‘Moving’ Amidst Sheltering: The Top Ten Movies of 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic touched every corner of our lives in 2020 and the movie landscape was no different. The top grossing movie of the year was Bad Boys For Life! By default, of course. Theaters shut down a couple short months into the new year.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was hoped to be the tentpole savior that theater chains desperately needed. It didn’t happen. Covid-19 wouldn’t cooperate. Major markets like New York remained in lockdown and elsewhere, movie-goers proved they just weren’t ready yet.

Streaming services to the rescue! We were still given plenty to talk about. And lessons to learn!

Since everyone seems to love a good list this time of year, here’s mine. The top 10 movies of 2020! Each synopsis in the countdown below will include a favorite quote and a lesson. Because, you know, that’s kind of my schtick! Some of these titles are LINKED and take you to a review elsewhere on the site.

Let’s start by getting deep….

10. Underwater (PG-13 on HBO Max)

Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel star in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.

The only horror movie on this list, Underwater is sort of a mishmash between Alien and The Abyss. Disaster strikes a drilling station six miles beneath the ocean surface and the survivors have to walk across the sea floor to reach the main part of the station in a desperate gambit to escape. New creatures are discovered… this is not a good thing. It’s a B-movie with an A-list cast, headed by Kristen Stewart. It allows maybe a good five minutes of calm and then it DOES. NOT. LET. UP. What a rush!

"There are things that will happen and make you feel powerless, and make you feel insignificant, but that's it. They are just feelings, and sometimes you have to stop feeling and start doing." - Norah Price

The lesson: Facing some figurative monsters in your life, known and unknown? Keep fighting and never give up. You are more powerful than you know.

9. Class Action Park (TV-MA on HBO Max)

And now we have the only documentary on the list. Action Park was a water amusement park that operated from 1978 to 1996 in Vernon, NJ. Its nickname, Class Action Park, was well “earned” because of the insane amount of injuries and even deaths (!!!) that occurred during the inexplicable amount of time it was allowed to remain open. The story is sharp and funny, and is well chronicled through interviews with former guests and employees. Their take was mostly boiled down to this: It was the 80s.

"Let me put it this way: There's two places you can experience 9Gs as a civilian. One is the backseat of an F-14 and the other one is at Action Park." - Former Park Operations Manager Ed Youmans

The lesson: A world without rules sounds great… right? But in reality, some level of structure and control can be a good thing, a needed thing, and sometimes the difference between life and death! Oh. And wow, the 80s, amiright?

8. Enola Holmes (PG-13 on Netflix)

Millie Bobbie Brown scores an ELEVEN in “Enola Holmes.”

Inspired by a series of novels by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes imagines the existence of a younger sister (Millie Bobby Brown) for Sherlock Holmes and his older government operative brother, Mycroft. Hard core fans of the mystery genre may find it lacking, but it more than makes up for it with the charm factor. It is fully powered by Brown, of Stranger Things fame, a rising star who elevates the material to an ELEVEN …. c’mon, you know I had to recycle that joke…

"She always found you quite extraordinary. As do I, Enola Holmes. The choice is always yours. Whatever society may claim, it can’t control you. As mother has proven." - Sherlock Holmes. 

The lesson: Push against the status quo and take risks. Sometimes that means stepping out of our comfort zone, going against what others do and want for us. Being uncomfortable is one way to learn who we are and who we are not.

7. Happiest Season (PG-13 on Hulu)

A star-studded cast, including Aubrey Plaza, Kristen Stewart (again!) and Dan Levy), populates this fun holiday rom-com. It’s another one of those awkward comedies in the vein of Meet the Parents, but its LGBTQ-centric focus sets it apart from the usual fare. Granted, it is sometimes hard to root for the romantic pairing we are supposed to be rooting for, but the real value here is in its ability to generate empathy in between the laughs.

"Everybody's story is different. Just because Harper isn't ready, doesn't mean she doesn't love you." - John. 

The lesson: It would be a mistake to assume that someone’s experience is going to be the same as yours or weighted similarly, so a certain amount of grace should be in order in our relationships with others.

6. On the Rocks (R, On Apple TV)

I jokingly refer to director Sofia Coppola as the “Bill Murray Whisperer.” This is their third collaboration and it did not disappoint. Add in Rashida Jones and YES, PLEASE! The plot finds her and Murray teaming up for a Manhattan stakeout to solve the mystery of potential marital fidelity. Ultimately the heart of the journey lies in her facing up to their own complicated father-daughter relationship. Perhaps it was because I loved Jones so much as Ann Perkins in Parks and Recreation, but this film left me fiercely protective of her character!

"You can’t go deaf to women’s voices. You know that, right? You have daughters and granddaughters, so you better start figuring out how to hear them."  - Laura

The Lesson: Communication is necessary to the health of any relationship. The idea of confronting some potential truths can feel like too much to bear, so… we sometimes just don’t. It’s easier to don’t. But easier doesn’t always mean better.

