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The First Annual Awards Radar Awards (Part Two): The Ten Best Films of 2020

There are few things a writer in this industry looks forward to more than doing their year end Top Ten list. Of course, 2020 being the absolute dumpster fire that it is/was, it’s a list that comes with some degree of an asterisk. After all, since very early March, the entirety of my film viewing has been done at home. At least 200, if not more, of the titles I viewed this year were done in quarantine. So, who knows what movies might have made the cut in a normal cycle? That being said, I’m still incredibly fond of the flicks that make up my Top Ten list. So, I’m very excited to share it with you all today! In prior years, my favorite film of a given cycle ranged from Blinded by the Light to Hell or High Water. The Disaster Artist to A Star is Born. Blue Valentine to her. What will join them this time around? Time to find out!

For part two of this awards series (part one is here), we’re going to run down my ten favorite films of 2020. Basically, anything I saw this year, or that has an eligible release date, was in the running. That created quite the list to pull from, though it pretty quickly narrowed down to 25 or 30 movies that were a cut above. Now, before we get down to business, an extra shout-out…

Special Citation – Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You

Courtesy of Apple TV+

One of my absolute favorite experiences of 2020, this documentary on the making of Bruce Springsteen‘s latest album is a joy. I only kept it off the actual list because it really is almost too much a right up my alley thing. Here’s a bit from my review to explain why I loved it so:

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You invites you inside Springsteen’s mind as he contemplates mortality and the passing of time, but it’s also a celebration of his work with the E Street Band. Never before have we been able to see him at work with them in this way, the creative process spilling forth between them.”

The moment is now at hand. Out of 370 eligible titles seen for me (I know, I’m insane), here are the ten best films of 2020:

10. Buffaloed

Magnolia Pictures

Zoey Deutch is at the height of her powers in Buffaloed, a crime comedy (or perhaps a satirical dramedy) that just bowled me over. Not only is it a wonderfully smart and razor sharp, it features the best turn to date by Deutch, who commands your attention. She is an absolute firebrand, not just nailing the comedy inherent in the premise, but also the anger as well. Deutch is perfectly cast, embracing the aspects of the film that resemble something like The Big Short, as well as those that are more broadly comedic. She even manages to be an imposing and intimidating presence when called for. It’s not just her fullest performance to date, it’s her best as well. Independent titles like Buffaloed are almost always forgotten about at the end of the year, but not only have we kept it on our minds here at the site, its inclusion here proves that some of us remain steadfast in our love.

9. Mank

Netflix

David Fincher, along with his father, Jack Fincher, takes on Old Hollywood in his latest impeccable effort. Even if some haven’t fallen as in love with his Netflix film as expected, I remain incredibly impressed by the work. On a technical level, there hasn’t been anything else like it this year. From my rave Mank review (here) on the site:

“Bringing the craftsmanship of David Fincher to Old Hollywood is a match made in cinematic heaven. While Fincher is thought of as a cutting-edge filmmaker (and he is), a number of his movies have been set in the past. With Mank, this is not just one of his most overt period pieces, it’s a wild technical achievement. With all of the aesthetics and style of a 1940s era Hollywood production, Mank really is one of a kind. While this alone would make it just a well done gimmick, it’s also a wholly captivating look at the era, as well as a subtle satire, to boot. Throw in a timely political subplot and this Netflix release is another crowning achievement for 2020.”

8. Banana Split

Vertical Entertainment

Hannah Marks is one of the best kept secrets in the business. That’s the only explanation for Banana Split not being her absolute breakout hit.  The film shows her doing incredible work both in front of the camera in the starring role, as well as behind it as the co-writer. She crafts a funny, moving, and real story that immediately and throughly enraptures you. Marks just has the goods. To call her a star in the making is an understatement. In front of the camera, she’s a firecracker, with witty remarks and a spark that lights up the entire movie. On the page, she provides an incredibly consistent amount of quotable dialogue. Liana Liberato pairs with her to absolutely knock it out of the park. The two of them have chemistry that you rarely see on screen. Any scene of them together is an absolute joy to behold. Their interactions are real, vibrant, and extraordinarily entertaining. Marks outdoes herself in making it all come off as natural, resulting in the script singing in their hands. When it comes to just a perfectly realized small-scale story, Banana Split is about as good as it gets.

