LeavittLens’ Top 10 Films of 2020

In a year that began with many organizations and companies discussing the importance of “vision” and “direction,” bringing double meaning to the numbers 2020, we are wrapping the year with a striking, months-long realization: we don’t have the vision we once thought we did. Indeed, 2020 has been characterized far more by loss than vision, including the loss of the cinematic experience for many of us around the country. To be clear, there are far more profound losses being experienced all around the world, and losses that have sparked significant waves of justified unrest and needed reform; an inability to attend movie theaters pales in comparison to such glaring and grievous tragedies. Nonetheless, the loss of theaters has proven significant for the film industry as a whole, dramatically affecting film production, budgeting, and release, both in the present and in the near future. It remains to be seen how influential this year will truly be, but for the time being, it seems that cinemas could be headed for extinction.

While this is particularly sad news for this writer, who loves the theater experience, 2020 has amplified the at-home streaming phenomenon that has taken over content consumption in recent years. For the first time in at least a decade, I only saw one film in theaters in 2020 (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which I reviewed here), filling most of my movie-watching hours at home. While this is likely not how the filmmakers intended their work to be experienced, I nonetheless found a variety of benefits to watching from home: the ability to pause and rewind a scene, take a bathroom or snack break without missing a beat, quickly return to a film for a rewatch, and so forth. These factors, accompanied with my home theater setup, have provided a terrific setting, and while I certainly still miss movie theaters, I found myself quite satisfied with this year’s slate of releases. There remain an abundance of films I have yet to see, but what I have taken in has proven to be thoughtful, emotionally resonant, and exceedingly well made, and I am thankful for the systems already in place to allow such new releases to happen.

All this said, there are two parts to this year’s list:

  1. A list of my top ten films of 2020 based on their LeavittLens rating. I have reviewed some of them already, and may still be composing new thoughts on more.
  2. A new fun addition to the blog is my running “Film Journal,” which I compose for every movie I watch. Perhaps more important than anything else on this blog, however, is this feature of the Film Journal: it includes my wife’s reviews of each of the films she watched with me! Her reviews may mean even more than my reviews to many readers of this blog, so be sure to review the Film Journal for her thoughts as well.

As we continue to live in a largely quarantined world, be sure to check out not only my top ten films, but also the films I loved in general, as the majority of them are likely available for you to stream right now. Without further adieu, here’s my top ten – happy watching friends!

Honorable Mentions: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom | 6.5/10, The Social Dilemma | 6.5/10

10. Tenet | Director: Christopher Nolan | LeavittLens Rating: 6.5/10

Much has been said and written about one of the few widespread theatrical releases of 2020 in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Independent of its complicated release, however, this latest entry into the Nolan canon is at once deeply flawed and boldly audacious. More than anything, the film is fun, even if it only reinforces the convoluted storytelling, confounding sound work, and shallow characterization of so many previous Nolan efforts. Tenet is a movie that will inevitably be remembered when we reflect on 2020, for better and for worse. For my full review of Tenet, click here.

9. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things | Director: Charlie Kaufman | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work thrives on its own ambiguity, unwilling to say things outright but instead forcing the audience to experience and consider its themes. Within its runtime I found myself utterly frustrated, emotionally moved, and most of all drawn in to this at times pretentious, at other times compelling, work. While it certainly has its flaws (you can read my full review here), particularly in its exploration of the validity of suicidal thoughts and tendencies, it nevertheless creates robust conversation on mortality, reality, and purpose in its quirky and mysterious way. It is not often an audience is invited directly into the mind of a storyteller like this, and this ride is at once shocking and revealing, though never at any point comfortable.

8. Palm Springs | Director: Max Barbakow | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10

Let’s face it: we’ve all, at some level, been living this year like it’s Groundhog Day: from when we decide to finally turn off the snooze button in the morning to when our heads hit the pillow in the evening, 2020 has felt like the same day lived in perpetuity. This is what makes the premise of Palm Springs so compelling, and as a straight-to-streaming, hour and a half, thoughtful comedy, it seems at once to be excellent escapism packed into relatable themes. Far more than a rehash of Bill Murray’s classic, Palm Springs serves as a sort of expansion upon the idea, considering what decades upon decades of the same day might look like. Andy Samberg is delightful in the central role, and Cristin Milioti shines as well, both characters hilariously carrying the reflective ideas and forcing the audience to ask, “What would you do with your life if you knew it was ending tonight?”

7. Da 5 Bloods | Director: Spike Lee | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10

Following up on one of his most acclaimed (and, I would argue, most polished) films in 2018’s BlackkKlansman, Spike Lee continues his excellent career with a moving Vietnam War epic focused on the almost entirely overlooked contributions of black soldiers. The tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman this year adds particular intrigue to this, one of his final performances, and the ensemble work of his other “four bloods” make this a terrific homage to the unheralded service of so many black soldiers over the years. Spike Lee remains a prominent prophetic storyteller in our day, and while Da Five Bloods at times feels a bit overlong and indulgent, it nevertheless remains a stirring work worthy of this list. You can read my full review of the film here.

