography and a meandering script that completely haunts your senses in a negative way, that it’s hard to see anything but a dreary, lackluster performance. The narration doesn’t help, either; it just makes it that much clearer that the filmmakers didn’t know how to tell the story visually, and in the end, gave up on any semblance of subtlety.
What do you think? Did I exclude any? Did I add something that never should have made the list? Give me your top ten lists in the comments below.