7. Palm Springs

Hulu

What a joy this movie is. As phenomenally smart as Palm Springs is, you almost don’t expect it to be as effective a romantic comedy as it is. And yet, this is one of the most satisfying rom-coms in some time. I adore this movie. Andy Samberg is perfectly cast, showcasing comedic and dramatic chops, while J.K. Simmons steals his scenes, especially a moment in the third act that really hits you like a ton of bricks. Then, there’s Cristin Milioti, who is easily best in show. Her complex, flawed, and utterly lovable character defies convention at all turns. Palm Springs is more than just utterly delightful. It’s one of the smartest and most creative films of the year. I smiled from ear to ear for 90 minutes, and considering the state of the world, that’s not something that happens often. If you don’t get swept up in the wonderfulness that is Palm Springs, you may well be dead inside.

6. Spontaneous

Awesomeness Films

Nothing beats the feeling of a watching a movie that stuns you with how phenomenal it is. It’s a feeling that doesn’t happen more than a few times a year, if you’re lucky, but when it does, you can’t help but be reminded what the beginning of your love affair with cinema felt like. For me, it’s a shot to the heart, as well as a jolt to the brain. It’s rare, but when it happens, you treasure itSpontaneous achieves that feat. I’m still in shock that filmmaker Brian Duffield made this as brilliant a work as it is. From my rave review:

Spontaneous walks an incredibly thin tightrope, balancing YA romance, teen angst, comedy, drama, and gory horror…It’s rare that a film can appeal to just about anybody, especially with such extreme content, but this manages to pull it off. If the YA romantic feelings of work like The Fault in Our Stars strikes your fancy, this has that in spades. If you like your horror to wink at you, this does that without ever ignoring the stakes. Mostly, if you like incredibly sharp writing, characters you want to spent time with, and a narrative that upends your expectations, this is very much that. If Wes CravenJohn Green, and Kevin Smith put their heads together for a project, they might have come up with something like this wonderful flick.

5. The King of Staten Island

Universal Pictures

Judd Apatow and Pete Davidson take the latter’s tragic childhood and reaps gold from it. Davidson’s loss, perhaps surprisingly, is the basis for a stunningly terrific work. Capturing the pain and the pathos, as well as the humor, that define Davidson, The King of Staten Island is not just one of Apatow’s top tier efforts, it’s one of the year’s best films, overall. It’s beyond a home run. This is a grand slam for all involved. In many ways, this is Apatow’s best film yet. Hilarious and heartfelt, it shows the filmmaker at the top of his craft. The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Trainwreck may be funnier efforts, but this takes the emotions he toyed with in Funny People (his most underrated work), and perfectly calibrates them. The feels are they, but they’re never manipulative. It’s actually achingly real, which makes sense, considering the source. Throw in a wonderful cast and this is one of the best, as well as most underrated, works of the year.

4. The Way Back

Warner Bros.

The Way Back could have easily been something ordinary. Instead, fueled by a staggering performance from Ben Affleck, it becomes a powerful testament to the human spirit. Somehow, Gavin O’Connor, after Miracle and Warrior, finds another way to give a new angle to the sports drama. Even without Affleck’s work, this was already a strong flick. With him, it’s about as good as a 2020 release gets. In giving Affleck my Actor of the Year prize, I said the following:

Ben Affleck does something nearly impossible in The Way Back. He gives you a window into his pain and life experiences. Now, Affleck did not suffer the tragedies that his character in The Way Back did, but he notably also suffers from alcoholism. That experience drives the power of the performance, which he’s able to transmit entirely to you. What easily could have been a sports drama with a conflicted coach becomes something much more. Affleck digs down deep, rips your heart out, and reminds you why he’s an incredibly underrated actor. Tapping into his personal demons, he gives a haunting performance that deserves to be honored here at the end of the year. Jack Cunningham could have been just a role. Instead, Affleck makes the part one of his absolute signature performances.