6. The Vast of Night | Director: Andrew Patterson | LeavittLens Rating: 8.0/10

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why small, streamlined directorial debuts have created some of the most memorable and effective works throughout recent film history. The Vast of Night is the latest example of this factor, a 90 minute thriller that reminds us all of the sort of Spielbergian wonder that movies can bring to our lives. The script is clever, the long tracking shots at once immersive and propulsive, and the characters both realized and evocative. There are no wasted moments here, only high level visual storytelling that will leave you ready for more from Andrew Patterson.

5. Mank | Director: David Fincher | LeavittLens Rating: 8.0/10

Admittedly a film nerd’s dream, David Fincher’s latest effort at describing the writing of one of Hollywood’s greatest works, Mank serves as both an ode to a bygone era and a creative exploration of a compelling character in Herman Mankiewicz. Keeping in mind that Citizen Kane is a necessary prerequisite, and therefore knowing that the film will dabble in a bit of its own pretentiousness, Mank still manages to capture an era and communicate it effectively and artfully today. Plus, if nothing else, who wouldn’t want to want two more hours of Gary Oldman in their life?

4.The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Director: Aaron Sorkin | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10

In a year plagued by injustice both at home and abroad, Aaron Sorkin’s effort at retelling the famous trial following the Chicago riots is a timely reminder of our need for real, genuine self-reflection and reform. For a nation built on prioritizing justice, it is critical to remember and reflect on its many miscarriages within our history, and work to learn from such things as we move forward. With a tight, pointed, and scathingly clever screenplay, Sorkin thrives in the tension of this courtroom thriller, and while he may have elevated a few of the characters to levels that transcend their real-life personas (an almost necessary casualty of Hollywood productions, it seems), he nevertheless brings to life a terrific, streamlined, compelling, and potent work.

3. Dick Johnson Is Dead | Director: Kirsten Johnson | LeavittLens Rating: 9.0/10

One of my favorite things about festival films is their intimacy: by their very nature, festivals provide filmmakers the opportunity to bring to life the stories most important to them. Dick Johnson Is Dead is perhaps 2020’s best example of this, a simultaneously hilarious and deeply heartfelt ode to Kirsten Johnson’s father, Dick. Without sentimentalizing, Johnson simply expresses the experience of walking towards the grave with her aging dad, putting to the screen all the grief, laughter, simplicity, and nuance involved in such tragic and beautiful times. It is in the particular that we often find the universal, and that is certainly the case here: it is in the life of Dick Johnson that we find potent reflections on our own mortality, and on the interplay between death and life broadly.

2. First Cow | Director: Kelly Reichardt | LeavittLens Rating: 9.0/10

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is perhaps her most fully realized, an immersive journey through 19th century Oregon, focusing on the small and important lives of two men attempting to survive and thrive on the Western frontier. The film’s sparseness and speed actually serve to amplify its richness, as the sights and sounds of the world–combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio–remain potent reminders that this beautiful and demanding planet has much to teach us about friendship, greed, capitalism, and classism.

  1. Soul | Director: Pete Docter | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10

With beautiful animation to match its introspective depth, the latest Disney/Pixar effort seems a perfect and needed conclusion to 2020, as so many of us have been forced to evaluate the state of our own souls during our scattered isolations this year. While certainly not the first film to mine the riches of jazz music for affecting themes (and not even the only film of this year to do so!), it nevertheless serves as an indication that animated films aren’t just for kids these days. With commentary on purpose and calling, joy and obsession, and life and death, Soul provides a spiritual and emotional experience worth an immediate rewatch.

LeavittLens’ Film Journal | 2020

  1. Little Women (2019)
  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  1. Parasite
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Pan’s Labyrinth
    1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10
  3. Sorry To Bother You
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10
  4. Hail Caesar! 
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10
  5. Arrival
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  6. 1917
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10
  7. Waves
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 4/10
  8. The Other Guys
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 5.5/10
  9. Room
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  10. There Will Be Blood
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 6.5/10
  11. Okja
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10
  12. A Serious Man
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10
  13. The Two Popes
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  14. The Shawshank Redemption
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10
  15. Fargo
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10
  16. Da Five Bloods
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10
  17. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10
  18. The Devil All The Time
    1. Clint’s Rating: 3.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 4.5/10
  19. Tenet
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  20. The Wave
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10
  21. Hamilton
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  22. Selma
    1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10
  23. Cinderella
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10
  24. O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10
  25. Dick Johnson Is Dead
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 10/10
  26. Napoleon Dynamite
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  27. Palm Springs
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  28. Zootopia
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  29. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 0/10
  30. Frost/Nixon
    1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch
  31. Casino Royale
    1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch
  32. Crawl
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  33. The Social Dilemma
    1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10
  34. Spotlight
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch
  35. Uncut Gems
    1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch
  36. Us
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10
  37. Good Time
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch
  38. The Lighthouse
    1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – did not watch
  39. Citizen Kane
    1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
    2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10
  40. Mank
  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6.5/10

42. Mulan

  1. Clint’s Rating: 4.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

43. A Hidden Life

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10

44. The Vast of Night

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch

45. Soul

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10

46. First Cow

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A Did not watch

47. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

  1. Clint’s Rating: 6.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch

48. The Trial of the Chicago Seven

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A – Did not watch

49. No Country for Old Men:

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

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