Top Ten Films of 2020

Despite the economic hit movie theatres have taken due to COVID-19, both streaming studio features and cable films have done their best to fill the entertainment void.


Writer-director Scott Frank has created a masterful, multi-part series featuring a mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy as 60s orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon. It has become Netflix’s most watched scripted series, thanks to Frank’s color-dense production design and the grip of Walter Tevis’s original book, about a young woman who relies on her own chemical addictions to excel in the male-dominated world of chess competition.


Nathan Grossman has a stirring portrait of youthful climate change activist Greta Thunberg, from her first protests at school in Sweden to her inspiring a worldwide movement. Grossman’s documentary manages to go beyond the stern and righteous face of Thunberg to show that she is also a girl, on the autism spectrum no less, and her internal as well as external struggles are touchingly shown.


While it contains Aaron Sorkin’s typically rich dialogue, this feature about the activists tried after riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago also is well-balanced in its view of a historic trial. It culminates in attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Yippie Party head Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) going head-to-head on the issue of social responsibility versus civil disobedience, a topic that resonates after Trump’s devastation of the US.


Michael Ritchie has loaded his British crime films with cartoonish violence and stylish camera work. Now, he’s added wonderfully witty dialogue, as American ex-pat Matthew McConaughey has his marijuana empire threatened by a rogue’s gallery of characters, not the least of which is Hugh Grant at his verbose and sleazy best.


One wonders how multiple award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is so prolific and yet retains a superior quality in his work. The intended failures and lies of Donald Trump and his administration regarding the containment of COVID-19 is captured definitively here. The film serves as an historic document detailing the criminality of the soon-to-be former president and the politicization of science which has undoubtedly made the US the leader in coronavirus deaths and contagion.


Neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, Musicophilia) is an utterly fascinating subject and Ric Burns earned a Best of the Fest Audience Award at Palm Springs for this emotional doc. Sacks’s compassion for his patients, especially those who other doctors have abandoned as non-responsive, is ably contrasted with a private life that is as quirky and irreverent as his speech.


This long-gestating documentary about musician-composer-activist-iconoclast Frank Zappa manages to jam the highlights of his exceptional life into two hours. Director Alex Winter had the run of the Zappa archives and has done noble justice to a variety of music, wit and societal wisdom that undoubtedly will never be matched.


Lena Olin (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) has what appears to be the performance of her career, as the put-upon wife of a famous abstract painter (Bruce Dern) whose Alzheimer’s Disease threatens both their marriage and his ability to complete work for a final show. Director and co-writer Tom Dolby has allowed his two stars to burn brightly without ever being merely histrionic, a major accomplishment.


Russian master Andrey Konchalovsky’s gripping, heartfelt view into a 1962 rebellion in a small Soviet town after a strike at an electrical plant follows a Communist Party official, Lyudmila (the incandescent Yulia Vysotskaya). She questions her own beliefs after a Stalanist massacre and the disappearance of her daughter, which prompts her to risk imprisonment to make her family whole again.


The little understood, failed raid in the Iranian desert to rescue American hostages in 1979 is given clarity and emotional drive in Barbara Kopple’s documentary. Benefitting from access to previously unavailable archives and subjects, she shows how President Jimmy Carter’s future was based upon a heroic attempt that was later revealed to be undermined by Ronald Reagan, during a low point in American pride.



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