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Best of 2020: Joel’s Top 10 Films

2020 has been the craziest year I can remember for the film industry, not just because of the obvious pandemic and the difficulty that studios have had in finding distribution for their films. Studios obviously want their films to make as much money as they possibly can, and as a result, a lot have been shelved for 2021 and beyond.

But the absence of quantity hasn’t made this year’s Top 10 any less difficult. We were still treated with superhero tent poles, indie dramas and those tiny films that no one saw coming. This is also the first year of myself being an accredited film critic, which also means this is my first Top 10 list to be seen by more than just my wife.

Here you will find movies you have heard of or said to yourself “I was going to watch that one,” and hopefully, one or two that you’ve never heard of that you will seek out. These are my favorite films of the year, and while they may not be the “best” films of the year, they struck a chord in me that I just couldn’t shake.

Honorable Mentions

While I immensely enjoyed these films, I felt like the 10 I chose reflect more of who I am as a critic and a person. After you watch my Top 10, check out these five runner ups!

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Tenet,” “Hamilton,” “Minari,” “Bill & Ted Face the Music”

10. “Hammer” (Dir. Christian Sparks)

My 10th on the list because the film itself isn’t as deftly directed as a lot of the others here. “Hammer” is here for one reason, and one reason only: Will Patton. Patton is a character actor you have seen in a million small roles in film and television and has been a favorite of mine for years. Now, he finally got his time to shine in a lead role playing a father who will have to test the boundaries of himself – and the law – in order to save his son. He gives an absolutely astonishing performance and I recommend this little gem purely on his performance alone.

Where to watch: VOD

9. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Dir. George C. Wolfe)

This is a film I’m sure you are aware of, as it’s Chadwick Boseman’s last role and a heavy favorite for Netflix to grab some gold this year in the awards circuit. There is a lot of buzz over Boseman’s performance, and for good reason. He is stirring and smacks you in the face, and any nomination he gets is absolutely earned and deserved. Viola Davis and Glynn Turman turn in career bests as well, if only slightly overshadowed by Boseman.

Where to watch: Netflix

8. “The Invisible Man” (Dir. Leigh Whannell)

A film that was released just before theaters started to shut down, but still fell victim to the pandemic as its theatrical run was cut. Elisabeth Moss is as good as you have heard. Director Leigh Whannell, hot off the success of “Upgrade,” (which, if you haven’t seen, do that!) was tapped to help breathe life into the fledgling Monster Universe. His directing acumen and panache are a perfect fit for this story. His roots in horror films made me afraid of every empty corner the camera lingered on, and Moss’s performance left no doubt.

Where to watch: HBO Max, VOD

7. “Another Round” (Dir. Thomas Vinterburg)

Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite actors. Each role seems to be better than the last.  “Another Round” is about four boring dudes deciding to give themselves permission to drink all day in the guise of an experiment. While their exercise seems sound to them, it is obvious that the group is dealing with deeper psychological issues. They discover in their own ways their regrets that have been suppressed. Alcoholism is a touchy subject, but it’s handled here with honesty and humanity. Brimming with wit, charm, and hilarity, “Another Round” brings the human condition into focus and turns morality on its head. 

Where to watch: VOD

6. “Possessor: Uncut” (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

A film I never thought I would enjoy. Marketed for graphic nudity and even more graphic violence, I was more than a little wary when I started watching. What I ended up seeing was a science fiction film about an existential crisis and finding your soul, even after it has been taken. Brandon Cronenberg shares his father’s affinity for shockingly creative ways to cave in the human skull, but do not fret, it is so much more than what turns you off.

Where to watch: VOD

5. “The Way Back” (Dir. Gavin O’Connor)

Ben Affleck stars in a comeback story where he coaches high school basketball. Sounds like it’s been done a million times on Disney, right? I am a sucker for feel-good sports films, but this one has something different. Ben fricken’ Affleck – a man recently in the tabloids for his alcohol addiction and issues at home in real life. When a script mirrors an actor’s life in certain ways, their ability to tap into that shared pain is obvious, and boy, does Affleck do just that. The same man you saw in “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” brought me to tears, just by the look in his eyes. This is by far his best performance and it’s a pretty dang great story too.

Where to watch: VOD

4. “Come To Daddy” (Dir. Ant Timpson)

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, this film did not find a home in the United States until February of 2020. Not knowing a single thing except that it starred Elijah Wood was the best thing I could have possibly done, and also the reason why I won’t be spilling all the beans here. I will say that if you enjoy comedy, horror and mystery, you have found your next favorite film. I highly recommend you go into this film completely blind. You will enjoy it, I guarantee it.

Where to watch: VOD

3. “Da 5 Bloods” (Dir. Spike Lee)

Spike Lee crafted such a unique and powerful story about loss, regret, human nature and PTSD, and Delroy Lindo gives the performance of the year in my estimation. “Da 5 Bloods” is an absolutely riveting story with deep and complex characters. Lee is no known for his strong opinions and they certainly come across in his films, but Lee’s approach of engaging with his audience is nearly perfect, as he takes the time to teach his audience throughout the film instead of preach at them. In the end, “Da 5 Bloods” feels like it’s the closest I’ll probably come to having a conversation with the man himself.

Where to watch: Netflix

2. “Sound of Metal” (Dir. Darius Marder)

A devastating and triumphant film. Riz Ahmed plays a man whose whole identity is wrapped into being the drummer in a metal band, but now he must deal with the fact that he’s going deaf. The drama is topped by the fact that he is also a recovering addict who has lost all control. He finds help through various means and still tries to chase his dream of being a successful drummer. Olivia Cooke is fantastic playing his girlfriend and fellow band member, and Paul Raci is my pick for supporting actor, as a mentor of sorts to Ahmed with such humanity and grace. Ahmed himself is as good as you will ever see. The subtlety in which he plays a drummer, an addict and a man dealing with life-altering loss all at once is staggering. Watching him juggle emotions and intentions that seem so lived-in and natural is an absolute journey.

Where to watch: Prime Video

1. “First Cow” (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

This year has brought many things to the forefront: hate, pain, confusion and contention, to say the least. Watching “First Cow” is the opposite of all of that. Set in the American frontier, we follow a Chinese immigrant and a cook as they travel west. The pace is slow and measured. No one is hustling or bustling, because there’s simply no need. There’s a big beautiful cow and a big beautiful friendship between two men. It is not a love story nor is it a revenge story, which you would typically find in a western. This is a drama, and if you take the time, an absolutely hilarious comedy. Turn off your phone, slow down and watch this film.

Where to watch: VOD

Where to watch: Now playing in select theaters.

Check out Zach Goins and Johnny Sobczak’s Top 10 Films of 2020 lists!

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Joel Winstead View All

Film critic and member of the NCFCA and SEFCA

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