5. Palm Springs (R, On Hulu)

Yes, yet another movie riffing Harold Ramis’s classic Groundhog Day – a character reliving the same day over and over again. But we forgive Palm Springs because it is done so well. It is both hilarious and poignant, not afraid to ask existential questions. That is a rare find in a comedy! Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti enjoy tremendous chemistry.

"Ignoring the past means you’re destined to repeat it." - Sarah

The Lesson: Our hurts and failures of the past can be a force of healing if we reframe it as a learning experience and an opportunity for growth – to forge a new path.

4. Tenet (PG-13, Purchase or Rent)

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are feeling it in “Tenet.”
"Don't try to understand it.  Feel it." - Laura

We are starting with the quote this time simply because it seems to encapsulate the film so perfectly! Tenet is a film that I greatly admired for its ideas, concepts, and incredible special effects. But I confess I didn’t understand it, despite the incredible amount of exposition dedicated to explaining things! Fans of Christopher Nolan should come away pleased. He was notoriously tight lipped about the story, so in the spirit of that, I will follow suit and move on.

The lesson: Enjoy the beauty of the mystery.

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (R, on Netflix)

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong perform a classic Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

I am consistently amazed when a film written years prior seemingly syncs up with the national conversation of the moment when it is released. Although it can be argued that The Trial of the Chicago 7 – with its focus on the rights of protest, police brutality and the like – never really left relevance. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (yes, there is a “walk and talk”), it is a fairly straightforward telling of the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the anti-Vietnam riots that pitted unarmed protestors against the police. It’s a solid courtroom drama and on at least two separate occasions, the movie made me cheer. No, really. I audibly cheered from my sofa. “YEAHHHH!” I love it when that happens!

"That's right. We're not going to jail because of what we did. We're going to jail because of who we are! Think about that the next time you shrug off cultural revolution. We define winning differently, you and I." - Abbie Hoffman. 

The lesson: Sometimes when you believe in a cause so much that it not just effects your actions, but permeates your being, others can’t help but notice and want to be a part of it. When those in systems of power perpetuating injustice are threatened and take notice, well, it might be a sign that something may be going “right.” Vive la révolution!

2. Da 5 Bloods (R, On Netflix)

It’s a Spike Lee Joint. So yeah, expect this tale of four African-American vets returning to Vietnam to seek the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman in a small, but pivotal role) to confront you. The film is multilayered, exploring themes of racism, war, greed, brotherhood, and redemption. 

"War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out of my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it's come kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain't worth." - Stormin' Norman. 

The lesson: Entering into a space of argument, praising each other, and confession is part of living in healthy community and integral to personal growth. However, it can be an uncomfortable place, particularly when confronting our own blind spots and implicit biases. But things cannot change or get better without these conversations. 

1. Soul (PG, on Disney Plus)

This could very well just be a case of recency bias, or perhaps it is my being a musician and it is coloring my perception with rose colored glasses, but whatever the case, Soul left the greatest impression on me this past year. It is no coincidence that it was directed by Pete Docter, who helmed the equally delightful Inside Out. Whereas Inside Out personified emotional traits, Soul does something similar with the essence of personhood.

"I may not have invented blood transfusions, but I am most definitely saving lives." - Dez the Barber

The lesson: The line was said in response to a question if he harbored any regrets about not fulfilling a dream of becoming a doctor and instead “settling” for being a barber. No! Dez said. Because of the “power of the chair,” hearing the stories of his customers and providing a listening ear and a comforting presence. It plays perfectly into the movie’s great (and daunting!) question of the purpose of life. As the late great Stan Lee would say – ‘Nuff Said!

What were your favorite movies of 2020 and what did you learn? Share in the comments below!

Comments

  1. Michelle Faler

    Great list! Class Action Park was entertaining. I found it fascinating that this place even existed, but like you said, it was the 80s lol. It’s sad to admit that I haven’t seen the other films. I’ve been more focused on streaming TV series lately. I’m a huge fan of Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, and Pixar, so I’m eager to see On the Rocks, Da 5 Bloods, and Soul. Your enjoyable writings on these films have made me even more excited to see them. I hope 2021 treats us better than 2020 did but also brings us some well-made films like these. Take care!

    1. Post
      Author
      Scott Harrison Rees

      Thanks, Shell! Yeah, another note on Class Action Park, I was impressed with the level of sensitivity with which they handled the interviews with the family of one of the victims. That had to be tricky. I’ve been streaming lots of TV, too. Most recently Fear the Walking Dead. How sad is it that I have been turning to that rather than watching the actual news? Ha. But yes, well said about 2021!!

    1. Post
      Author
      Scott Harrison Rees

      Yeah, that was a confusing bit. I wonder if I may have enjoyed it more if I had seen it on the big screen? But though theaters were open again in my area, I just didn’t feel comfortable venturing out just yet.

  2. Big Girl Big City

    I’m very embarrassed to say I’ve seen none of the movies in your top 10… I love cinema and I used to go several times a week pre-covid. But since we’ve been forced to stay home, I didn’t really watch any movies which is odd in a way! Thank you for sharing your list, I’ll know where to look next time I’ll struggle to know what to watch next 🙂

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