This is a list of films that were supposed to be released in 2020 and were delayed: Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
And that list of prestige all-stars doesn’t even include the Kaiju-sized blockbusters Top Gun: Maverick, No Time To Die, and A Quiet Place Part II that with the right execution, script, set pieces, and jaw-dropping cinematography could have snuck into the Oscar race a la Black Panther.
That is a lot of movie that was left on the shelf. For some perspective, the budget for all eight Best Picture Oscar nominees was $130 million. The budget for Dune was $165 million.
In some ways, we can appreciate that the pandemic (that’s a phrase I’ve never written before) created an opportunity for indies, diverse voices, and new stories that would have otherwise been likely drowned out in a room filled with titanic auteurs like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Wes Anderson. To that end, this year’s Best Director nominees included two women (Chloé Zhao, Emerald Fennell) and one man of color (Lee Isaac Chung). The 2020 Best Director nominees included NO women and only one man of color (Bong Joon-ho–who cleaned up like MJ in the Finals).
So this is really exciting! Regrettably, I’m just not convinced this is a preeminent collection of films. I listened to a thoughtful podcast with Bill Simmons and Wesley Morris where Wesley identified that simply getting women and people of color in the room does not solve the problem. Rather, we need to address the opportunities and structures of support targeted groups have to create work and the stories they are able to tell. Wesley’s message reminds me of Exxon Mobil coming out against fracking.
I am troubled that my favorite films of 2020 were all directed by white men. I acknowledge this is 100% a result of white-male privilege and simultaneously want to keep it 100 with the movies I loved. In no particular order, here are the films I would have nominated for Best Picture:
The Invisible Man – About as tight and well-executed a horror can be and at least I am ready to anoint Elisabeth Moss into the pantheon of Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett, and our other greats.
Big Time Adolescence – Gave me the maximum Pete Davidson charm that King of Staten Island didn’t quite muster.
Palm Springs – Just a masterclass in taking familiar IP and making it feel fresh and modern. Probably my most pleasant viewing experience of the year.
Tenet – First of all JDW and Robbie Pattison are my favorite duo since The Black Keys. Second of all, borderline stunned I’m saying this considering this is probably not a top-three Nolan, but I think this is my vote for Best Picture. From a vision, cinematography, execution, and acting perspective, this just feels like the most masterful film of the year.
Shithouse – Most realistic college movie ever?
And without question, my favorite viewing experience of the year was by far Hamilton. It felt like a movie? Can’t wait for when they make the movie!
Films that were recognized by the Academy that my heart wants to love, but my head struggled with:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Exact same experience I had with Boys in the Band, it’s just hard to lift plays into films in 2021. As a viewer, I just need more visual stimulation these days. The band spends maybe a half-hour talking life and music in the rehearsal room and the writing was fantastic! But if I had been at that rehearsal, I would have either just started working on an unfinished song or tried to find someone outside I could bum a cigarette from.
Nonetheless: YES Chadwick Boseman should have won the Oscar! Chadwick Boseman, I miss you, I love you and you have joined my Mt. RIP Rushmore of actors I am heartbroken I am unable to follow for the next 40 years alongside Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday – (I am not the first to say it, but) I have no idea how you make a story about one of the most interesting lives in American history so stale.
Judas and the Black Messiah – Let me start by saying I am IN LOVE with the leads. Kaluuya, Stanfield, and Plemmons are all amongst my top 10 favorite working actors. These guys are dynamite. I’m honestly unsure how a film about such a magnetic figure with stunning cinematography and several of my favorite performances of the year wasn’t one of my favorite films? But something about this film just didn’t totally coalesce. I felt like Stanfield and Plemmons were over here, the Panthers were over there, Kaluuya was in prison (which objectively divided the characters)… There was a lack of focus and cohesion that prevented this film from building brick-by-brick/scene-by-scene toward its truly heart-wrenching climax. Put another way, if The Departed stretched the bounds of plot construction to its tilt, Judas and the Black Messiah tore it apart.
Sound of Metal – I know there is a fantastic 90-minute film in here! Also three notes:
- I worked for years at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I would like to applaud this film for bringing awareness to the deaf community and all communities with disabilities.
- Left-handed drum kit! Don’t think that escaped me, loved it! (As a fellow left-handed drummer.)
- Wait when does this movie take place?! Why didn’t Ruben and Lou start texting as soon as he lost his hearing? Pad and paper, for real? I have my hearing and I still do 50-60% of my communication via text.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – I literally can’t believe this film received Oscar consideration–and that comes from a Sorkin disciple! I could have more easily thrown my support behind Molly’s Game. This was an overstuffed, undercooked, acting smörgåsbord of mediocrity.
And now we arrive at Best Picture winner Nomadland – Oh boy. Congratulations Chloé Zhao, you’re fucking awesome! I literally can’t believe you’re going from this to Eternals and I couldn’t be more behind it. Frances McDormand, you’re a national treasure. Still, I have three issues with the film:
- Plot? As we follow behind Fern’s van during the film’s final shot I asked myself had anything changed since we began the journey at the storage unit? Listen, Everybody Wants Some is one of my favorite films of the last decade. I’m all for hang movies and vignette into life movies. But Everybody Wants Some was also a tremendously fun hang! This film was certainly not fun enough to just hang for 1:47 and I fear nor was it poignant enough.
- #nomadlandtoowhite? This film did not have a lot of color. And again, neither did Palm Springs. However, I believe this film was trying to show us a working-class America, a “real” America, an unseen American–and that should be a diverse America! Now I do not know if the reality is that these nomadic cultures are primarily white? As someone who has spent a lot of time hiking and doing outdoor activities, I can certainly see that. Or if there are independent nomadic groups/cultures primarily of color? But either way, I would have liked this point to have been addressed.
- The scene with her sister. Yikes. The film collapsed at that moment for me. I thought we were being sold on a story of a woman pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Finding a way to make life work in a post-recession, unfair, corrupt world. A story of self-determination and perseverance. But she could just have gone and lived with her sister!!! Who had money, support, love!