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Netflix

So how do you overthrow or dismember your government peacefully? According to Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Abbie Hoffman, in this country we do it every four years. The best line in Aaron Sorkin‘s riveting film The Trial of the Chicago 7 is about as timely as it gets. Luckily, we got more than just a movie for the moment. We got a brilliant political drama that will work fantastically well whenever you watch it. From my four star rave review:

The Trial of the Chicago 7 represents a brilliant example of what cinema can do. A period piece that’s just as vital today, and arguably far more so than it was when it went into production, it speaks to the fight for the soul of America that constantly goes on. The 1960s were a turbulent time in the U.S. and the 2020’s are shaping up to be similarly volatile. Sorkin’s ability to capture that is part of what makes it a feature that will stand the test of time, as well as potentially even impacting where the nation goes in the future. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a magnificent film.

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Focus Features

The most important release of the year, Never Rarely Sometimes Always will stay with you for the rest of your life. As stated yesterday when giving Sidney Flanigan my Actress of the Year prize, she’s extraordinary. Watching her character slowly crack open while answering the questions at Planned Parenthood is the acting showcase of the year, as well as one of the most heartbreaking sequences in some time. Flanigan does something special here by capturing what a real teenage girl is like. She’s moving because we all know an Autumn. Some may have even been her. She takes this frustratingly all too common female experience and makes art out of it. Simply put, her work will never be forgotten. Once you watch Flanigan, you’ll be unable not to bang the drum for her, as well as the film itself. Here’s some of my recent praise for Never Rarely Sometimes Always:

I haven’t been shy about praising the film, but it goes beyond just being a magnificent movie. It’s also damn important. After all, it’s not very often that any cinema is required viewing for teenagers. In this situation, however, they are actually being exposed to a film that could save their lives. A sobering story of teen pregnancy, as well as a look at what some states make you go through to get an abortion, it’s a masterpiece. Equally effective as a character study and as an angry protest for all the women who go through this hardship, it will blow you away. It literally demands to be seen.

1. Promising Young Woman

Focus Features

Promising Young Woman is the best film of 2020. It’s a masterpiece by Emerald Fennell, who one film in establishes herself as a brilliant mad scientist. Films like this don’t come around very often. Intentionally provocative, boldly funny, utterly thrilling, and literally able to keep you on the edge of your seat, this is truly something special. To call this movie one of a kind is an understatement It’s an Awards Radar favorite, staff wise, but sometimes, a work is just that good. Fennell, along with Carey Mulligan, raise the game for the medium itself. In giving it one of the most enthusiastic reviews I’ve given in years, I wrote the following:

Without question, Promising Young Woman is the pinnacle of cinematic achievement for 2020. The way it leads you down a certain path, hinting at one thing while delivering another, is sheer brilliance. it’s best to go in a bit vague, something the marketing has done a good job of, but just know that it walks between many genres. It takes a certain touch to make the angriest possible movie about rape culture also a ridiculously fun character study, with a hell of a soundtrack, to boot. Plus, it has, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest endings I’ve ever seen. It may seem like high praise, but it’s all more than well earned.

Honorable Mentions

Universal Pictures

Bad Education

Crshd

Da 5 Bloods

The Invisible Man

Nomadland

One Night in Miami…

Onward

The Outpost

Sound of Metal

The Way I See It

Netflix

Stay tuned for Part Three tomorrow, where you’ll see my full awards for 2020!

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Written by Joey Magidson

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